Revisiting the Good Samaritan

There is nothing more enduring when talking about bystanders helping others than the parable of the "Good Samaritan."

Revisiting the Good Samaritan
Picture from the Amtrak Coast Starlight, 2016, of a road in Santa Barbara County California

There is nothing more enduring when talking about bystanders helping others than the parable of the "Good Samaritan." A well-known hallmark of Christianity, the exchange comes from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 10, verses 29-37. In modern times, we often cite "Good Samaritan" laws when speaking of protections for bystanders who engage in acts of rescue for those experiencing cardiac arrest, overdose, and some other emergencies.

Who Is My Neighbor?

This is the fundamental question pitched by a Mosaic law scholar to Jesus that prompts the telling of this parable; "And who is my neighbor?" It was a follow-up question the scholar asks in an effort to "justify" himself to Jesus after asking how to inherit eternal life. Jesus lets the scholar answer his own first question with a form of the Shema Yisrael adding to it the additional command to love the neighbor as yourself. Jesus confirms his response as the right answer, but to when presented with the scholar's follow-up he shares the now-famous parable of a man robbed and beaten on the side of a road from Jerusalem to Jericho, half-dead and in need of help.

What follows is the classic tale of two holy men, one a priest and one a Levite, passing by and consciously avoiding the injured man. I've heard religious treatments suggesting that their passing by was out of fear of being robbed themselves, concerns of being made unclean, or general hurriedness due to needing to keep moving on the 20-some mile journey.[1].

But a Samaritan traveler, a member of a sect that the Jews of the day reportedly resented, stops and is "moved with compassion at the sight" of the man. He stops, provides initial care and comfort, and then transports him to a local inn-spending his own money as a down payment towards the innkeeper with the instructions to care for him, with the promise of further reimbursement when he returns if those two silver coins were not enough.

After this story, the scholar recognizes that "The one who treated him with mercy" was the most neighborly person to the victim, and is commanded by Jesus to go and do likewise.

Do, Not Be

I love the analysis by the Dominican scholar Father Ceslaus Spicq, who points out that Jesus doesn’t tell us who the neighbor is, but rather what a neighbor does.[2]

To be a neighbor requires "doing" something. "Doing" something often requires some form of sacrifice. In the parable, the Samaritan sacrifices time, talent, and money to help someone in need. The motivation here was mercy and compassion, but other neighborly sacrifices occur too.

When examining the life in the mythical state of nature, enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes supposed in his book Leviathan that life there was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".[3] To leave that state of nature, that is to enter into a society, meant forming a social contract that traded absolute freedom found in nature in favor of the security a community affords. In yet another example, this time from the secular world, we become neighbors in society based on a sacrifice we make.

That doesn't mean we always live up to our neighborly vocation, and indeed critics of Hobbes will point out the near impossibility of a state of nature at all. But philosophically, it is critical to the notion of being neighborly. We are only neighbors if we are actively participating in society.

A Modern Twist

I already wrote a brief exploration on Civic Engagement that touched on this, but the most troubling things I find relate to our own societal disengagement. We're lonely.[4] We're out of touch with our neighbors, not as active in civic groups, and more likely to identify with others only the basis of political affiliation.[5].

What would a modern twist on the parable look like? Jesus may present the parable to describe someone whose car breaks down on the side of a long stretch of empty highway. Maybe the broken vehicle was flying a large a campaign flag, or covered in bumper stickers with political slogans. A politician representing that stranded driver may pass by, but has to be at a meeting and keeps going. Another person with similar stickers drives by, but worries it's a trap and keeps going themselves. But someone of a totally different political view stops, tries to fix the broke down vehicles' engine, hails a towtruck, and pays for the tow + puts down a deposit for repairs, with the promise to pay for the rest on their way back.

The very notion of that seems absurd to us today, but it's the same level of mercy that Jesus suggests makes someone a good neighbor. This compassion from the Samaritan is a result of increased relatedness to the injured victim, which improves bystander motivation in the midst of an emergency situation.

To inspire the next generation of Good Samaritans, it's important for us to work to foster that spirit of relatedness when training them on things like CPR. Like the Mosaic law scholar being able to recite what the law says about inheriting eternal life, CPR training often includes a brief mention of the various Good Samaritan provisions in a legal context. Imagine if we spent 5 more minutes on the philosophical context as well, explaining some of the depth to the parable, and encouraging sacrifice in an emergency not only for your neighbors' sake, but for your own safety as well. How many more potential rescuers could we "move with compassion?"

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