The Good Samaritan Revisited
There are some stories which are so familiar they lose their impact. Surely the story of the Good Samaritan has become one of these stories. And let’s face it. I personally know of no Samaritans to distrust, let alone those I could rely on in an emergency, and in my home city at least there is a remarkable shortage of Pharisees strolling past in robes with long tassels.
But before we turn to the often told story we might just recall why Jesus was being called on to answer the question in the first place. The lawyer was testing Jesus with a standard question, for which there was an agreed answer which was required for theological correctness. What must I do to inherit eternal life? – and the gist of the answer Jesus challenged the lawyer to produce himself – was one backed by scripture going back to Leviticus. “Love God and Love your neighbour as yourself“. Because Jesus had escaped that one by affirming the standard agreed answer, he must now be pushed further, which the lawyer does with his next question. “Who is my neighbour?” This is the tricky one, because if he answers “other Jews” as tradition requires, his gospel becomes redundant in terms of what is already on offer from the Pharisees.If he answers “ everyone, regardless of faith, race or gender” he would in the eyes of his listeners become a self- convicted heretic .
In those uncertain times, the prerequisite of signing up to nationalism and faith tradition was understood as absolutely essential to show solidarity with others who thought of themselves as God’s chosen people.
We should also note that Jesus’ answer- his story of the man who fell among thieves and found his neighbour to be the one who helped him – is also a clear message to Church goers today. Love for God and neighbour is not achieved by simply declaring that love exists. The words of Eliza Doolittle in the musical “My fair Lady” may come to mind. “Don’t talk of love, show me!”
I happen to think Bertrand Russell was right when he addressed a British readership just emerging from the Second World War claiming that Christians had not understood the parable of the Good Samaritan and could not begin to do so until they thought of the Samaritan as the equivalent of a German (Nazi) or Japanese. For our post war generation the Samaritan might now for example be the equivalent of some militant extremist, and preferably one of a religious persuasion we would utterly reject.
We also need to listen to Russell when he further suggested that such a substitution would probably offend modern Christians because it might remind them how far they had wandered from the principles of Christ.
Again for the story to have its desired impact, those walking past on the other side must be our standard role models. Not Pharisees but perhaps at least ministers for our preferred denomination, and if not a Levite, at least a typical respected member of society or Church leaders’ meeting representative.
To listen to discussion about inferior alternatives to one’s own faith, there appears an unspoken assumption that people of faith are the ones who habitually help their neighbours. A moment’s reflection should be enough to make us realise that this is often not the case.
There is also a phenomenon that behavioural psychologists call the bystander effect. It was recently demonstrated at a London restaurant, when Nigella Lawson, the celebrity chef, was apparently assaulted by her famous husband who was seen on CC TV and recorded on a number of cell phone cameras to be grabbing her by the throat while he shouted at her. The striking aspect of this altercation was not that the husband was guilty of assault – for as far as I know, the case has not been tested in court. The real puzzle is why, despite many others being present in the restaurant, no-one intervened. We know plenty saw what was happening, why else would it have been captured on cell phone cameras, and we do know that it at least looked as if Nigella was being assaulted in a most public fashion.
I remember watching a documentary where this same expressed lack of concern for those in trouble was illustrated by an actor who lay down at rush hour in front of a very busy English railway station and in a most convincing manner simulated being in immense physical distress. Despite calling out “Please help me!” many times, it was twenty minutes before anyone stopped. As for the Nigella Lawson example, I cannot believe that none of the many hurrying past would claim to respect the teaching of Jesus.
The bystander effect is a well known phenomenon and I suppose it is also the case that situations requiring intervention are unpredictable in terms of likely outcome. For example several police officers have told me that when they have intervened in cases of domestic violence, occasionally, both the aggressor and the victim will turn on their rescuers. Nevertheless to claim to admire the Good Samaritan, and claim to love one’s neighbour yet to do nothing when they are in need, suggests a degree of hypocrisy.
Jesus implied message is that love which is unrelated to action is not love, no matter how many correct answers we might know to the key religious questions. Nor, we discover in Jesus’ parable, is having neighbours the same as being a neighbour oneself.
Here in little New Zealand we have had a number of cases where people have died and their bodies not noticed, sometimes for weeks or even months. The international press carries similar stories virtually every month of the year. Surely in every case the failure to notice is because those who might have sounded the alarm have not shown pro-active care for their fellows. In one instance I remember a man died in his car and the body remained unnoticed (or at least unreported) at a busy intersection in South Auckland for, I think, six days. This was all the more remarkable because South Auckland has a high density of Church going Christians who might otherwise be expected to be very sensitive to such incidents in the community.
Walking past on the other side is probably at least partly understandable. For example some commentators have suggested that the Pharisee and the Levite were born into an age where the public health requirement and associated religious justification was that association with a dead body risked defilement. However it might equally have been that the two religious figures might have had busy religious schedules and there is no doubt that dealing with a wounded man who may or may not have been dead would have interfered with such a schedule. Jesus does not discuss this aspect in this particular parable, but from elsewhere, we can imagine him asking if the religious schedule should be allowed to take precedence over unexpected and serious need.
Perhaps another problem for Christians and non-Christians alike is that there is always the suspicion that here it might be Karma in action. What goes around comes around. God promises through Moses that if the people do as God wants, they will prosper. In Deuteronomy Ch 28 there are the lists of good things that will come your way as a reward for obedience and a graphically specific list about the sorts of disasters due to you if you misbehave (including boils) – think Job.
But just as the story of Job moves us on past this view, Jesus does not teach that our misfortunes are our just deserts. Indeed he restores life and here appears to be asking others to do the same. I guess the first part of such a course of action depends on not walking by on the other side, perhaps even seeking out those who face misfortune.
Such an attitude requires forethought and even planning. If there are several in a group such as a congregation who believe that action as neighbours is important they might for example follow proactive planning as suggested by Marcus Borg. Tim Scorer in his book Experiencing the Heart of Christianity, suggests following Borg’s suggestions for practicing compassion and justice summarised as:
• Having direct contact with the poor and disadvantaged.
• Being thoughtful about the positions of political leaders and being an informed participant in the public arena,
• Increasing giving until 50% goes to organisations whose purpose is to make change in the name of justice
• Initiating a group in your congregation on humanitarian organisations whose purpose is transformation and not simply aid.
This of course is only one possible way to go. However the alternative to pretend not to notice the problems for individuals that are present in every community is not an option for anyone who takes the teaching about neighbours seriously. At the very least we might reflect on how others might have noticed in the past as we express our concern for our neighbours and even wonder if they would have noticed if our expression of concern for neighbours moves beyond empty words.
I know that we almost expect people who come from other cultures to be cautious about intervention. For example I remember reading of a poll in China which was reported as finding 78.4% of people stating that they would not intervene to help a woman or child in trouble on the street. I don’t remember any surprise at the time. We have this in built expectation or at least hope that our faith will lead to better life outcomes than that. Very well then, our question must be, which actions in our own lives to date suggest we at least would not walk by on the other side?
Luke finishes with Jesus asking “Which of the three turned out to be a neighbour to the man who had fallen among thieves?”
“Why the one who showed mercy on him” came the reply.
“Well“, Jesus said to him. “You go and do the same.”