Good Samaritan stories abound in every part of history and every culture, with a number of common elements to each. First, there is a critical incident. Someone is in an accident, or a victim of a crime, or hurt in some way and there is a crying need for help. Second, there are those who turn away from the need. They don’t want to be inconvenienced or get involved. Third, there is someone who responds with help. This person comes as an unsuspected responder. They belong to an unpopular group, or are in some way looked down upon. This is not how they are supposed to behave!
This is where the Good Samaritan story packs its punch! The ones you would have expected to respond do not and the one you expect would do nothing is the very one who responds to the need. This flip of roles shakes the foundations of our prejudices and lays bare one enormous human quality that shows what is lacking in some but the best in others: compassion.
In the Gospel today Jesus is talking with lawyers who want to enter into debate with him. They ask him which law is the greatest. Jesus answers with a question about what is written in the law as the greatest commandment. The lawyer quotes the Scriptures from Leviticus and Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself.”
While Jesus affirms his answer, the lawyer wants to continue this debate, so he asks the question, “Who is my neighbour?” Luke tells us this question comes from the lawyer’s desire to “justify himself.” Presumably the law allows for a certain discretion when offering compassion to others. There must be some who are more deserving and some who are not.
This is where Jesus takes the Good Samaritan story and throws it around the lawyer like a rope! A man is beaten and robbed and seriously injured on the way to Jericho. A religious leader and a prominent member of the religious congregation (assumed to be “good guys”) walk on the other side so as not to spoil their ritual cleanliness. But a Samaritan (assumed to be a “bad guy”) comes along and demonstrates tremendous compassion by binding the wounds of the person, providing a source of transportation to a local inn and promising to pay any added expenses to the innkeeper upon his return.
When asking for a judgment from the lawyer, Jesus turns the passive phrase “who is my neighbour” into an active voice: “Who was it that was neighbour to the man?” The lawyer answers: “The one who showed mercy.”
Rev. James Forbes, a well-known preacher and former pastor at Riverside Church in New York, uses this Good Samaritan story to describe true compassion. In his answer to what compassion looks like, he says: “Not only was the Good Samaritan willing to put up the initial investment for the care of this wounded person, he offers to provide a system of sustained care. This is the first time the Bible talks about a ‘health care system.’ ” He goes on to describe compassion as something he learned at the family dinner table, where Momma would ask: Are all the children in?” Forbes says that at our heart’s table, if it is to be a compassionate one, “Momma Eternal will ask us the same question: “Are all the children in?”
Here are two contemporary Good Samaritan stories we can ponder.
Amidst the flames and devastation of the fires in Fort McMurray, a tiny voice from an article in the Calgary Sun (May 6, 2016) told the story: “Syrian refugees in Calgary pitch in to help.” Rita Khanchet saw the flames of Fort McMurray and was sorely reminded of how she had fled such destruction in her home town in Syria only five months before with her husband and young son. She said, “It’s not easy to lose everything. We can understand . . . we were in the same situation.” She told her five-year-old son about what was happening in Fort McMurray and immediately he brought out his toys and wanted to give them to children who had to flee without their own. Syrian refugees across Calgary stepped up to give from what little they had to help the cause. Through Facebook and the Syrian Refugee Support Group they offered to give $5 from every Syrian refugee. They then offered furniture and clothes (most of which had been donated to them!).
The second story is about the many people who have given with generous hearts to help those who were displaced and in shock. Two separate news reports cite individuals who gave food, shelter, water and gasoline to those on the run from the flames. When asked what motivated them, they responded: “That’s what we do, we’re Canadian!” It sure made me proud to be a Canadian!
Both of these Good Samaritan stories should inspire us to have broader hearts of compassion and mercy. Within these stories is the answer to the age-old question, “Who is my neighbour?” The clear and unequivocal answer: the one in need of our help is my neighbour. Armed with this knowledge and awareness, we would do well to heed the command of Jesus; “Go and do likewise!”
Williston is a retired parish life director for the Diocese of Saskatoon and a former missionary with the Redemptorists. He is also a song writer and recording artist.