On March 13, 1964, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered in Queenes. Two weeks after the attack, the New York Times ran a story that there were some thirty-eight witnesses to the crime. But no one wanted became involved. Thirty-eight people watched a young lady assaulted three times, and they watched her die. No one, however, interceded in any way – not even to call the cops. Kitty’s death may have been prevented had someone simply decided to get involved.
Think of the souls you see every day. How many of them are dying spiritually? How many need us to become involved in their spiritual lives? With how many of them do we study the good news of God’s word? Too often, like those witnesses to Kitty’s death, we just don’t get involved.
We make many excuses about our lack of involvement. We claim to not know enough, but II Timothy 2:15 says the remedy to that is simple: study. Ephesians 5:17 calls on us to understand that word. Think of all the things you’ve learned in your life — a specialty, how to cook, trivia and information that fascinates you. We can put the same energy into our study of God’s word that we do into those other topics.
We may believe we don’t have anyone to study with, but think of the numerous people we see every day. How many people do you tell when you have a piece of good news to share — around our workplace, on Facebook, with perfect strangers. Matthew 10:38 calls our world a field in which to sow the seed of God’s word. Everyone we meet is a potential recipient of God’s word.
Unfortunately, we sometimes decide those people are unwilling to hear God’s word. I Peter 3:15 tells us to always be ready to share the hope within us, but we may fear ridicule or rejection. II Timothy 3:12 and Matthew 10:35-39 both warn us that we will indeed face that rejection we fear, but we can’t let that stop us.
We cannot be timid when it comes to God’s word, and we need to be seeking God’s approval more than man’s. Romans 1:16 calls the gospel God’s power of salvation. Do we truly believe that. Are we really unashamed of that good news? What will we say when we see those souls again on the last day? John 15:1-2 warns us against being cut off for lack of bearing fruit.
We should be making every effort to share God’s word every chance we get. We should be actively involved. Matthew 5:13 calls us the salt of the earth, and verse 14 calls us the light of the world. We must be active sharers and doers of God’s word if we are to fulfill the roles. We cannot be like those who just stared out their windows when tragedy struck one of their neighbors. We need to be involved in saving souls.
This lesson was first delivered in 2011. Since then, the New York Times has run a follow-up on the story stating that the original account was flawed and exaggerated the extent to which the neighbors understood what was going on.
While there was no question that the attack occurred, and that some neighbors ignored cries for help, the portrayal of 38 witnesses as fully aware and unresponsive was erroneous. The article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived. None saw the attack in its entirety. Only a few had glimpsed parts of it, or recognized the cries for help. Many thought they had heard lovers or drunks quarreling. There were two attacks, not three. And afterward, two people did call the police. A 70-year-old woman ventured out and cradled the dying victim in her arms until they arrived. Ms. Genovese died on the way to a hospital.
I wanted to preserve this lesson in its original form, but I also feel its important to share updated information since the premise of the message was inspired by real-world events.
Last time we were together, we talked about Jesus’ teaching to be a light to the world, and we studied about the fact that we don’t shine our own lights. Instead, we reflect God’s brighter and purer light. It’s like what C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity: “…Just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it.” We recognize that our lights are not our own.
Because our lights are not ours, they have a purpose. They have God’s purpose. Let’s look again at Matthew 5:14 – 16:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus speaks both of being a light and of being a city on a hill together. That’s because in His day, a city on a hill was a source of light to travelers. A modern equivalent might be a lighthouse or the lights on an airport runway. You were traveling over days and nights to reach your destination, and then you would see a light peeking over the horizon. Then you knew you reached not only a place where you could find food and rest, but you reached a place of safety and security. You were home.
Lights in the Darkness
As God’s lampposts in this world, that’s what we do. We show the way to rest. We show the way to safety and to security. We show the way home. There’s so much darkness in this world, but we walk in God’s light so that we may guide others to Him, and the great thing is this: the more people we bring to that light, the less the darkness affects us.
When John introduces us to Jesus in the beginning of his gospel, he describes Jesus as light in John 1:1 – 9. John calls Jesus the true light that shines in the darkness and that cannot be overcome. Later in I John 1:7, he would write that walking in Christ’s light gives us fellowship with one another and that God is a light that contains no darkness. In chapter 2:10, we learn that the light in which we walk is characterized by love.
Think about all of the terrible things we hear about. Think about the things that make you fear, that make you feel insecure, that trouble your heart the most. What motivates those events? Whatever your answer, love is the opposite in every case, and the light of love can heal the scars left by darkness — no matter how big or small they are. Therefore, if we are going to guide people to God, we have to put away choices, words, and behaviors driven by dark feelings and motivations, and we must instead let our speech and conduct be guided by love in all of its forms.
The Small Steps
What can this look like in our daily lives? As with anything, the first steps are small and simple. They are the little things you can do to brighten someone else’s day. The thing is, they have to be intentional, and you have to be willing to extend these choices when you might not want to.
