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Of all our Lord’s parables recorded in the Gospels, the story of the Good Samaritan is one of the best known, so much so that the expression ‘good Samaritan’ is part of our everyday speech.  The story epitomizes the compassion we are called upon to show to one another, and especially to those in distress.  But we do not live in those times and Jerusalem and Jericho are far away.  We often find it difficult to respond to those around us who are in distress, for situations overwhelm us.  Even so, we do see people show mercy.  I sat on the bus recently and watched the driver stop the bus to help a person who had stumbled on the sidewalk. Compassion remains among us.

If that is the lesson we receive from the parable then that is enough, but I suggest that the story shows us even more.  I see two other points to be made.

The question posed by the lawyer was “And who is my neighbour?” and the answer we take from the parable is “the one who fell among thieves”, but this is not quite what Jesus asked the lawyer.  He offered three possible answers - the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan, and did not include the person in distress.  The lawyer, reasonably enough, chose the Samaritan. From this perspective it is the Samaritan whom the lawyer is here recognizing as his neighbour rather than the person in distress.

But Jews had no dealings with Samaritans. The enmity arose, among other differences, from disputes about where God could be properly worshipped and about who could marry whom, disputes that now seem inconsequential to us, although we still watch our friends in the Church of England tear each other apart over these same questions.

There was, however, more to it than that, for the dispute was political in nature, going back as far as King Solomon and the division of the Kingdom following the death of his son Rehoboam. For the lawyer (and all Jews) the Samaritans represented the defunct Northern Kingdom while the Jews were the re-constituted and true Southern Kingdom.  In contemporary terms we talk of nation states rather than kingdoms. The parable, then, is challenging us to ask, as Canadians, ‘the Jews’, which other nation states do we treat as Samaritans? Several nations may be mentioned by way of answer, and I have no need to name them.

Can we, as a nation, treat some other nations as our neighbours while being less than neighbourly to those others? With which nations should our nation have close relationships, and which should we hold at arm’s length? Can we really treat the latter as our neighbours. I have no answer to that question but can only pose it for that is what the parable is asking of us.  

With that unsatisfactory comment I go on to suggest that the parable of the Good Samaritan has a second lesson for us, which lies in the statement “when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend”.  Here the Samaritan acknowledges that his first spontaneous response to the person in distress was not sufficient alone. He had to follow through and complete the process he had begun. For us, this is why we often find the situation overwhelming, for what can we do in the long-term? Fortunately, we have an answer.

I saw the answer implemented when I was young and living in Britain just after the Second World War. The newly-elected Government set about eliminating poverty, malnutrition, poor housing, and poor education, among other societal disgraces, by introducing state-operated services in those areas – social security, that is.  Preparations for these reforms were being prepared even while the war was being fought.

The changes found favour with most people, but not all. One leading cleric complained that the state was assuming responsibilities best left to the churches, it being the task of the prosperous to care for the poor and those in distress. He had a point in that the prosperous were exercising compassion, but so also were they sometimes patronizing the so-called deserving poor, as well as maintaining the system that left them poor in the first place. The state schemes made no such judgement. In any case, each of us, deserving or not, may sometimes fall into distress and discover that we all need help at times.  

In due course, during the 1980s, reactionary forces dismantled much that had been achieved, but the example remained and was followed my many other nations, including Canada.

I have, of course, made the situation sound much simpler than it really is. Government directed programs are not necessarily sufficient, and at the very least need modifying in the light of experience.  In this respect, churches and other not-for-profit agencies have much to do by way of identifying shortcomings and proposing, and even implementing, solutions to those shortcomings. Nevertheless, the general point remains: spontaneous generosity is not enough, and the Good Samaritan recognised that. It remains for us to do the same.

Stock photo ID:1388718552 Credit: Marian Vejcik