The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25 – 37)
In the church of my childhood, the Good Samaritan window is on one’s left going down the centre aisle, midway between entrance and altar. Once we junior choristers reached it, the priest said, we were halfway to our destination. On our life journey, too, getting as far as the Good Samaritan would put us halfway to our goal. We would have accomplished a key element in Christ’s summary of the law from the Torah, namely the instruction to “Love you neighbour as yourself” from Leviticus.
In the tableau, a young man lies dying, arms and head limp as rags, and a cloth white as his lifeless body draped over waist and thighs. Propped up by the Samaritan, the ashen youth starkly contrasts with the vividness of his rescuer’s garb and of the lush scenery. Everything around him sparkles like jewels. Amid all the radiance, only he was opaque to the light, showing him as more lifeless then even his draped covering.
One Sunday that cloth is our lesson. Urged to survey our church for other examples of white, flowing fabric, we children shout, ‘on baby Jesus’. ‘on Christ crucified’ and ‘on angels’. Asked, ‘Where else in this window do you see white?’ we peer puzzled. Finally, we detect some white above the mountain peaks. ‘The pearly gates!’ we cry.
Artistry has fashioned shards of glass into a sermon in rainbow and light, eloquent in allegory and accurate in detail. The Jericho-Jerusalem road, seventeen miles long, plunges from coastal mountains to sub-sea level right valley. An important commercial route, it was home to robbers relieving rich and poor alike of money, goods or clothes. Even apparent victims might be bait luring the gullible into ambush, though this one was not. The Samaritan has used his headpiece for ministering oil and wine: wine to disinfect cuts and olive oil to sooth bruises. But is it not inspiring that, in addition to heightening the victim’s pallor, this impoverished dressing evokes Bethlehem, Calvary and eternity? Who could be unmoved?
We children studied this window a lot.
We heard that we might be regarded as lowly on earth, like the Samaritan. Yet if, like the Good Samaritan, we risked loving involvement where apathy, fear and isolation seemed safer, we could be cherished in heaven as he was. Regardless of our class, racial or personal history, we could please God by seeing in the darkest soul of stranger or enemy the wounded likeness of God’s son and the potential of angel hosts. For every person ever born was formed in the image of God and made for eternity, but all alike fall short of the glory for which they were created.
Responding in faith would entail danger and great cost. But the earthly price would render us heroes in heaven. Everyone from Saint Francis to a toddler sharing a cookie, even ourselves, was not just doing a good thing but performing a sacramental act.
Today the Good Samaritan is a haunting image. Experts on popular culture say it has so ingrained itself on the western psyche — secular and religious — that stopping by the side of the road is, literally or figuratively, is one of the core values of our society. From the U.S. Good Samaritan law, Good Sam bikers, pink ribbon campaigns, and the Out of the Cold program to the Salvation Army, Live Aid and Amnesty International, we embrace the suffering. We so emulate the Good Samaritan that a new term has been coined to describe the result. Compassion fatigue depicts a collapse of caring after too much well-intentioned but unsustainable compulsive do-gooderism.
Christ’s truth is always more practical and more profoundly challenging than the half-truths inadvertently substituted for it. His Good Samaritan parable does not propose martyr-like solitary struggle against needs that are impossible to meet. Nor does it suggest that the charitable works on which Christians sometimes burn out are a sufficient response to dire need.
The story concludes with a Christ-painted picture of the Samaritan, not on the road-side but knocking at the door of an inn with the victim in his arms. Christ;’s Samaritan recognised that he did not have the resources to bring the victim back to wholeness. He recognised his first aid as only the first step in restoring health and vigour. So he took his charge to the community to continue the process, pleading on his behalf and asserting his willingness to pay the cost himself for the destitute man in his care. This is a parable of both charity and justice.
In an era when some governments have succumbed to compassion fatigue or worse, it is instructive for citizens of faith to note that the pubic justice element of the Samaritan tale is not an add-on. Rather, it is a core imperative if the message Christ taught while on earth.
This article originally appeared in “Groundings” in The Catalyst Volume 26, Number 5 [September-October 2003 issue] with the heading “Good Samaritan more than meets the eye.” It is credited as follows:
Linda Peterson is CPJ’s former business/office coordinator and a Master of Theological Studies student at Wycliffe College, Toronto.
The Catalyst is the journal of Citizens for Public Justice also known as CPJ. http://cpj.ca/catalyst
I do not have a photo of the window in the church of my childhood.
The copyright on this image of a window in All Saints Church, village of Narborough, UK is owned by Evelyn Simak and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.
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