The Good Samaritan or, something else?
a reflection on Luke 10:25-37 by Dan Spragg
In her book, Grounded: Finding God in the World, author Diana Butler Bass talks at length about the idea of compassion and how she believes it is a critical factor in remembering and living that as humanity we are all in this thing together, we hold much in common but too quickly forget this. In 2008, Karen Armstrong won the annual TED (TED talk) Prize. Her wish was to create a global community of passion based on what she believes should be recovered as the unifying rallying cry of the Abrahamic religions – Islam, Judaism, and Christianity – what should be recovered she believes is the Golden Rule. Butler Bass quotes Armstrong, who says, “If we don’t manage to implement the Golden Rule globally so we treat people as though they are as important as ourselves, I doubt we’ll have a viable world to hand on to the next generation.” Compassion, which Butler Bass calls the spirit of action, is one of those things that is both simple and complex and challenging all at the same time. The idea is simple… putting it into practice is much harder, but it’s powerful. In the book, Butler Bass tells a story of a time when she was on a plane. She discovers a fellow passenger who was on his way home after burying his wife who had died suddenly from an aggressive illness. They had no children or extended family and most of their friends had moved away. There was no funeral and the burial had taken place with just him and a priest. It was obvious he was grieving deeply. And he was alone. To cut the story a little shorter, by the time the plane had arrived at its destination, somehow the whole plane had become aware of this man’s situation. Passengers and crew alike. Instead of the usual rush to disembark the passengers stood in silence and allowed the man to leave first. The pilot took the man’s hand and walked him out of the plane and down the stairs to a private car that the airline had arranged to take the man home. Compassion had driven a collection of strangers to act in solidarity with a fellow human in his moment of pain. Compassion is a powerful thing.
Acting with or because of compassion can be defined as being moved enough to stand in someone else’s shoes, to step into their situation, to enter into the very thing that they are going through. In the story of the Good Samaritan, it says that he “took pity on [the man]” – we observe him being moved by compassion to cross both cultural, social, and religious boundaries. What we observe, in essence, is the Samaritan man being willing to be inconvenienced, to be interrupted from whatever his plans were and instead enter into and be alongside the victim for as long as it took. The Samaritan’s actions were above and beyond, utterly generous, seriously inconveniencing himself for the sake of this victim. The actions of the passengers and crew on that plane were small gestures really, but, both these stories are ones where compassion motivated a move from one to another in the moment, and I suspect, both were situations where the impact was deeply appreciated. Compassion moves us to move beyond ourselves and stand with others in their pain.
The story of the Good Samaritan is quite a familiar one to us. But it doesn’t make it any less challenging. Like I said, the idea of compassion is simple but putting it into practice can be a lot harder. The question for us really becomes whether or not we are willing to be interrupted or willing to be inconvenienced by someone else. It is easy for us to be in our routines and daily habits. We talk to the same people. We go to the same places. It’s easy. It’s comfortable. We generally don’t like being inconvenienced and if we are inconvenienced in some way we sort of do it begrudgingly. The way Jesus tells the story he emphasises how much the Samaritan went out of his way. There is his time and effort and his personal supplies but also an open-ended stay at a hotel with any and all medical care provided. It doesn’t take much for us to know how much that would cost if it were a story from our time in history. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus said. That’s some big shoes to fill. As I said, being interrupted and inconvenienced for the benefit of someone else is challenging.
