By some misfortune or act of his own doing, a man ended up homeless and lay sprawed on the sidewalk. Then one night, a young scholar was walking home, saw the man where he was, and went about his way.
Then he remembered The Parable of the Good Samaritan, told in the Gospel of Luke. Did the young scholar have to help the homeless man? And was he justified in not doing so?
He was not. One of the striking things about this parable is that the Samaritan in the Gospel does not think about whether he has to help the badly beaten man road. Perhaps he did, but the Gospel writer(s) felt no need to make us privy to the Samaritan’s thoughts. The point of the parable is that we should help our neighbor – the paradigm for which is a complete stranger – without any question and hesitation, and that we should go the whole nine yards in doing so.
The Samaritan tended his wounds, loaded him on to his donkey, checked him in at an inn, and paid the innkeeper with a promise of reimbursement for additional expenses when he returns. Throughout the story, we do not hear the Samaritan complain how he has been deterred from his business, that he has other things to do, that he has to take care of himself first before he can take care of others. Even if he does, he still goes about his business of caring for the man.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan presents a relentless demand on all of us: care for strangers without question and hesitation. And it is an injunction that the young scholar fails to comply with. Indeed, far too often, like the young scholar, we dilute the radical, uncompromising demands of the Gospels, and our understanding of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a typical example of such dilution.
Whenever we see a homeless man in the street or a beggar in search of food or money, not only do we not offer our help but also justify why should not: these people are handled by syndicates, we are too busy, and that we have other things to do, that the money we give only goes out to the syndicates, that it’s the beggar’s fault why he has suffered his fate, and that this Parable does not have to be taken literally. The list of reasons – or excuses – goes on.
The question of the literal or metaphoric nature of the parable’s command, if not the tale itself, is immaterial. How else can we interpret the command to go and do likewise but literally?
And neither is this parable about salvation. This isn’t really about faith versus good works. It’s more a matter of complying with what what we are asked do, than an issue of what we feel or think about our salvation and about Biblical interpretation. Helping complete strangers – and putting out all the stops in doing so – is an act that we are explicitly told to do regardless whether salvation is by faith alone or not.