I remember back when I was a kid. We were in the car on our way home from some place. My dad was driving as was usual. My mom knew how to drive, but she quit driving when I was about four because it made her too nervous. My father was not allowed to drive on the freeways when she was in the car. Anyway, there we were, stopped at an intersection, when a fellow riding a horse started to cross the street. Something must have spooked the horse, because it reared back and the rider fell off. There he lay in the middle of the street writhing in pain.
My father immediately jumped out of the car and into action. My dad was a firefighter. He knew how to administer first aid. So, the first thing he did was to straighten the guy out on the pavement. Then, he took off the man’s cowboy boots and felt the bottom of his feet to see if he still had sensation, so he would know if there had been a serious spinal injury. He took care of the man until the police and an ambulance arrived.
Later, we would find out that the rider was angry because neither the police nor the ambulance drivers picked up his cowboy boots, so they were lost. He tried to find out my father’s name so he could come after him to pay for the boots. What gratitude, eh? It didn’t make any difference to my father.
My father helped the guy out not because of who he was. Hell, he was a perfect stranger (or somewhat imperfect, it would seem). What I mean is, my dad did not help the rider because he knew him, or because he was a friend. He helped him because he needed help. It’s what you do. My dad couldn’t NOT help. You see someone who needs help, and you help them. That’s the way I was raised, anyway. Of course, the rider couldn’t force my dad to pay for the boots because here in the United States, as in most countries whose justice systems stem from English common law, have Good Samaritan Laws, laws that protect people who voluntarily go out of their way to help a person in need. But what exactly is a “good Samaritan”?
The term “good Samaritan” comes from a story in the gospel of Luke.
There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said,
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law?
How do you read it?”
He said in reply,
You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your being,
with all your strength,
and with all your mind,
and your neighbor as yourself.”
He replied to him, “You have answered correctly;
do this and you will live.”
But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus,
“And who is my neighbor?”
“A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.
They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead.
A priest happened to be going down that road,
but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side.
Likewise a Levite came to the place,
and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side.
But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him
was moved with compassion at the sight.
He approached the victim,
poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them.
Then he lifted him up on his own animal,
took him to an inn, and cared for him.
The next day he took out two silver coins
and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction,
‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you,
I shall repay you on my way back.’
Which of these three, in your opinion,
was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”
He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.”
Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke, Chapter 10)
This text comes mainly from the gospel of Mark, from whom Luke copied large amounts. But Luke adds the story of the Good Samaritan. The author of Luke (who probably wasn’t Luke, by the way) was writing for a primarily gentile audience. And here he wanted to contrast the Jewish belief in the law with Christ’s message of compassion.
The people at the time would have been familiar with the idea of an afterlife, although it was a new and radical idea to them. The Jewish faith never had much to say about a life after death, but there are allusions to a resurrection in the Old Testament writings. During the first century, the idea was hotly debated. The Pharisees (who would create the Rabbinical tradition) believed in a resurrection. The Sadducees, who were scribes and lawyers, did not. The people at the time would also have been annoyed at those two groups because both tended to walk around like they were better than everyone else (not unlike religious leaders today). So they would have been anxious to read a story about a Levite and a priest who failed to help the poor victim, fully expecting the third character, the one who would render assistance to be a simple Jewish man. But it wasn’t.
The story tells us the third man was a Samaritan. The Jews and the Samaritans were as close to enemies as they could be without going to war. They hated each other. But it is a Samaritan who comes to the aid of the Jew. Moreover, he does not only give immediate aide, he leaves the victim in the hands of the inn keeper and provides enough money for his care. The Samaritan goes well beyond what most of us would expect of anybody.
Of course, it is no mistake that it is a lawyer who asks Jesus the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Leave it to a lawyer to try to find out the loopholes around the law. The law said to love your neighbor. It didn’t say who your neighbor was. So maybe it is okay to not help some people. The words translated as “neighbor” literally means the person next to you. Lawyers in first century Palestine were experts at getting around the law.
Of course the lawyer in the story wasn’t trying to get around the law. As a matter of fact, he used to law to get out of helping. By Jewish law, touching a dead body would have defiled a good observant Jew, especially a priest or a Levite. So those two could both say to themselves that it was okay for them to pass by the victim, doing nothing. They had no choice. They could not break the law, could they?
The Samaritans followed the same law. This Samaritan didn’t care about the law. Probably, like my father, the law didn’t even occur to him. He only saw a person in need. The text says he was “moved with compassion.” The translation actually indicates this as a gut feeling. He felt compelled to help. It wasn’t an intellectual decision. It was visceral. Jesus makes it clear that it was the Samaritan who was actually following the law, the great commandment. Jesus also makes it clear just who exactly is your neighbor. It is whoever is in need.
But the story can been seen on another level, too. It can be seen as an allegory. Here we are, the traveler, beset by the bandits of our world. And we lie by the side of the road. And then here comes the law and organized religion, and they give us no comfort whatsoever. They do not bring us to life. They leave us on the side of the road. And then, here comes love (God, if you will), and without caring who we are, or how we got that way, picks us up and carries us to the Inn. And love cares for us and takes care of us, not only for that moment, but for whatever we need, even in the future.
You know, those of us who pray, often do so trying to talk God into helping us out. We beg. We bargain. God, please let me get this job and I promise I’ll be good from now on. Just get me through this hangover and I promise I’ll never drink again. But the truth is, we don’t have to talk God into taking care of us. It is the very nature of the divine to take care of us. People may bitch about religion in general and Christianity in specific, but the God I see in the teachings of Jesus loves us and wants us to be safe and happy.
Why don’t our prayers get answered? They do. We just don’t always get the answers we want. And who knows, maybe there are reasons we just don’t get. Maybe the plan is too intricate and complicated and changing whether you pass that algebra test really will mess up some grand eternal plan for the universe. Nobody knows the answer to that one. Whether or not we get what we want, the divine perfect spirit of love is always there to comfort us. It’s is the nature of God to love.
God, like the good Samaritan, does not care who we are or what we’ve done. God doesn’t care about the law, or what religion we follow. God is there and that gives us comfort. When the law lets you down, when religion lets you down, God is there. That comfort may come through any number of people, our own inn keepers. And you, as well, are the conduit for that love and comfort. You are the hands of God on earth. You are a vessel for that perfect divine love. The trick is to listen to that inner Samaritan, and not to that inner priest or lawyer. So when you see people in need, even your worst enemies, help them out, and don’t worry about the boots.
I had a good friend tell me recently that he didn’t think it was possible for humans to love perfectly. He said that even the love a mother has for her child can be selfish. I suppose he is correct, in a way. But I still have to disagree with him. Because, just like the Good Samaritan, there is that moment, that one pivotal moment, when a person sees someone in need, or something that needs doing, and in the heart, there is a hunger to help. In that moment, that moment in which we are compelled to help, is perfect love. It may only last a moment, but it is there. And a moment is as good as an eternity. Perfect love exists. And that gives me hope for our kind.