On Samaritans and Serpents

Know this about Big Sis: she has an amazing heart, strong emotional intuition, and boundless energy and imagination when it comes to solving problems. It should probably come as no surprise that, during our discussion of the Good Samaritan parable, this wise little five-year-old ended up schooling me.

I was prepped to provide all the profundity. I had an Arch Book covering the story! And we were going to brainstorm lists–one about all the ways that we already love our neighbors, another about what else we could be doing to extend and demonstrate that love.

An excellent opportunity to lobby for better treatment of Little Brother, I thought. And I can also make an anti-bullying plug before kindergarten starts. 

And yeah, I got up on that soapbox. Big Sis listened dutifully and even contributed appropriately to my pre-written script. Gold star! Lesson over!

But then she said, “Mom, I want to help the people who don’t have money. Those people we see who are asking for money.  I want to give it to them.”

Say what?

I wish I could tell you that I instantly had a brilliant and generous response. Not so, but at least I didn’t lend voice to my ugly inner thought process. It went something like this:

  1. An initial knee-jerk selfishness mixed with a healthy dollop of scarcity-mentality panic. I’m not sharing my money with panhandlers. They don’t deserve it! And I don’t even have enough for myself, despite the fact that I’m gainfully employed! 
  2. Surprised shame… I can’t believe I just dismissed the needs of an entire portion of the human population. I’m a jerk.
  3. … Quickly followed by justification. But I’m a jerk with a mortgage to pay. 
  4. Then some pain. Remember when Family Member X was living on the streets, hurting and hurtful, spending what he could get on drugs? I felt powerless to help him. I feel powerless now.
  5. And finally confusion. Why couldn’t we just congratulate ourselves on donating canned food and bringing casseroles to sick loved ones? How am I supposed to navigate this surprisingly challenging discussion about loving our neighbor? 

And then I did what all parents do: I handled it the best I could, full knowing I was probably missing opportunities or sending mixed messages.

We decided that I’ll start carrying extra snacks in my purse. We will offer them to anyone who asks for money. We are also going to set aside money throughout the year. Right after Thanksgiving or during Advent, we will have a family meeting about how to spend the money helping others. Big Sis will definitely have a voice.

It’s more than we’re doing now. It’s a good baby step to take. But it’s also a far cry from the radical love and hospitality that Big Sis was originally advocating. She wanted to take homeless people shopping and buy them whatever they said they needed. She wanted to give them her jar of scavenged pennies and birthday money. She wanted to buy them a house “because everyone should have a home, Mommy. It’s not fair.”

And I hated myself a little bit for telling her “Be less generous.” And it reminded me of all the times that I, in my capacity as teacher, inadvertently told my high school students “Think smaller.”

Which brings me to the serpent. Honestly, I’ve always hated the story of Eve biting the apple. The rampant lady-hating! The vilification of learning! And God as angry dad, just a-dolin’ out the punishments!  I’m a feminist, a teacher, and a hippie Lutheran… it pretty much pushes all my buttons.

But after my interaction with Big Sis, I considered the story in a new light. What do Adam and Eve actually learn after eating the apple? They learn shame. They learn fear. They experience pain and separation from God.

This isn’t exactly the brand of “wisdom” I’d hoped to impart as a teacher or as a parent. But how many times have I been a Serpent in the Garden, saying (and perhaps even believing) that “I’m just opening your eyes to reality” when, in fact, I’m pushing cynicism, conformity, or self-doubt? I do it to others. I do it to myself.

I am glad I ended the conversation by telling my daughter I was proud of her. I told her that she can make big things happen, that I’m glad she cares so much, and that she should always believe in herself and her capacity to do good.

Thanks, Big Sis, for teaching me yet another lesson about love.

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