The Parable of the Good Samaritan presents certain challenges for us as we determine how to respond to various needs we see by the roadside. But let us first consider the primary meaning of the parable. A lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He asked the question with faulty motive. Having established the agreed upon morality–Thou shalt love God with all thy heart, soul and mind, and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself–only one task remained for the lawyer: How to define neighbor in such a way as to excuse his failures.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tell us,
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45)
Therein lies the problem. When the definition of neighbor is expanded to include my enemy, I will have issues when my behavior is judged. However, if I can whittle down the definition of neighbor so that includes only those I already love, then at least I can offer some defense when I am called to account on the Day of Judgement.
The parable is directed at religious people, priests and deacons–or priests and levites as they used to call them. What is not self-evident in the story is that the priest and levite both had a religious justification for not helping the wounded man. If either touched a dead body, the Torah said he would be unclean and unable to fulfill his duties in the temple. Since half dead looks a lot like dead, and may soon become dead, they could use their religion as an excuse not to love. However, as God said through Hosea, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). That is to say, God would have preferred that they help the person in need and get someone to cover for them in the temple.
The point is this. If we ask, as the lawyer asked, “What can I do to be saved?” The answer is, “Nothing.” Our attempts to achieve salvation will fail. The best we will come up with through human effort and sophistry will fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). As our epistle says, “The scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe” (Galatians 3:22). We are saved when we put our faith in Jesus, who fulfilled the Torah for us and offered himself on the cross for our sins.
However, once we put our faith in the Son of God and are renewed by the gift of the Spirit, what was impossible becomes possible. We were enemies of God, but God made us his friends through the cross. Now, we also can embrace those who were our enemies. We can rise above human limitations and love as God loves. We can pray for those who oppose us. We can pray even for the terrorist that he might be converted and saved–just as St. Paul, who terrorized the early church, was converted. In short, we can, as Jesus said, “Be perfect, as you Father in heaven in perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Perfection is not easy because loving our enemies and helping those in need not easy. In the parable, the need and the remedy were obvious. However, the needy we encounter by the roadside include the mentally ill, skilled manipulators and others who refuse to be held accountable for the actions. We see someone by the roadside with a sign that says, “Will work for food,” and we give. Then we discover that sitting by the roadside with such a sign can be a reasonably profitable endeavor. Get a young child to sit next to you and you can receive $100 or more a day tax free. Someone comes to the church office for assistance–and we give. Then someone follows that person for a block or so and watches them drive away in a late model SUV with leather seats.
And yet, there are real needs and real wounds. The fact that the needy are not always the pure of heart does not excuse us from responding–for neither are we always the pure of heart. God rewards our motives in giving even when the recipient misuses what we give. Nonetheless, it seems irresponsible to continually give in circumstances where the gift may actually provide incentives for a person not to get well. The impulse to charity in our culture often lack the biblical balance between generosity and accountability, between the command of Jesus to free give and the command of St. Paul, “If he will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
The parable hints at an answer to the dilemma. The Good Samaritan took the wounded man to the inn, where he was nursed and fed until he regained his strength. The inn in the parable was understood by the church fathers to be an image of the church. This suggests that when we find people wounded by the road, half dead in sin, we should bring them to the church, the people of God. Healing is to be found, not merely in money, but in a relationship with God experienced through the life of prayer in the community of the faithful.
The unspoken truth about neediness in our culture is that it is results, not from a lack of money, but the breakdown of families and relationships. It results, in large measure, from fatherlessness. The answer is to restore people to a relationship with their heavenly father in the family of God through the church. Alienation is the problem. A new community consisting of truthful and close relationships is the answer.
When the Samaritan brought the wounded man to the inn, he enlisted the help of others. In the church, the larger body of Christ can help in the task of ministering to the wounded–“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).
Of course, this makes the answer harder, not easier. It is easier to write a check than it is to invest time and energy in with a wounded and difficult person. But God invests himself in us, though we are wounded and difficult, and we are called to give just as we have received.
As Jesus said, “Go and do thou likewise.”