When I was thirteen years old I watched a reality TV show called, “Who Wants to be a Superhero,” hosted by former president of Marvel Comics Stan Lee. A handful of contestants invented their own superhero and tried to make the case that they deserved their own comic. Each week a series of challenges would sift out those superhero-wannabes who lacked truly heroic virtue (or who couldn’t come up with a catchy theme song). One of those contestants was a woman who developed a superhero alter ego named “Fat Momma.” Fat Momma’s super powers included growing five times her size when she got angry and certain abilities that were only activated if she ate a doughnut.
In the first episode, Stan Lee gave the contestants a challenge that he described was “a race to the finish.” The contestants were given the impression that the winner of the challenge would be the one who made it to a specific destination first. However, near the finish line was a young girl crying, “Help me, I’m lost! I can’t find my mom.” Several of the contestants, including Fat Momma, sacrificed a decent time in order to ensure that the little girl was taken care of. Not surprisingly, helping the little girl was the actual challenge all along and those who ignored the girl, even if they had the fastest time, faced the possibility of elimination.
That gutsy decision made by Fat Momma has stuck with me all these years. This past week I was reminded of her heroism as I reflected on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37).
You’ve all heard the parable before. A man was jumped by a group of robbers and left for dead on the side of the road. Two people saw him and decided not to help him, but the Good Samaritan, “moved with compassion,” decided to care for him. As I reflected on this passage recently, I found myself drawn to the wording of a particular verse. Luke begins describing the various reactions to the sighting of the beaten man by writing, “A priest happened to be going down that road…” The original Greek translation conveys the notion that the priest was travelling down that road, “by chance.”
What struck me as I reflected on that choice of wording was that the priest, the Levite, and the Good Samaritan were not planning on encountering the beaten man that day. “Happened to be” and “by chance” seem to suggest that the three men were somewhat surprised to see the man on the side of the road. We’re not given the impression that the men had just blocked off a chunk of time to go out and help the destitute on the streets. Rather, the opportunity was presented to them at a moment’s notice and any act of charity on their part would have to be spontaneous.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical “Deus Caritas Est (God is Love)”, refers to this parable when he comments on Christ’s commandment to love God and neighbor. The request to define “neighbor” was actually what prompted Our Lord to share this parable in the first place. Benedict, by analyzing the parable, helps make the definition of “neighbor” and the notion behind “love your neighbor” more concrete when he writes:
“Until that time, the concept of ‘neighbor’ was understood as referring essentially to one’s countrymen and to foreigners who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, to the closely-knit community of a single country or people. This limit is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbor, The concept of ‘neighbor’ is now universalized, yet it remains concrete. Despite being extended to all mankind, it is not reduced to a generic, abstract, and undemanding expression of love, but calls for my own practical commitment here and now” (15).
Very often I find myself guilty of only performing acts of charity during schedule times. “Next Saturday from 1:00-3:00 I will help at a nearby soup kitchen.” “Tomorrow I will visit the refugees for a few hours.” I methodically schedule times where I know I can be charitable. The problem is that, in the moments in-between, I unconsciously consider myself “off the clock”. I think, “If it’s not in my planner, there’s no need to pursue it. What I already have planned out is enough; it fits my acts-of-charity quota.” I’m so caught up in looking-ahead to the next planned-out moment of service that I pass by all of the opportunities I have to serve in the present moment; as Benedict wrote, “my own practical commitment here and now.” I neglect the spontaneity of charity.
But am I not just as guilty as the priest and the Levite from the parable? Am I not just as guilty as the contestants other than Fat Momma were? They had their eyes set on something in the distance and consequently neglected their call to service in the present.
Our Lord was faced with the same temptation to ignore the needs of the present moment, yet His spontaneous charity consistently prevailed. The wording of Luke 19:1, “He came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town,” tells me that his upcoming interactions with Zacchaeus was, shall we say, unscripted. I’m sure there are many other moments throughout Our Lord’s life where He originally “intended” to pass through towns or pass by individuals on his way to a destination He had in mind but, like the Good Samaritan, was frequently “moved with compassion” and gave Himself fully to the person right in front of Him.
I’ve found that this principle applies not only to concrete acts of charity, but also prayer. Very often I schedule time to pray, such as my daily Holy Hour, Mass, my daily rosary, and praying from the Liturgy of the Hours. Those are set times where I am able to remind myself of God’s constant presence and to quiet my heart for a period of time to converse with Him. Unfortunately, I don’t find myself praying spontaneously throughout the day nearly as often as I’d like. Unless it’s a time specifically designated for prayer, I don’t take the opportunities I could to offer up a brief prayer of thanksgiving, to talk to God about how my day is going, to offer-up an instance of suffering, or to just meditate on the name of Jesus.
This is just one of the many reminders you and I need in our fast-paced, materialistic, success-driven, secularized, Western world to immerse ourselves more fully in the present moment. The more present we can be in each present moment of our lives, the more readily we can perform acts of spontaneous charity and prayer. May Our Lord, the Good Samaritan, and maybe even Fat Momma be our guides in this life-long endeavor.