These past two weeks I have been writing about the parable of the Good Samaritan as it appears in Luke’s Gospel. As a refresher: when asked by a lawyer, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ response to this question is to tell this parable about a man who is beset by robbers, who strip him, beat him, and leave him for dead by the side of the road. Both a priest and a Levite, both well-respected members of Jewish society, see him (the story tells us) and pass by without helping. Then a Samaritan man, marginalized and despised in society because of his ethno-religious identity, passes by, is moved to pity, and helps the man.
Why is it that the priest and the Levite do not stop to help this man, when they are the ones we might expect to be in a position to help? Why is it that the Samaritan is the one to show compassion?
While the text tells us that the priest and the Levite see the man who has been hurt, I think it is a safe bet that they do not really see this man. Let me explain. The priest and the Levite were upstanding members of society who followed the religious rules and gained respect. Likely they had food to eat each day and a roof under which to sleep at night. As they walked along the road, their eyes may have registered a human figure in the man who had been harmed. But they likely did not expect, and thus were not been able to see, that this man was in distress. For we often see only according to our own expectations. We often see only that which we are used to seeing.
The light turns red, so I stop my car. At the corner of my vision, I see a human figure holding a sign. I fiddle with the radio dial, check for a text that is not there, anything to pass the time so that I do not have to look this homeless man in the eyes. The light turns green, and I move on. Having always had a warm place to sleep, I do not know what homelessness is like. This makes it all too easy for me to drive by without really seeing the homeless person as a person. And when I do not see him as a person, then his troubles ask nothing of me.
It is also possible that the priest and the Levite did not wantto see the distress of the man by the side of the road. To see his wounds would involve acknowledging the frailty of their own bodies. To minister to him would remind them that they, too, someday, would find their bodies failing them and need to be cared for themselves. Since life was good for them at the time, it was easy to forget about their mortality. They may have even resented the man by the side of the road for bringing a vision of their own death to their minds, even if just for the briefest of seconds.
I walk down the hallway to my grandmother’s room. This means passing elderly people in wheelchairs, none of whom seem to have clothes that fit them properly, many of whom are staring out into space or talking to absent conversation partners. I cross my hands in front of me, almost as if in prayer, because the elderly always seem to want to pat your arm or grab your hand, and I really do not want to be touched. Arriving at my grandmother’s room, I am relieved to find that she is asleep. I do not want to wake her, I tell myself as an excuse for not sticking around, and quickly jot a note that I hope someone will read to her later. In it I promise to visit again next week, but deep down I know it will be at least a few weeks before I work up the courage to come back to visit her.
It was the Samaritan who was moved to pity by the man at the side of the road. The Samaritan himself had suffered in a society that expected nothing good to come from Samaria. Maybe he endured taunts or having objects thrown at him. Maybe he was used to being seen personally and professionally as less than everyone else. Having been wounded himself, he was able to recognize and not turn away from the wounds of this man who needed his help. He was able to demonstrate compassion.
In what ways are you like the priest and the Levite? In what situations do you not see?
In what ways are you like the Samaritan? What hurts have you endured that may enable you to be compassionate toward others?