The Good Samaritan

"We must learn to live together 
as brothers or perish together as fools."


It is easy to grow dispirited reading the news of the day. With the threat of terrorism on the rise and the global economy teetering, fear appears poised to carry the day yet again.  In these conditions, it is easy to lose our way. What can we do to make a difference? More surveillance, drone strikes, and political brinksmanship can surely only accelerate the problems of global governance. 

This week we celebrate Martin Luther King Day. With the movie Selma in wide circulation a whole new generation is exposed to Dr. King's courageous campaign of love and non-violence as the agency for social change. In a new book Cornell West, interviewed by Printers Row Journal, suggests:

"King was about militant nonviolence. It goes back to radical love: You don't begin by dehumanizing those who are dehumanizing you, because it contributes to the cycle of dehumanization in the world. And you're right: It takes unbelievable spiritual courage, moral fortitude, to engage in militant nonviolence. To put it another way, Martin King was an extremist of love. We live in a world where people are fearful of extremism, but King would say he was always trying to keep the flow of love in place. In that sense, he turned the world on its head."

King's convictions were deeply rooted in faith. As I thought about what we might do differently as a world community it struck me that a Christian parable held an answer that mirrored the approach King, Gandhi and Mandela might embrace. One of Jesus' most famous -- and in its day controversial stories -- the Good Samaritan answers the question "who is my neighbor?"

While travelling the Jericho road a Jew is attacked by robbers, beaten, and left for dead. This target was either naïve about the perils of cross-country travel, unlucky, or both. A priest and then a Levite pass the crime scene without offering aid to the victim. Maybe they are like all of us: a little too busy, a little too frightened.

Or, perhaps they have liability issues.

Some time later a Samaritan rides up on his donkey. It's important to note that the Jews and the Samaritans are not on friendly terms; in fact they quite dislike each other. A racially mixed society, the Samaritans are viewed as pagan despite their adherence to Mosaic Law. Both sides harbor sanctions against contact.

However, despite the prevailing social sentiments, rather than simply pass by, the Samaritan shows compassion for the victim. He cleans and bandages the victim's wounds, puts the injured man on his own donkey and delivers him to the care of a local innkeeper. The Samaritan pays the innkeeper for the man's health expenses and promises to return and pay any additional costs the victim might incur. "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" Jesus asks.

The obvious reply is, "the Good Samaritan." But there is something to be learned from the victim as well. He is the neighbor whose story we know least and whose lessons remain obscured by the Samaritan's heroics and the Taleteller's brevity. The Traveller reminds us that in order to gain help we must be willing to accept help, even if it comes from "the other".

While it is unclear if the Traveller was capable of consent, we can assume, at some point, he knew his welfare was a result of the compassion of a Samaritan. What turmoil this must have caused! The enmity between Jews and Samaritans was every bit as toxic as the relationship between modern day Israelis and Palestinians, Serbs and Muslims in Bosnia, and Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Every assumption and belief about "the other" must have been turned upside down by the Samaritan's charity.

To my mind, the ultimate teaching of all Good Samaritans - King, Gandhi, and Mandela - is that miracles only come from such a radical change in vision and from resulting behavior. Doing more of the same can only lead to more of the same.

Posted on January 21, 2015 .