The Good Samaritan Revisited
We often talk and act as if we are well and truly insulated from the New Testament version of Jesus, particularly when he is reported interacting with a first century Jewish community which could hardly be more different from our modern day setting. And let’s face it, with today’s story I suspect few of us know any Samaritans to distrust, let alone those we 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.
Yet before we consign today’s story to be filed as quaint and otherworldly there are clues in the story which give it some relevance to the current human condition. But first some background. The lawyer was checking out Jesus with a deceptively innocent question. 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”…Nothing new there.
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!”
We are rather good at recognizing hypocrisy in other faiths. For example it is easy to pour scorn on ISIS terrorists who claim to support the Koran which states that killing the innocent is forbidden and yet there they are deliberately killing randomly-chosen victims in a Bangladesh place of worship, or getting people to blow themselves up on city streets to cause as much suffering as possible. Surely whatever they these particular followers of what they call is Islamic State are, it is not those who truly respect the Koran. Yet I wonder if we can similarly recognise hypocrisy in followers of Christ – especially if at times those followers are us. And think about this one: would we recognise a follower of ISIS as being the face of Christ if we catch one caring for his or her enemy?
I happen to think Bertrand Russell was right when he addressed a British readership just emerging from the Second World War claiming that most Christians of that day had not understood the parable of the Good Samaritan and would 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 any 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.
Yet for the story to have its desired impact, those walking past on the other side must be our standard role models. If not Pharisees but 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 our 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 that phenomenon that behavioural psychologists call the bystander effect. 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. I cannot believe that none of the many hurrying past would claim to respect the teaching of Jesus.
It is hard to believe that no ordinary law abiding citizen in Nazi Germany noticed what was happening to the Jews, yet clearly the majority preferred to be bystanders. Perhaps like me you may have seen the film “Mississippi Burning” portraying events in the deep South of the United States. In that film the Ku Klux Klan murders of a couple of black men and a couple of white Jewish men were portrayed. In 1964 the White Knights of the KKK very publically shot the victims dead and buried them at the site of an earthen dam. The outrage in the northern half of the United States was immediate and fierce, as it should have been.
The sad thing is that in the deep South of America despite a strong Church going population there was no public outcry of any kind. We might understand the silence of the blacks in Mississippi. Presumably they didn’t dare incur the wrath of the white authorities. You would have thought that the white Church leaders and congregations would have protested the pathetically light sentences imposed on the murderers when they were caught. Presumably they saw worshipping on Sunday having nothing to do with protest since they apparently either agreed with the crime, or just didn’t want to draw attention to the plight of blacks (and Jews, and anyone other than “WASPs”) in the South.
A few days ago there was a small item from the US reporting that a Church volunteer near the Southern border of the US had been arrested for offering some water to an illegal immigrant. If you had been a bystander there, what would you now do?
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 we encounter 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 excused the Pharisee and the Levite 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, where 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 (or redirect)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 Jesus’ 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?” More to the point, which would describe us?