Who is my neighbour? What does it mean to be neighbour to one another?
Jesus once answered this by telling us the parable of the Good Samaritan. In essence, as he told it, the parable runs something like this: A man was taking a walk one day when he was beaten up by thieves and left for dead in a ditch by a road. A priest saw him there, but passed him by. Later still, a scribe also passed by without stopping to help him. Finally, a Samaritan, the kind of person you would have least expected to respond, saw him, was moved by compassion, and stopped and helped him.
One of the interesting things in this parable is that those who did not stop to help him, the priest and the scribe, did so for reasons that go far beyond the question of their individual selfishness and selflessness. They did so for certain ideological, religious reasons. Thus, the priest did not stop because he feared that the man was dead and, being a priest, if he touched a dead body he would be ritually defiled and thereby unable to offer sacrifice in the temple. The scribe had his own religious reasons for not stopping. The Samaritan, who had the least to lose religiously, was able to be moved by simple human compassion.
Given this background, the parable might, in our own language and categories, be recast to read like this:
One day a man was taking a walk in a city park when he was mugged, beaten up, and left for dead by a gang of thugs.
It so happened that, as he lay there, the provincial superior of a major religious order walked by and saw him. He realized instantly that the man was in a desperate way and he felt that he should respond. However, he thought to himself: “If I help this man, I will set a dangerous precedent. Then what will I do? Having helped him, where will I draw the line? Will I have to stop and help everyone who is in need? Will I then have to give money to every panhandler, every beggar, every charity? If I give to this one, then on what basis am I justified in refusing any charity? Where will it stop? This would be dangerous precedent. I simply cannot help everyone I see in need and, thus, it is best not to help this one. This is ultimately a question of fairness.” And thus he passed him by.
A short time later, a young woman, a theology student, happened to come along. She too saw the man lying wounded. Her first instinct was to stop and help him, but a number of thoughts made her hesitate. She said to herself: “In that course on pastoral care we just took, we were taught that it is not good to try to rescue someone. We must resist the temptation, however sincere and religiously motivated, to naively wade in and try to be someone’s rescuer. That’s simply a savior complex which doesn’t do the other person any good in the long run and comes out of a less than pure motivation besides. I would only be trying to help that person because it makes me feel good and useful. It would be a selfish act really; ultimately only this man can help himself.” She too, this person preparing for ministry, despite much good intention, passed by the wounded person.
Later still, a third person chanced to come along, the chairperson for the local diocesan commission on social justice. He too saw the wounded man and he too was, instinctually, moved. However, before he was able to reach out and touch the wounded man, a number of hard questions surfaced: “This man really is not the issue. The more important question is how he got here. What things within the larger picture – our social and economic system – produce the conditions that make for this type of violence and hurt. To help this man is simply a Band-Aid, solving nothing. It does not address the deeper issue of justice and why our society perpetually creates this kind of victim. To help this individual is simply to do the Mother Theresa thing, but it doesn’t solve anything really. It’s the old temptation really – it’s easier to give bread to a hungry person than it is to address the issue of hunger!” This man too, for all his dedication and sincerity, like the religious superior and the theology student before him, passed by the wounded man without stopping.
Finally, it so happened that the CEO of Texaco Oil happened to be out joy riding in the new BMW he had just purchased. He chanced to see the wounded man lying there and he stopped to have a closer look. When he saw the face of that wounded person, something in him suddenly changed. A compassion he didn’t even know he possessed took possession of him. Tears filled his eyes and, deeply moved, he got out of his car, bent over, and gently picked up the man. He carried him to his car and gently laid him in the back seat, oblivious of the fact that blood was staining the clean white upholstery. Arriving at the emergency entrance of the nearest hospital, he rushed in and hollered for the paramedics. After a stretcher had brought the man into the emergency room, they discovered that he had no medical insurance. The CEO produced a Visa Gold Card and told the hospital staff to give the wounded man the best medical attention possible money was to be no object. He promised to cover all hospital expenses.
Who was neighbour to the wounded man?