The Good Samaritan: Compassion, Ego, Responsibility, and Just Because

Author: Rev. Nancy Schluntz
Newsletter Issue: August 2010

In an age when storytelling was the primary way to teach, Jesus was a master at telling stories, or parables, that convey the core of a teaching. The parable of the Good Samaritan (1) is more than a story. It is an archetype—a universal story that is played out over and over around the world. This parable answers the question, ‘Just who is my neighbor, anyway?’ Its mastery is that it covers all the bases—compassion, ego, and responsibility.

Most people know what a ‘Good Samaritan’ is, even if they have never heard the story of the conflict between Samaria and Judah, and do not know why that part of the story is significant. The basic story is that a man has fallen victim to robbers and lies injured by the road. A priest and a Levite, or lay priest, pass by and avoid him, for reasons of their own. Who stops? A Samaritan—one whose tribe had split from the tribe of Judah in the turmoil after the death of King Solomon.

The two branches of the community had grown farther and farther apart over many years, until the southern people of Judah considered their northern Samaritan cousins to be heretics and idolaters. Thus a Samaritan was one of the last people who would be expected to stop and give aid to an injured man of Judah. Why did he stop? The passage says the Samaritan “was moved with pity’ (2). Jesus’ Samaritan went beyond saying, ‘Oh gee, that’s too bad.’ He took the injured man to an inn and paid for his care, promising the innkeeper he would be responsible for any additional charges.

How would this scene play out today?  Daily we hear about people who have fallen or been injured and laid there for hours before someone stopped to help. Often, the mindset is “don’t get involved;” “it’s none of my business;” “someone else will stop to help;” or “I don’t have time.” We may feel for the injured person—if we even notice. Yet showing true compassion means going beyond feeling into action.

What motivates us to take action when we are confronted with a need? Do we get an income tax deduction or a certificate of appreciation? Does it improve our standing in our church or community? Does it make up for the bad things we’ve done? Does it make us somehow feel “worthy” of God’s grace that is freely given?

On my trip to England last year, a companion and I were riding in a London bus one evening, and could not help overhearing the conversation between the young man and woman who were seated behind us. They were discussing why people do things for others. The man asserted that people do good to be well thought of in their community. The woman disagreed, and said people did things for others because it needed to be done, and it didn’t matter if anyone else knew.

Through several variations in this conversation, neither of them changed their position, until he offered a compromise. It didn’t really matter why, he said, what matters is the outcome. She held firm, replying that the outcome was important to the person who was helped, but the why was what was important to the helper.

We are called to give what is needed, not just what we no longer want or need. Donating broken and soiled things to a nonprofit agency (after all, “with just a little bit of work there is useful life left”) just transfers the burden to that agency.

What are the risks of helping? Sometimes our good intentions are misguided, or have unintended consequences. When helping, we must go beyond the immediate perceived need and consider the longer-term consequences of our actions. If we continue to support an addict, we have become an enabler to their addiction. If we give so much of ourselves that we become resentful and feel we are sacrificing ourselves on an altar of unquenchable need, we become victims ourselves.

And what about the liability that may be involved in moving the victim of a car crash—for example, when we don’t know they have a back injury and moving them may result in permanent paralysis? Most states have “Good Samaritan” laws that are meant to protect lay people who, for no reason other than kindness, come to the aid of fellow human beings in need. The concept is that, so long as you have no expectation of payment or reward, you will be immune from liability for messing things up while you’re trying to help (that is, so long as you don’t mess up really badly.)

There are so many needs in this world, such a great cry for compassion. To be truly compassionate, to help without expectation of reward, we must look at the how of what we are about to do and discern if that really is helping. Examine the why of what you do to help. Is it in the other person’s highest and best good? Or is it because you have a need to feel useful? Are you actually, underneath, expecting some kind of reward?

By now you may be wondering, with so many reasons and risks to being a Good Samaritan, why do we do it? Remembering the words of the young woman on that bus in London, we do it because it needs to be done. The challenge for us, in doing so, is to be aware of how we are helping, and why.

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The article is condensed from a sermon offered at First United Methodist Church in Hayward, California on July 11, 2010.

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