If you were to do some market research on the parables of Jesus, I wonder which would be the most popular? Imagine doing this as the preparation for the TV gameshow Pointless – asking various people in the street which parable of Jesus they can think of. I’d be willing to bet that the Parable of the Good Samaritan would be best known, closely followed by the Lost Sheep.
And I expect most people would be able to tell you how they understand the parable – it’s about helping people isn’t it? Be kind to your neighbour, look after the vulnerable person. Don’t be like the priest and the Levite who walked on by, instead do your bit and be a Good Samaritan.
Of course, there may be excuses. Both the Priest and the Levite worked in the temple and might not have wanted to touch what might be a dead body for fear it would keep them from their duties – although the commentators do say that an exception could be made for a neglected body – such as might be in this situation. Perhaps those who passed by did so hurriedly, fearing it might be a trap. Although I imagine it would be pretty easy to tell if the man was really injured or not. Whatever the excuses, many people understand this story as an encouragement to help whoever is in need.
So what might stop people from helping the needy today? I saw an article on the BBC website recently about a man in India called Kanhaiya Lal, desperately calling out for help as motorists swerve past him. The bodies of his wife and daughter lay next to the mangled motorbike on which they had all been travelling before the accident. Apparently it is a well-known Indian phenomenon – nobody wants to help because if you do the police assume you’re responsible for the accident. And if you take a victim to hospital you might end up being billed for the treatment.
In other words, the system there is stacked against people. Can we see examples in our society where there are similar disincentives to help? Martin Luther King asked the same question about this parable. He said: ‘On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed.
True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar, it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.’
It’s easy to see the problems in another country. But what about us? What stops us helping? Our response in a crisis is determined by our day to day responses. Great courage is formed by small acts of regular bravery. Compassion in disaster is the result of a habit formed by many small acts of kindness. So what are the challenges we need to overcome daily?
Perhaps there is a fear of being defrauded – of giving a pound or two to an imposter or paying over the odds for a tea towel from a door to door salesman. But if so, what have we lost? Just a couple of pounds and our pride. Maybe sometimes we just have to be willing to risk taking the hit.
We can sometimes fear being trapped. I once donated by text message to one of these chuggers – just out of curiosity really. Big mistake. My mobile number was then on someone’s list. I don’t want to give to unworthy causes or to charities that are going to hassle me – so I make sure that my charitable giving isn’t impulsive and erratic but prayerfully chosen. That seems to be in the spirit of the Good Samaritan
Organisations and charities are one thing. Responding to individual personal need is another. Many of us are happy to help someone out but feel very wary about being drawn in and being depended upon. What to do about the woman who is so needy that you could drink tea with her for two hours every day and her need for company or support would still not be met?
In those situations there’s a case for the wider community to share the care rather than just one or two individuals. And it’s odd how occasionally I come across a situation where someone is virtually their neighbour’s carer – and yet that vulnerable person has family living in the same village. Love asks the question: what is really going to help this person, not just what makes this person feel better. Love seeks a long term solution not a short term fix.
For instance, one could give a hundred pounds to the man who struggles to pay his rent. Perhaps that would be a one off. Perhaps if he has ongoing budgeting issues then getting some professional help like Christian Against Poverty would be the right thing.
When we get into the practicalities of helping, the best way to do it depends on the situation. But the important thing is to do what we can. The Priest and the Levite put themselves first, asking ‘what does this mean for me if I stop and help?’ The Samaritan asked the question: ‘if I don’t stop and help, what does this mean for him?’ This is a concrete example of what Jesus meant when he spoke of dying to self and following him. And it’s wonderful to see that in many of our villages there is an amazing community which looks out for neighbours and helps those in need. You could say that the parable of the Good Samaritan is being put into action all around us.
But – it’s not actually a parable about helping people. Firstly, to be a little pedantic, it’s not really a parable. A parable talks about the Kingdom using an analogy, a picture, but this is an instructional story with a point.
Secondly, and much more importantly, the setting of the story is a lawyer’s question. If Jesus had wanted to say that your neighbour you should help is anyone, even the hated Samaritan he could have told a story a bit like this:
There was once a man who lived alone near the road to Jericho. One dark night he heard someone calling for help. He ventured out, found an injured priest, brought him back in and cared for him. The next night he again heard shouts of pain. Fearing robbers he nonetheless went into the darkness, brought back a wounded Levite, bandaged his wounds and in the morning set him on his way. The next night he again heard calls. Going out he saw it was a Samaritan. Yet he brought the man into his own house, bandaged him, and cared for him until he was well.
That would be a story about helping anyone in need, even the dreaded Samaritan. And if it had been Jesus no doubt he would have told it better. Yet that’s not remotely the story Jesus told. In response to the lawyer’s question ‘Who is my neighbour’ Jesus told a story about being helped. About letting others help you.
It’s assumed that the injured man is a Jew. He receives help from the person who ought to hate him. If Jesus were telling it today it might be about an Israeli being helped by a Palestinian; an Indian by a Pakistani, a Northern Irish Protestant by a Roman Catholic. An Englishman by a…fill in the gap…traveller? A radical Muslim? Nigel Farage?! Fill in the gap – by whom would you find it most difficult to be helped?
It is often harder to receive help than it is to give it. I remember in the weeks after Jonathan was born, several members of the church tried to give us money to help with expenses. I always refused – we didn’t actually need the money but there was a bit of pride in there too. Until one day a lovely lady gave me £75 with the instruction to get a hotel room for the night so I could stay down in Bristol near Chantal rather than travel up and down each day. Up till that point I’d been rather stingy and felt it was a waste to spend money on hotels, but I was so exhausted I did – and it made such a difference. I’m so grateful to her, not for so much covering the costs but because her gift set me free to see that it was ok to be kind to ourselves, to spend money on a good night’s sleep. Receiving can be transformative.
Receiving help creates community and blessing for all. It overcomes prejudice and helps us to see one another as individuals. I remember the kind man who stopped his car to help when he saw me struggling to carry a SuperSer into Stanton Church on Christmas Eve – and he was a gypsy.
And above all, receiving help points us to the grace of God. Remember the very first question the lawyer asked: ‘What must I do to be saved?’ He wants to act, he wants to be in charge, to be the one helping and doing good. Instead he gets given a story about someone receiving help. The would-be benefactor is cast as the helpless recipient.
How closely this chimes with Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God. We must receive it as a gift, we enter it like children – as those who can only receive. God reaches out in love to the repentant sinner, he calls us to accept his forgiveness, invite his grace into our lives. We have to come to God as those in need, receiving from him, receiving from others, and then the love with which we have been blessed can overflow to those around.