“Go and do likewise…” This is the command that Jesus gives. What do we understand Jesus saying when he says this? I’d like us to consider something for a moment. In the parables of Jesus, often one of the characters in the story will be the ‘God’ figure or the ‘messiah’ figure, the one who is to show us what God wants or what the Way of God is about. In this parable of the Good Samaritan, our focus is usually drawn to the Samaritan as the ‘Christ’ figure. This is the one who is representing the messiah to us. An alternative way of looking at this story that I’ve come across recently, however, asks us to consider reading this parable as if the robbed and beaten man was the Christ figure. What if the man who was beaten and left for dead was the messiah? What does that change for us? What if Christ was the one who suffered, was humiliated, and was left for dead? This is not such a radical idea. In Matthew 25 in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus describes a scene where the Christ is named as being found as the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the one in prison. “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Jesus suggests here that when we look into the faces of those who are at their lowest points, there we are to see Christ. What if the robbed and beaten man was Christ? And what does this tell us about following the actions of the Good Samaritan? I think it reminds us that grace is found in the lowest places. Christ is to be found when things are at rock bottom. We are to follow the example of one who decided to give up their agenda and give up their resources to stand beside the ones society has left for dead. I think it says to us that we are not meant to follow the behaviour of the Samaritan but rather we are to follow his example of being willing to give up himself in order to stand in solidarity with someone else. Notice who didn’t do this in the story? The Priest, the Levite, and the Lawyer by implication, in seeking to justify who his neighbour was. What the Priest, the Levite, and the Lawyer, by implication, weren’t willing to give up was their ideas of who they thought upstanding and righteous people should be. In other words, people who did the right thing at the right time and who had a sense of standing within the community because of what they did. If we focus on copying the behaviour of the Samaritan we actually risk becoming like them – people who are more concerned with what society tells us we ‘should’ do as opposed to responding in compassion and standing in genuine solidarity with those who society has left for dead. This, I think, is where Jesus is saying we will be entering into how God is with the world. Christ is in complete solidarity with those at their lowest points. We find grace and therefore life at the low points. We find grace and life when we are willing to give up our agendas for another. Jesus says in another place, to find life you have to be willing to lose it.
Is it possible? Can we allow compassion to move us into genuine solidarity with someone else’s struggle and pain? Can we allow this not so that we can be satisfied we are doing the correct thing according to what our moral ideas tell us, but rather so that our concern is no longer on what we do or don’t do and instead simply is genuinely in standing with and alongside those who are hurting? Jesus says, “Go and do likewise”, not to copy the Samaritan’s actions – this is not a ‘how to’ story. Jesus is telling us to be willing to become disadvantaged alongside and to enter into the suffering of the other person because that is where we will find Christ – grace and life.
One of the challenges in this for us – as if it weren’t challenging enough already! – is our noticing those in our society who have been left and cast aside. It’s hard to see them. Our newspapers and news feeds don’t show them to us all that often. Our leaders and politicians are mostly concerned about their own careers. Priests and Levites all over again. It’s hard to see who society casts aside because they have already been cast aside. What can we do to truly see them? And what then about our world? At the beginning today I quoted Karen Armstrong saying, “If we don’t manage to implement the Golden Rule globally so we treat people as though they are as important as ourselves, I doubt we’ll have a viable world to hand on to the next generation.” Compassion is vital to how we treat one another as humanity across the world. It is powerful, it has the potential to unite us and to literally change the world by changing how we see and understand one another. It is such a big challenge! Personally, I am really challenged by this. Is it even possible? Globally? Let alone Nationally or even locally? Is true compassion without an ego-driven agenda possible?
Surely this is where faith, prayer, and trust in God to be God comes in. Jesus of course modelled this idea of lowering one’s own agenda in order to stand in solidarity with those who cannot speak for themselves. Jesus kind of failed if you look at it from the perspective of what we define as success. Jesus as the messiah failed. He was ridiculed, rejected, beaten, and executed. Jesus went as low as one could go. But in that, he was met with the endless ocean of God’s grace and life and God said, ‘No, this is just the beginning’. Jesus stood in humble solidarity against the might of ego, power, and status, was executed for it, and yet powerfully exposed them for what they were – empty and meaningless. Grace is found at the bottom, in the lowest places with the least, the last, and the lost and that is where life is found. That is why we can trust in the goodness of God because it appears that when we let go of trying to build our perfect lives by doing all the right things – that is where we truly will find life. And not just for us as individuals but rather for us, collectively, as humanity together. And that is where we can be part of something beautiful to pass on to those who come after us.
 Kathleen Anderson, quoted in, Diana Butler Bass, Grounded: Finding God in the World, p260.
 Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, p209-18.