Yesterday, we started reading the parable of the Good Samaritan – if you’re just joining us, it will make more sense if you read that post first. But to summarise: the first two people who passed by didn’t help for three reasons: status (too important to stop), purity (too busy with ministry to be inconvenienced), and self-preservation (too scared of the danger to themselves). And we asked whether these are the same reasons we are reluctant to stop and help – and that we arrange our lives so that we avoid coming into contact with those who most need help.
Now we might subconsciously shut the neediest people of society out of our minds and our lives. But no matter how superior, busy or scared we feel, we wouldn’t actually step around someone if we saw them in great distress!
Or would we?
A couple of psychologists decided to test this one out, so they set up a bit of an experiment. They invited some bible college students to come to a university campus to give a talk on a biblical topic to a Christian group. They would have the student arrive in one building, where they were met and briefed, before being taken to the other building where they were to give the talk. On the way, they walked past an actor in a doorway, pretending to be a homeless person slumped against the building. They would coughing and groaning – obviously in great pain. What would they do?
They also introduced a number of variables:
- Some students were asked to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan, whereas others were asked to give a talk on another passage of Scripture.
- Psychological profiling was done: some students had said they went into ministry primarily to become bible teachers, and others because they loved helping people.
- Some students were given the perception of having plenty of time – when they arrived in the first building they were told ‘we’re a bit early, but why don’t we head on over anyway so you can get an idea of the place’; others were given a sense of urgency, where the person who met them would look at their watch and say, ‘I didn’t realise the time, we’d better hurry or you’ll be late.’
What do you think happened? It turned out that the choice of topic – whether they were preaching on the Good Samaritan, or something else – had no bearing on whether they stopped to help. Their personality type also had no influence. The one factor that did have an effect was the perceived urgency – how much time they had. When they thought they had plenty of time, 63% stopped to help. (Remember, these are bible college students!) When they thought they were in a hurry, that went down to only 10%. (Malcolm Gladwell, Tipping Point.)
Status, busyness, self-preservation – three things that if we’re not careful can stop us from helping those we see in distress – or even stop us from coming in contact with people who are in distress.
The person who did stop to help
Thankfully, for this hypothetical guy lying on the side of the road, there was one person who did stop to help. But his identity was a considerable shock – particularly to Jesus’ audience.10:33 ‘But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.’
This would have been a shock to the people who first heard the story, because Jews and Samaritans hated each other. So much so that devout Jews travelling from Galilee in the north would go the long way – crossing the Jordan river twice – to avoid travelling through Samaria. Why did they despise each other that much? As with most ethnic hatreds, there’s a long history on both sides, in this case going back nearly 800 years.
The Jews thought the Samaritans had sold out in terms of religion – intermarrying with foreigners and setting up their own way of worshipping God – even their own temple. The Jews, in the second century BC came and destroyed their rival temple and tried to re-impose Judaism. That was until 63BC when the Romans conquered them both, giving the Samaritans a bit of independence again. The Samaritans outraged the Jews in Jesus’ lifetime – in 6 / 7 AD, during the Passover, they snuck into the temple at night and scattered bones from dead bodies throughout in order to defile it.
So it’s fair to say that ethnic tensions ran high, which is why Jesus’ use of a Samaritan as the hero of the story was particularly shocking. If we try to bring the parable into 2014, it’s difficult for us to find a clear parallel. Although we have our own racial tensions, it’s hard to find that deep-seated racial and religious revulsion here in Australia. Maybe we have to think more in terms of a Palestinian helping a Jew; or a Catholic helping a Protestant in Northern Ireland. Perhaps retelling the story with a member of Al-Qaeda or Islamic State as the hero would come closest!
Or we might want to try to reflect the religious nature of the dispute between Jews and Samaritans – after all, their disagreement started over issues of purity and behavioural laws. This has lead one scholar to re-tell this story where instead of being a Samaritan, the hero is a gay man, challenging the church on how it views those who have chosen different lifestyles.
