Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan is one of his most famous stories. It has become a cultural touchstone which goes beyond its original setting. There are even “Good Samaritan Laws” to protect those who seek to do good. Briefly, the story goes like this.
Once, a certain man travelled from the city to a smaller town. On the way, a gang beat him within an inch of his life and left him for dead on the side of the road.
A while later, a city leader was travelling along the same road. She belonged to all the right clubs and was a member of the large church in the city. She was honoured by all who knew her. She saw the beaten man but crossed to the other side of the road and continued on her way.
Then one of the pastors of a prominent church in the city passed by, but he was busy with many appointments with people who needed his care. He also crossed to the other side of the road and continued on his way.
A “Samaritan” happened on the scene. When he saw the badly beaten young man, he bandaged the fellow’s wounds, lifted him into his own car and took him to the hospital. He stayed with the beat–up man in the ER, and after treatment took him to a small, clean motel and paid for a couple of nights lodging, as well as the food he would need to recover.
Luke tells us that Jesus told this story to answer a question about what it means to be a neighbour. Which one of these three acted as a neighbour to the man who was beat up?
These days, we no longer remember what it meant to be a Samaritan in Jesus’ day. The phrase “good Samaritan” has become a cliché today. Back then, it was unthinkable to call a Samaritan “good”. They were the ancient enemies of the Jews. Imagine a good Taliban. A good skinhead. A good neo–Nazi. As a cliché, we think it teaches a cultural norm about being kind in a hurting world.
A few years ago, I took a continuing education course about the parables of Jesus. When it came to this, the professor said, “This is not a story about being nice. It’s a story about the transformation of the world.” He went on to explain that Jesus was talking about three types of people along the road.
The first type were the gang members. Their ethic suggests that “what is yours is mine at whatever cost.” They will take whatever they need through violence or coercion or whatever means necessary. They are the kind of people who leave us physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually beaten and bruised along life’s road.
The second type is represented by the city leader and the pastor. Their ethic suggests that “what is mine is mine and I must protect it even if it means you get hurt in the process.” They’re not bad people; indeed, both are deeply respected in the city. They follow all the rules of polite society; they sit on boards; they pay their taxes and coach children’s teams. They love the people who are nearest and dearest to them.
But instead of crossing the road, they move on because it might cost them too much. Without recognizing it, they do more harm than good because their focus is inward. They value their reputations more than the needs of those who have been beaten up by life. Their busyness is more important than the well–being of their neighbours.
If we are honest, I suspect we would have to admit that this is the category into which most of us fall more than we care to admit.
The third type is the Samaritan. This person surprises us because they live with an ethic of love which says, “what is mine is yours, if you need it.”
My safety is yours … if you need it.
My security is yours … if you need it.
My resources are yours … if you need it.
My well–being is tied to your well–being, and I can only be whole when all are whole.
Martin Luther King, Jr. often preached on this parable. He said that the difference between the first two who passed by and the Samaritan who stayed to help is that the former would ask, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” The Samaritan asked a vastly different question, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
Will we live with an ethic of fear or an ethic of love?
When fear marks our lives, we retreat into our own concerns, mind our own business, and rarely cross to the other side of the road. When we live by fear, we insist on our own rights and our own freedom. It may make us feel safe for a moment, but that is fleeting at best.
When we live out of an ethic of love, we cross the road to help our neighbour. We care for each other. We reach out to the least in our society, to those who are hurting or broken or failing.
It is clear that we live in a hurting world. Heartbreak and exhaustion are all around us. It’s not just the virus. It’s everything. Layer upon layer of being beaten and bruised.
We can choose to live with an ethic of love, to become someone who cares for our neighbour, for all our neighbours, for human beings and other creatures and the very earth itself.
When we make that choice, we will get a glimpse of something Jesus talked an awful lot about. We may be transformed. We may even take part in the transformation and healing of the world.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook