It was an ordinary day of commuting Cameron Hollopeter. The 20-year-old film student made his way down the steps into a New York City subway station to wait for the train. All of a sudden, something went horribly wrong in the young man's brain, sending him into a violent seizure. Hollopeter fell to the ground, got back up again, and began stumbling along the edge of the subway platform. Moments later, he tumbled down into the railway bed, just as the rumbling of an approaching train began to shake the station.
No one managed to capture the moment on video, but we know how the people in the subway probably reacted. Some turned away, eyes clenched against the horror of what was happening. Other commuters stood frozen in a sense of utter helplessness. Others were in such a hurry to get to where they needed to go, that they missed the moment altogether. In mere seconds, a young man with dreams of becoming a Hollywood producer would meet an unthinkably violent end, and no one could stop it. No one would stop it.
Except the one man who did.
A 50-year-old construction worker named Wesley Autrey did the unthinkable. Autrey crossed the boundary of horror that withered all the others in the subway. He pulled his feet from the concrete shoes of helplessness that froze others. He stepped over the high curb of hurry despite being busy taking his two daughters home before he went to work. This middle-aged black man from Harlem who had little in common with a white Harvard student, chose to do what no one else at that scene elected to do: he chose to cross over.
Autrey strode across that subway platform, jumped down into the ditch, and covered Hollopeter's bloodied, writhing body with his own. He held Hollopeter against the ground while the subway train thundered over them. Later, when interviewed about the incident, Autrey said that when he saw the headlights of the No. 1 train appear, he knew he had to make a split decision. "I don't feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help," he said. "I did what I felt was right. …You're supposed to come to people's rescue."
The laws of love and limits
There's something about the story of Autrey and Hollopeter that is both inspiring and convicting. It's like there's a law of love—a law of profound regard for the well being of others which, if we could all live by it, would make this world a very different place than it is. We hunger for a better world and we yearn to know the part we can play in moving toward it. In this regard maybe we're a little like the man who asked a question of Jesus, as recorded in Luke 10:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "What is written in the Law?" Jesus replied. "How do you read it?" The lawyer answered: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live." But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
Let me ask you: do you see the conflicting impulses at work in this lawyer? On the one hand, he wants to do the right thing. He's like one of those commuters standing on the subway platform. He's like any one of us. If someone came up to you and asked, "Would you like love to be the motivating force in this world?" you would answer, "Sign me up!" But a second impulse would move within you, just as it did for the lawyer. This second impulse asks: But what would that really mean in practice? What would that cost me specifically? Surely you're not talking about jumping in front of a train for a stranger or something crazy like that! There have to be some boundaries to what I would be required to do. I like the law of love—so long as it's coupled with the law of limits. So tell me: who's my neighbor?
The ditch on the road to Jericho and Calvary
Jesus goes on to tell the lawyer a story:
In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
Given the fact that these were religious men—people more familiar than the average commuter that a law of love was to be at work in Israel—it is not completely clear why they did what they did. Jesus does not tell us. Maybe they were too horrified by the sight of the man to do anything. Perhaps they felt helpless to do what was needed. Maybe they were hurried in life over what they felt were more important matters. Perhaps they were just hardened by the ways of the world—a world where people of different races don't rush to one another's aid all that often. That's why what happens next in the story still makes the front page of the news like the story from New York City:
But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'
Jesus is so honest in this parable about how expensive compassion can be. People often talk sentimentally or idealistically about compassion. But getting close to those who are hurting almost always costs us emotionally. Working with other people's wounds invariably gets very messy. Investing in people in pain will take us off our normal schedule. Crossing over will inconvenience us. It will cost us money or other precious resources. It may subject us to entanglements that go on for a long time. In other words, crossing over requires denying that very self which we've often protected and maintained. To do what Wesley Autrey or the Good Samaritan did means we must die to self a little more. It means we must walk the way of Jesus.
Jesus is not telling a moralistic tale here. He is telling us about the heart of God and his own mission. Jesus is the Cosmic Samaritan. He did need to stop to attend to the needs of a bleeding world that mainly snubbed their noses at him. God could have rightfully set a limit on how much he would do for us. But Jesus showed us that the law of love is larger than the law of limits. God did an amazing thing: he chose to cross over. He crossed the vast gulf between eternity and time. He crossed the vast road between holiness and humanity. He did not stand at the edge of the ditch, horrified, helpless, hurried, or hard. He jumped down onto the tracks, threw his body over the world, and offered us a love without limits. That Jericho road Jesus describes in the parable is the road to Calvary; it's the way of the Cross.
The ditch along your road
The ditch from Jerusalem to Jericho is a long one. There are a lot of people in it. Can you see the spouse, the child, the friend, the relative, the coworker, or the stranger in pain? Can you hear their groans? It can be difficult to notice them. Human pain is so horrible, that we've long learned to close our ears to it. We feel so helpless sometimes, that we can't imagine how we could ever act. We are in such a hurry, and our hearts have grown so hard. It's natural for us to confess our limits and simply "pass by on the other side."
I want to seek the power and grace to overcome all of that and find a way to let love move me to do something, even if it's costly. In Jesus Christ, God crossed over to save me. I can imagine him saying: I saw the headlights of the train of destruction barreling down upon the world. I saw those people in the ditch. I had to make a decision. I don't feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw people who needed help. I did what I felt was right. Love overcomes limits. You're supposed to come to people's rescue.
The most important question is not, "Who is my neighbor?" The critical question is, "Will I be a person who is primarily ruled by a sense of love or by a sense of limits?" You don't have to do it. You can accept the limits. No human law compels you to cross over to the person in that ditch that you'll meet later this week. But if you do—if you choose to move toward the pain of others, rather than around it—you will be walking the way of Jesus. You'll be on the Cross Road.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.