Tip your waiter or waitress more than you think they might deserve.
Pay for a stranger’s coffee.
Have an encouraging word for a cashier who’s obviously not enjoying their day.
Hold the door for someone who has their hands full, or offer to carry something for them.
Be the one who listens to that customer who talks everyone’s ear off.
Pray for someone who’s struggling.
Sometimes, your light can shine through what you choose not to do as well — choosing to not make that rude or impatient comment when someone in front of you is paying in change or food stamps, choosing to let it go when someone else is unkind to you, choosing to not make a huff if your bill is a couple dollars off. In these ways, we let others feel what it is to have the light of grace touch their lives. We have to be willing to follow Paul’s advice in Galatians 6:9:
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
Of course, none of these actions in and of themselves will bring someone to God. In fact, often they may produce no results at all, but that’s no reason to stop trying. Think of how many times Jesus was rejected. Think of how many times Paul or one of the other apostles was rejected, but they kept at it. Occasionally, your light will spark something, and that brings you to the trickier part: forming a relationship. It doesn’t have to be immediately deep, but even the briefest of connections can open opportunities.
Think about the impression Jesus made on the woman at the well in John 4. How did their time together start? Jesus simply said, “Please give me a drink.” The exchange ended with the woman going to her friends and neighbors, proclaiming, “This is the Christ!” In the middle of all that, it looks like rejection is imminent when she questions His speaking to her and her evident disbelief, but Jesus does not grow weary in sharing His light with her. What started as a simple act of kindness — speaking to someone used to rejection — turned into many believing in Him.
This is where we can make the biggest impact. This is where shining His light reaches the most — when we make and build relationships. It starts with the light of graciousness, of kindness, and of love. It may end right there, or you might get a chance to form a relationship, and what did Jesus do once He had a relationship? What do we see Paul and Peter doing in similar circumstances? We see Jesus and His apostles then transferring the light of their conduct to teaching the light of the word. We see them pointing to God.
The Testimony of Light
Our words and our actions testify to the light that is within us. I John 2:8 – 9 reads:
Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
Also, Ephesians 5:8 – 10:
…At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.
Finally, Philippians 2:14 – 16 says:
Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.
All of these come down to our conduct and our willingness to then share Christ with others. Let our speech and conduct testify of the light in our lives. Rather than being harsh lights that make others want to turn away, let’s be warm, inviting lights that encourage building bridges and relationships. Form there, we can share the light of Christ’s gospel that brings them to the security and the safety of salvation.
Yes, bad things happen in this world. Yes, there is darkness all around us. But there is also you. You can be something brighter, something better. Don’t let the darkness define you. Shine the light that you have. Shine God’s light, and its simple message. This world is not your home. There is something better waiting for you. Please come home.
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”
And he answered, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.”
And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”
He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
The lawyer stood up and addressed Jesus respectfully, but we also get a look at this person’s intentions. He really sought to test Jesus. His answer is full of pride rather than humility. The lawyer’s actions and intentions do not exactly align, and that speaks to the moral of the parable Jesus shares with him. In this parable, Jesus focuses on the heart, which then answers the lawyer’s questions.
In this story, we have a traveler on a steep road, taking the roughly fifteen-journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. The region surrounding Jericho was rocky and inhospitable, and it was a refuge for thieves. The traveler falls victim to such individuals, and he’s stripped of all identifiers. He’s a nobody on the side of the road.
This unfortunate man is then passed by three individuals. The first is a priest, who might have been made unclean if he intervenes. It would be a huge hassle for the priest to help. It might have been unsafe to help. Then came a Levite who would have also faced the problem of safety. He might have seen the priest turn aside and was filled with doubt about whether or not he should help the beaten man. Furthermore, if he stays to help, might another person happening by think that the Levite had hurt the man?
Defeating or Fulfilling Good Intentions
Do you see how dwelling on excuses and justifications can defeat good intentions? Both the priest and the Levite would be considered holy and righteous people, but they turned away when the situation got too awkward or difficult. So instead, it’s a Samaritan who risks his safety and reputation to help the man. He treats the man’s wounds with oil and wine (symbols of the priesthood) and carries the man to safety on his own animal. Then, the Samaritan selflessly gives of his own money to care for the man.
The priest and the Levite were just as bad as the thieves in terms of how harmful they were to the victim. The thieves harmed him through violence. They harmed him through inaction. We have opportunities every day to be like the Samaritan, but we might make excuses to be inactive. In those cases, we are the Levite and the priest in this story. We cannot get too caught up in the reasons to not help — reputation, safety, finances, personal convenience, or any other justification we can invent.
To be like the Samaritan, we must first be willing to see the need around us. We must lift up our eyes to see what needs to be done. Then we have to be willing to sacrifice of ourselves to get it done. It may be as simple as giving up time or money, or it could mean giving up more. But the point is that we take that step toward helping. We may never get the credit we feel we deserve. We may reap no rewards, but we are more like Christ when we lay aside our excuses and help.