The Good Samaritan: Knowing our Strengths and Weaknesses for Care

This past week, I had the great honor of leading an alternative spring break trip of ten undergraduate students to Philadelphia, with an emphasis on interfaith encounters and social justice. We focused primarily on issues of homelessness and hunger, and were able to meet and work alongside several excellent service organizations, including Project HOME, MANNA, and the SHARE Food Program. We also worked with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia to visit different religious communities around the city to both share in a worship experience and discuss how social justice and one’s particular religious tradition inform and inspire one another. It was a truly amazing week, and we were only able to scratch the surface of these incredibly important issues.

On our second day in Philadelphia, we were engaged in a workshop on assessing the needs of the homeless population, and several students were sharing texts and stories from their own religious tradition that inspired us to care for others. It quickly became apparent that nearly every religious tradition represented in the group has a tradition or teaching related to caring for others, whether they are defined as the outcast, the weak, the vulnerable, or the alien.

The most commonly raised story was that of The Good Samaritan, a parable of Jesus found in Luke 10:25-37. This short story tells of a man who is beaten and robbed and left on the side of the road. A priest and a Levite both walk by without offering him any assistance, despite being the religious leaders of the Jewish community (and Jesus’ audience), and therefore folks from whom one might expect support or assistance. The only one who stops to help the man is a Samaritan, a member of a closely related religious and ethnic group generally despised by the Jewish community at the time. Jesus tells this story in answer to the question, who is my neighbor that I am commanded to love as myself? The answer, at least the answer that most people get out of it, is that your neighbor is the man who needs your help; anyone and everyone is your neighbor. More strikingly, the message is that in this example the despised Samaritan is following the teachings of God where the religious leaders are failing. In the case of loving one’s neighbor, purity and ritual are less important than showing compassion for others.

Most students in the room had heard this parable before, even those from non-Christian backgrounds. Being familiar with the story, we immediately recognized the parable as being a summons to care for anyone in need: to take the time to offer assistance to another, even when you may put yourself at some risk or it will take some additional effort. It was only in hearing the story in the context of our week working with service organizations and hearing the stories of individuals experiencing homelessness and hunger that I heard another lesson to the story, one that is perfectly pertinent to our week of work and discussion.

This time around, what stood out to me was that the Samaritan – let’s call him Sam for short – continued on his journey after bringing the injured man to an inn. Sam stopped and bandaged the man’s wounds, but then carried him on his donkey to the closest place where the man could receive extended, thoughtful care. He did not attempt to take care of the man by himself, nor did he throw away his own journey in order to take on this unexpected task. The best thing that Sam could do was to give the injured man back his dignity, and to connect the man to existing resources and services. Through this lens, Sam models for each us how to balance caring for others and caring for ourselves.

Over the course of our week together, issues of balance and ethics came up repeatedly. There is so much that needs to be done to bring about justice and equality – are these drops in the bucket worthwhile? How can we make the most sustainable impact? How far is far enough? Is it unethical for me to only buy someone lunch when I could afford to do more? I am not suggesting that we have answered these questions, but I think Sam gives us a place to start.

I don’t expect my college students with limited resources to completely sacrifice their own well-being and needs for the sake of others, nor do I think that such sacrifice would be a sustainable model of care. Giving up some of your time, attention, and resources, and then leading people to resources of sustainable care – this is a balance we can emulate. What we heard over and over again during our week together was that the most important thing we can do for people experiencing homelessness, hunger, and other forms of desperate need is to treat them like human beings, worthy of respect and possessing inherent dignity. If you don’t have money or food to spare, you can still speak with people rather than walking by without giving them a second glance. Asking their name, asking for their story, and connecting them to local resources in the area are simple ways to hugely impact someone else.

Growing up as the daughter of a Baptist minister, I have heard the story of Sam dozens of times, and I thought I understood its message. Only now do I see it for more than a story about caring for someone else – it’s also about knowing the limits of what you can offer someone, and finding ways to get them the help they really need. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, with different capabilities and resources. We can all treat others with dignity, and we can all do the best with what we have, wherever we find ourselves.

