The Parable of the Reckless Samaritan
Who is my Neighbor?
Mercy and generosity are terribly difficult for me. It turns out, I’m not alone. I remember back to my college days when a good friend of mine, Scotty, who was a member of the freshman Bible study I led came up to me after a meeting flustered and upset. We had talked earlier that night about giving to the poor.
“Phill, I’m good with my finances and I’m just not comfortable giving money to people. I mean, I’ll give to the church, but it really bothers me when people ask for money, you know, like on the side of the road.” Scotty went on to explain that he didn’t trust their motives, and (rightfully) suspected most of them were just trying to scam him.
I think a lot of us can relate to Scotty. Truthfully, even though I was trying to pastor his heart in that moment, I felt a big part of my own heart resonate with his frustration. I’m a naturally skeptical person, and the idea that I’d get scammed or suckered bothers me to no end. That’s honestly why stories like the Good Samaritan bother me so much. We know we’re called to care for the poor and vulnerable; that’s really not the issue most of us struggle with. Our problem is usually more personal – we don’t want people to take advantage of us. We mistrust the legitimacy of people’s need, and it serves as a convenient excuse to keep our eyes down as we move about our world.
At the end of the day, we still want something in return from even these “selfless” interactions – we want assurance that our money or our time is being put to our definition of “good use.” We want the satisfaction of knowing that we actually helped someone in need and that we weren’t suckers for giving that homeless man a dollar or driving that woman to the grocery store.
The problem is… that’s not at all the way Jesus teaches about generosity and mercy.
This past week, we heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan at church and something kept bothering me. The story was just too simple. Here’s a quick recap:
Jesus tells a story to answer a religious scholar who wants him to define who a “neighbor” is so that he can know how to understand God’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The story opens with a Jewish man being mugged and beaten to the edge of his life. A priest and a Levite (both religious and community leaders) seeing the man, decide to pass him by. Then, in a twist, a Samaritan, a man from a community repugnant to the Jews, decides to care for the man at great cost to himself, above and beyond simple decency. The story ends with Jesus turning the tables on the scholar asking which of the three was a more neighborly man. “The one who showed mercy,” says the scholar. “You go and do likewise,” Jesus replies.
Everytime I read the parable, I feel like the better title would be “The Reckless Samaritan.” Everytime I try and figure out a reason why the Samaritan’s grace and kindness doesn’t apply to me, I realize that I’m just playing the part of the lawyer asking for a loophole in the “who is my neighbor” moment. Furthermore, Jesus doesn’t give enough details for us to dig into boundaries, parameters, and exceptions. Did the Samaritan know for sure the man was someone who actually needed help? How did he know it wasn’t just a set up for an ambush? What if the Jewish man decided to spend a few more days in the inn and take advantage of the Samaritan’s tab? Did the Jewish man come from a good family? Was the Jewish man actually a Samaritan sympathizer? What about the priest and Levite? Did they have a good reason for being in a hurry? Jesus doesn’t seem to care about any of this. Have we ever considered that the reason Jesus doesn’t address exceptions is because he knows that we’ll immediately start excusing ourselves if he did?
At the end of the day, here’s the real truth: we want to hold out the hand of mercy with one hand while gripping the sword of vengeance with the other. We hate the idea of anyone stealing from us, not for the loss of treasure, but the indecency and insult such a crime inflicts on our pride. The parable of the Reckless Samaritan offends our sense of justice. It’s designed that way. It challenges us to remember who is supposed to wield that sword, and reminds us what we are actually called to do. Be a neighbor.
Vengeance belongs to the Lord. We are free now to simply be merciful.
Go and Do the Same
What does this mean for us? Does that mean we ought to be doormats? Should we allow people to rob us blind? Maybe. Our issue, remember, isn’t the activity, but the heart. Let me propose a way to navigate opportunities to show mercy:
- Pray for the Holy Spirit to give you discernment. Take the sword of vengeance out of your hand and give it back to God. Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you people’s needs and move your heart to compassion for them.
- Trust the Holy Spirit’s conviction. What good is it to have the God of the universe dwelling in your heart, speaking to you and guiding you if you don’t listen? When you feel the ache of God’s compassion on a person, trust him. Remember, justice and vengeance belong to God – you don’t need to worry about anyone taking advantage of you. God will deal with them if they try. You are simply called to trust and obey.
- Give generously and embrace suffering. Think about the reality of what is really at stake in most instances. No one out there is asking you to give up your home or your life savings. Usually it’s money to help pay rent or a ride to the grocery store. If you’re reading this, you have so much to offer; ask yourself how you, like the Samaritan, can be generous above and beyond their need. And when you suffer, remember that suffering while doing good is something God does not forget:
Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing…even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. (I Peter 3:9-14)
Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. (Luke 6:28-29)
Scotty and I talked through his struggles, we read the parable of the reckless samaritan together and he agreed to pray for an open heart to walk in obedience to Jesus’ challenge. The next morning as our group was gathering at the Rec Center to play basketball, Scotty ran up to me with a huge smile on his face.
“Phill, I met a guy at the gas station after we talked. I felt like God was leading me to help him so I did. I didn’t hesitate. It was amazing.”
I was so proud of my brother in that moment, he felt the Holy Spirit’s lead and simply obeyed. He was a good neighbor and loved someone sacrificially. Maybe that guy really needed the money. Maybe it was a scam. Honestly, that was, in that moment, an unimportant detail. For Scotty, all that mattered was he experienced his Father’s heart of compassion and trusted that God never wastes a thing.
Scotty’s heavenly Father was celebrating his son’s compassion and mercy.
Go and do likewise.