I think that one particularly works, because Jesus’ aim is to find the person most unlikely (in the eyes of his audience) to be the ‘God figure’. Because that’s who the Samaritan is, in the story. Let’s take a look.
Firstly, we see his emotional response:10:33b ‘and when he saw him, he took pity on him.’
‘Pity’ or ‘compassion’ translates the Greek word used throughout the Greek Old Testament to describe God’s feelings toward humanity. God describes himself to Moses as ‘the compassionate and gracious God’. Jesus himself is moved by compassion to heal people, and raise Lazarus from the dead. The Samaritan is the one person in the story who exhibits this key characteristic of God – compassion. The story goes on:10:34a He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine.
The words Jesus chooses to tell this story are a slap in the face to those who passed by. In the Old Testament it’s the duty of the priesthood to be Israel’s shepherds – specifically to ‘bind up their wounds and heal the sick’ as it says in Ezekiel. But in Jesus’ story, it’s not the priest, it’s not the Levite – it’s the hated Samaritan who does the work of God. He binds up his wounds, he softens them by pouring on oil and sterilises them with wine. And then he continues to look after him, at great risk to himself:10:34b-35 ‘Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’’
He puts himself in danger, firstly of being robbed himself – taking time to care for the man by the side of the road. He then put him on his own donkey, meaning he’d have to walk beside, making himself a slow-moving, easy target. And then taking him to a highway inn – a place any wise person would steer clear of, being notoriously dangerous places. Kind of like turning up to the biggest, meanest biker bar you can imagine.
And then he puts himself at financial risk – giving the innkeeper the equivalent of around $400 and an open-ended commitment to pay for any expenses. These innkeepers weren’t the most reputable of people. and They were just as likely to try to rip him off when he returned. So the Samaritan assumed great physical and financial risk.
Throughout the Roman Empire, one of the most highly praised virtues was that of an ‘endangered benefactor’. That is, someone who put themselves at physical and/or financial risk for the sake of others – often for the whole city. Maybe by funding a public building project out of their own pocket, or protecting the city with their army. This kind of language was often used of God, who ‘gave himself for us to redeem us’ as it says in Titus. So in Jesus’ parable, the Samaritan is the ‘endangered benefactor’ who puts himself at risk to help others – again, reflecting in miniature the actions of God in the world.
Who acted as a neighbour?
All this helps us understand Jesus’ final question to bring home the point of the story. He simply asks:10:36-37 ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”’
Who acted as a neighbour? The lawyer answered correctly: the one who had mercy – the one who showed compassion. That is, the one who acted like God. For it’s God who has compassion on his people – his single defining characteristic in the Old Testament; it’s God who crossed purity boundaries to become one of us, in Jesus; it’s God who endangered himself, in the cross, to rescue us.
The priest didn’t act like God – although in his job description, he was supposed to! And neither did the Levite. So it was left to the Samaritan to show them both up. The same can happen today – when people who aren’t Christians shame us by their Christ-like actions.
And so Jesus tells the lawyer to ‘go and do likewise’. That is, show the same compassion God shows to everyone without regard to status, defilement, or your own safety.
By the way, did you notice that through the story, Jesus actually reverses the original question? The lawyer originally asked ‘who is my neighbour?’ – that is, to whom must I show love and compassion? To whom can I get away with not showing love and compassion? I suppose the logical parable to tell would involve the Samaritan lying in a ditch beside the road, and someone stops to help him. Go and do likewise. Even to a Samaritan.
But Jesus turns it all around. He put us in the ditch beside the road. He says – well if you were left for dead in a ditch, wouldn’t you want someone to be a neighbour to you? Even someone who by rights should be your enemy. Guess what: that’s what God does for us, even while we are still his enemies. So if you want to live a life that pleases God – if you want to be God-ly – then go and do likewise.
To think about
Is there a time you’ve felt challenged by the God-like compassion of someone who isn’t a believer?
Are there people whom you’ve “walked around” in the past, whom God might be calling you to help?
How does the compassion God has shown you impact the way you treat others?