Take the time to locate resources in your area for people experiencing homelessness, hunger, and other forms of need.

This painting, Parable of the Good Samaritan was done by Jan Wijnants in 1670 and is available through Wikimedia Commons.

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3 thoughts on “The Good Samaritan: Knowing our Strengths and Weaknesses for Care

  1. Thank you for this insightful, nuanced, and compassionate piece. You clearly are deeply invested in the conversation/struggle of the ethics of self-giving and social response-ability. I appreciate your careful examination and interpretation of the story of the Good Samaritan; we often use this text to emphasize our calling to respond to needs immediately, or to see the humanity, dignity, and image of God in one another despite the prejudices and stereotypes that society constructs. But here you elevate a silent (silenced?) aspect of the story: the continuation of the Samaritan’s journey, signalling that this figure is called elsewhere and is not required to pour himself out indefinitely in this one capacity.

    I think there is another point that we can make about the application of this story to an ethics of care and response. We might need to be careful about reading this as a story about how we ought to respond to social issues, generally and broadly conceived. To compare the example of the Good Samaritan with, say, our responses to homelessness may be helpful on some points and up to a point, but may be lacking attention to important differences between the issue to which the Samaritan was responding and the issue of lengthier battles, like that of homelessness and poverty. The Samaritan helped a man who was physically abused by people we assume are strangers. Yes, there are deeper social issues at play here: violence, prejudice, lack of response, hypocrisy. But ultimately, the appropriate response to the injured man was to aid in his physical recovery, which the Samaritan man did. I’m not certain what else could have been required of him. On the other hand, a person whose entire situation in life is debilitating – citing the example of homelessness you give in your article – would certainly require a different response, in which case, I’m not sure the example of the Good Samaritan is as apt as I would like it to be. I am interested in your thoughts on an ethics of balance between response-ability, self-care, and self-giving in light of systemic and deep-seeded justice issues that require solidarity over the long term. I would also like to hear your insights regarding the agency of the injured man in this biblical text and how that relates to the agency of those whom you encountered as homeless or oppressed during the alternative spring break.

    Keep up the excellent work!

  2. Haley, you raise a very important difference in the needs of the injured man of the Good Samaritan story and that of long-term, sustained and systemic issues such as homelessness and poverty. Issues such as these require a sustained (and sustainable) response, including immediate assistance, advocacy for long-term changes in the social systems that lead to or allow for extreme poverty and homelessness, and some form of middle ground that falls in between buying someone lunch and major reform.

    While I do not think that the Samaritan is necessarily a great model for how to offer this sustained form of compassion, I do think he continues to work as a model for where to begin. Too often I have heard people recognize major concerns and issues only to end with something like, “but it’s a whole system, so what can I do?” or “that’s just a drop in the bucket, it won’t make real change”. This is also connected to the ongoing debate between caregivers as to whether it is more effective for people to give money and food to people living on the street in front of them or to make contributions to care centers, shelters, and other resources for long-term and far-reaching care and advocacy. Personally I think the answer is both, to a degree.

    To me, this reading of the Good Samaritan exemplifies the idea of doing what you can, where you are, with what you have. It’s a way to look at social justice as something that can be an active part of your life without rerouting where you were headed. There are injured men on the side of every road we’re going to take, and we can stop to help them, connect them to care, and continue on our way. It’s a place to start, at least.

  3. Thanks for such an insightful piece, Esther! This is a tension that I’ve felt in other parts of Christian scripture as well…there’s the classic question of what, exactly, is meant by “Sell all you have and give the proceeds to the poor.” For me, it’s always a difficult balance to strike– are Christians called to a life of simplicity? Who decides what that looks like? Is it selfish and sinful to buy a TV, or a car, or a yacht, rather than putting that money toward helping others? No answers here, unfortunately, but lots of questions!

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