“And [the Prodigal Son] arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.”—Luke 15:20.

Without the father’s compassion, that story would’ve had a very different ending—if he’d felt as the elder son did, for example, who was angry and held a grudge against his brother.

Compassion and mercy lead a dual existence for me, just like forgiveness. On the one hand, they should be automatic, involuntary. We all make mistakes because we know not what we do. But we also know exactly what we’re doing when we sin. We just can’t help it.

If it makes it any easier, think of us as children who never grow up.

While compassion and mercy should be automatic, we make the choice.

“But [the lawyer] willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbor? / And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.”—Luke 10:29-30.

People were always trying to cause trouble at Jesus’ get-togethers. This time it was a lawyer. He wasn’t trying to make Jesus look bad, exactly; rather, he attempted to make himself look good by fencing words with his host.

Like all the rest, this aspect of Jesus’ story was a parable, itself; it showed us how to deal with those people who try to trip you, or use you to further their own ends. The solution: be gracious, turn the other cheek, and confuse (but enlighten) them with a story.

With all the talk of love thy neighbor as thyself, the lawyer wanted a definition for “neighbor.” The story began with a Jewish man making a long, dangerous trip—like walking through a war zone, but the soldiers were bandits.

“And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.”—Luke 10:31.

The priest didn’t want to get involved. I can’t say that I blame him. When you help someone else, you make yourself vulnerable, because you’re (essentially) giving them some of your energy. The priest would’ve been literally vulnerable, as the bandits could be watching; or maybe the man wasn’t really hurt, just faking it, and his partner was waiting behind a rock.

“And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.”—Luke 10:32.

While we all know what a priest is, the term Levite deserves an explanation.

“And thy brethren also of the tribe of Levi, the tribe of thy father, bring thou with thee, that they may be joined unto thee, and minister unto thee.… / And they shall keep thy charge, and the charge of all the tabernacle….”—Numbers 18:2-3.

Bottom line: the Levites were a tribe of Israel. They were in charge of the places of worship, where the priests gave their sermons. These were holy men, allies of the mugged traveler. They practiced mercy and compassion every day. They might’ve felt compassion for the injured man, but they chose to not show mercy.

I sometimes wonder if the Pharisees got a “bum rap.” After everything the Israelites went through during the Old Testament, they finally stopped questioning God, and obeyed His laws to the letter. I can’t fault them for remaining true to their beliefs, when Jesus came along with his new teachings.

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”—Matthew 23:23.

Like the Rich Young Lord, and the lawyer, priest, and Levite from this story, the Pharisees were insincere; they obeyed the letter of the law, but not the spirit. They must’ve been really jealous too. They gave their lives to God, and then some hippy punk strolled into town, claiming to be the Messiah.

“And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him. / And he said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.”—Luke 16:14-15.

The priest and the Levite followed all of God’s laws, but they were unwilling to make themselves vulnerable, to give all they had to the poor, those in need of mercy—where “all they had” was, in this case, risking their lives.

“But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, / And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.”—Luke 10:33-34.

The same possible, hidden bandits were in the Samaritan’s mind too, I’d wager. He had to choose, just like the priest and Levite. Further, Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along. Of their relationship, the Bible said this:

“…Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.”—John 4:9.

If we’re unwilling to make the choice, if we decide to remain neutral and not get involved, the outcome still occurs. Had it not been for the Samaritan, the traveler would’ve died; and the priest and Levite would be responsible.

We can’t be responsible for the whole world. But we are responsible for what lies in the realm of our experience. Though we think of helping others as making ourselves vulnerable, remember that mercy has a dual existence:

“The merciful man doeth good to his own soul: but he that is cruel troubleth his own flesh.”—Proverbs 11:17.

Helping others is the best way to help yourself. You’ll feel great! Life will be so much more beautiful when you’ve helped someone who couldn’t help themselves.

“There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”—I Corinthians 10:13.

We are all potential shepherds, angels to those in need. We are each other’s Plan B, last hope, and hidden Ace. While seemingly complicated, the choice is simple: look after yourself, don’t get involved, and you’ll never feel connected; or be a Good Samaritan—Let go of petty differences, take responsibility for the moment you are in, and not only save someone else, but yourself too.

“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.”—Titus 3:5.

Mercy saves us, if we choose to allow it.

“Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves? / And he said, He that showed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.”—Luke 10:36-37.