As I was ruminating on current events, and the discourse surrounding them, I kept coming back to the famous parable from the Gospel of Luke:
And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”
So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘[love] your neighbor as yourself.’” And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”
But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’
So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”
And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37, NKJV)
The term “Good Samaritan” has become synonymous with helping people in need or distress, with the moniker especially applied to those who do so without expecting anything in return (i.e. giving to charity, helping someone stranded on the roadside). Of course, these are good things to do and to continue doing. But the actions of the Good Samaritan can teach us a lot more once we think about how he overturns some of our most entrenched attitudes. Here are a few of the most toxic ways of thinking about people and situations that the Good Samaritan reverses with his acts of love:
Us vs. Them
Samaritans and Jews did not get along, and that’s putting it nicely. They despised each other (a very brief explanation of why can be found here). Jews would travel far out of their way on journeys to avoid passing through Samaria. They feuded bitterly with each other over their ethnic, cultural, and religious differences. So for a Samaritan to not only be characterized as a good man, but to help someone who was presumably a Jew (while a Jewish Priest and a Levite passed by), would have been a stark example of love, compassion, and empathy.
Our society, and sometimes our own choices and attitudes, often perpetuate an Us vs. Them mentality. What creates this otherness? Perhaps it’s because we lose our sense of community. Consider the religious law expert asking Jesus “Who is my neighbor”. This falls into the category of “You can’t make this stuff up”. A religious law expert was seriously questioning Jesus to find a loophole in the “love your neighbor” commandment?! News flash, dude. If you have to ask that, you either don’t know who your neighbor is, or you don’t want to know.
Of course, he got served when Jesus pointed out through the Parable that everyone we meet is our neighbor, and that to be a neighbor is to have mercy on everyone we meet. There is no us, there is no them, there is only our responsibility to each person, to all of our neighbors in this human community. It got me thinking: have I ever tried to find reasons not to love my neighbor? Because, surprise! None of them are valid!
Not My Problem
Often times–because the Us vs. Them mentality takes hold, it is easy to detach ourselves from the troubles of others, or of the world at large: that’s not my problem [because it affects “them”]. Whether “them” is a social group we don’t identify with, or just someone other than ourselves and our inner circle, it takes work- a series of intentional decisions and actions– to go from detachment, to compassion, to action– which is exactly what made the Good Samaritan so “good”.
He had absolutely no reason to stop and help. In fact, he had every reason to keep on going. He didn’t know the guy, and it was someone who he was completely different from (in ethnicity, religion, culture). Not to mention it was a graphic scene, it would cost him money, and it would require him going out of his way. Why should he invest time, energy and feelings in this guy? Clearly he was in a bad way– what if he deserved it? Wouldn’t it be better for someone else to handle this?
Served again. Along with “his neighbor”, the Samaritan had a broad definition of what counted as “his problem”: it seemed to be any problem he noticed affecting not just himself, but his neighbor [essentially anyone who crossed his path].
I can’t help.
Even if we recognize that all mankind is our neighbor, and their hurts and needs are our problems, it is easy to feel like we can’t help. The problems we observe might affect many of our neighbors, or one neighbor may have many problems we don’t feel equipped to solve. Here the Samaritan offers more wisdom: you can help. Just use what you have, do what you can, and reach out to others when needed. Sometimes we can’t solve an entire problem for our neighbor, but there are always ways we can help. It may be as simple as listening, saying a prayer, or affirming and validating someone. In any of those cases, a little bit goes a long way toward healing.
I can’t relate.
So, if our neighbor is supposed to include everyone, there are going to be times we don’t agree with our neighbor, or have so little in common with our neighbor that it feels like we can’t relate to them on any level. How can we help, how can we heal, if we don’t see something of ourselves in them? If we don’t feel like our neighbors are in the right– are we off the hook? If there is nothing about their problem or their situation that we feel deserves our time and attention, is that person still our neighbor?
Although the Samaritan was obviously kind and generous and did many things to help the man by the roadside, Jesus spotlights one characteristic, one attribute above all that made him a neighbor more than any single act: he showed mercy. Mercy is defined in two ways:
1. kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly
2. kindness or help given to people who are in a very bad or desperate situation
Both of these apply to the mercy shown by the Good Samaritan: he was being kind to someone in dire straits, and the person he showed kindness to was someone who he could–in a social context- have every reason to treat harshly. His example is one we should all follow: in which the world is our community, every person in it is our neighbor, and in which we are called to help one another heal through [both kinds of] mercy.
Food for thought:
What is the most challenging lesson of the Good Samaritan?
What is one way I have been shown Mercy (when I may have had reason to be treated otherwise)
How can I “go and do likewise”?