The Shopping Cart Theory

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

In the name of Christ.  Amen.

Have you heard of the “Shopping Cart Theory”?  It made the rounds on social media a few years ago.  It stated that “the shopping cart is the ultimate litmus test of whether a person is capable of self-governing.”  Basically, the theory proposed that the way one deals with a shopping cart after using it gives insight into that person’s practice of ethics.

The idea is simple: after shopping, you push your shopping cart out of the store and into the parking lot.  When you get to your car, you unload the items you bought from the cart into your car.  What happens next?  There are a few ways that you can choose to act from that point, but the essence of the question is, do you return the cart to an approved gathering place, or do you leave it loose in the parking lot where you finished using it?

The reality is, it’s generally recognized as polite to return the cart either to the store, or to one of the racks in the parking lot where carts are meant to be neatly held before being returned by an employee.  But, despite the fact that it’s polite to do that, not everyone does it.  Now, it’s not illegal to leave your cart abandoned and alone in the lot.  No one will fine you if you decide to do that.  You could argue that it’s easier not to return the cart, but the amount of effort that is saved by not returning it is minimal, really.  And, if you do return the cart to its designated place, there’s no reward for you.  It’s merely a matter of choice – do you expend that tiny bit of extra effort to return the cart, or do save your energy and leave it where you last needed it?

Where the question gets really interesting, however, is when we add in the variable of whether or not you’re being observed.  Very often, people who would typically leave the cart abandoned if they were alone in the parking lot, will expend the extra effort to return it if they notice that there are people around them who could potentially be judging them for their decision.  But, as the old saying goes: character is who you are, or what you do when no one is looking.

In the Gospel reading today, we hear what is probably one of the most familiar stories from Jesus – the parable of the “Good Samaritan”.  Of course, that commonly-held title presumes that most Samaritans weren’t good, which says more about us than it does about them.  But before we get into the story, the thing that brings us there is a question from a learned, respected leader in the Judaic community.  The gospel writer tells us that his question was posed to try to test Jesus.

He asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  It wasn’t, on its surface, a question of ethics.  It was really a question of process.  What are the boxes I need to check to be rewarded with a desired outcome?  What’s the recipe for this particular dish?

Often, when these kinds of questions are asked, it seems like Jesus answers something different from what was asked.  But this time, he actually answers that very heavy question surprisingly straightforwardly.  He asks this expert in the law to answer his own question from the established law.  That answer was, “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.”

Jesus affirms him.  Yes.  That’s the secret.  That’s the process.  Do that, and you’ll get what you’re after.

That could have been the end.  It would have been easier for the man if he’d let that be the end.  But he took it one step further.  “And who is my neighbor?”, he asked.

Well now, that’s another matter entirely.  Now it’s not just about a task, but about the ethics behind the task.  That’s what leads to the parable we know so well.  In short, Jesus’ answer is sort of like that colloquialism that we all know so well – character is about who we are and what we do when no one is watching.

The familiar tale tells of two men who were looked upon by their communities as righteous, not only failing to do good when no one was watching, but actually going out of their way to avoid having to do good.  Finally, in an ironic twist, the foreigner, the one believed to be existing beyond righteousness, was the only one among them to act righteously.  And, not only did he help the man in his crisis, but he used his own resources in a display of wild generosity to ensure that the man would continue to be helped, even after he had to move on.  When no one was watching, he proved to be more righteous in his character than the others who should have been.

It's a simplistic moral.  There aren’t really any obscure points that need to be teased out.  But it is something that we should all think about in the big, and in the small questions we all face every day about how we’re being called to live our Christian lives.  Is it just about seeming to do the will of God?  When planted against actually doing the will of God, seeming Christian seems really unimportant.

Not that putting the cart back where it belongs is a testament to one’s faith, but more often than not, that’s where the rubber of what we say we believe meets the road of the real world – in those smaller decisions, when no one’s looking.

We’re living in an age where our collective attention hops from tragedy to tragedy – from one mass shooting to the next, from one war to the next, from one tyrannical government action to the next.  The role of our faith in a world like that can seem insignificant.  Who are we to stop tragedies?  Who are we to silence the howling winds?  Who are we to stabilize the shaking earth?  So why bother to lead a life of faith at all?  Why bother doing the Christian equivalent of putting the cart back, whatever that is from moment to moment?

The answer is simple: because that’s what we can do.  We can take the little moments that we encounter and experience in our lives, and bring Christ into them.  We probably can’t stop a war, but we can help a person who’s hurting.  No one of us can end America’s sick obsession with guns, but we can show kindness where we see it lacking.

It’s those little moments when no one’s watching that make up a person’s character; but more importantly, it’s the little ways that we each bring Christ into the world that begin to bring Christ into the world in the bigger ways.

I’m not perfect.  None of us are.  But little by little, we strive for more.  We strive for better.  We strive to make Christ real, even here; even now.  Because it’s what we have, and it’s who we’re called to be.  Amen.