Rehearing the Good Samaritan (with Stories)

The Good Samaritan is probably one of the best known parables of Jesus.

Here are some stories that, I hope, add to the question of how we show mercy to our neighbours.

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The parable of the Good Samaritan involves asking hard questions.

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There was once a village along a river.  The people there were good and kind, and life was good. 

One day, a villager noticed someone floating down the river.  He quickly dove into the river, swimming out to rescue the person from drowning.  He dragged the person onto the bank, saving a life.

The next day, the same villager noticed two people floating down the river.  He called for help.  Another villager came running.  Together, they saved both people from the river.  The next there, there were four people caught in the river, and the next day, eight!

The good and kind villagers organized themselves to save as many of the people as possible.  They built a watch tower, to better see people rushing by in the river.  They trained their strongest villagers to swim through the swift waters.  Soon, they had watchers and rescue teams all day and night.  And yet, each day more and more people came down the river.

The good and kind villagers rescued many people, but there were just too many coming down the river.  Not every person was saved, though the villagers felt they were doing good work to save as many as they could each day.  For many weeks, life continued this way. 

Until, finally, one villager asked the question:  Where are these people coming from anyway? Who’s chucking them into the river?

(Note – I did not create the above story, but can’t find an original author).

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I was at an ecumenical gathering of Christians recently, and an offering was taken up for the local food bank, soup kitchen and homeless shelter.  Which is a good thing.  Someone got up to say a prayer for the donation.  In it, we thanked God for belonging to a generous community, and we asked God to bless the work of these organizations, and we prayed that their work would prosper.

After the prayer, me, the cynical pastor, leaned over to my neighbour, and said:  None of these organizations want to prosper.  They all wish they didn’t exist.  Our prayer should be that God would close their doors because nobody needed them. 

But to do that, we have to swim up the river and ask all sorts of hard questions.  Questions about affordable housing, tax rates, social assistance, mental health supports, minimum wage increases, the chronic underfunding of education on First Nation reserves… Those questions are hard, though.  Really hard.  I mean, do we really want to start praying about affordable housing and tax rates?  I’d rather just put 20 bucks in the offering plate and pray that these good organizations prosper.

“When I feed the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” – Hélder Câmara

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The parable of the Good Samaritan involves questioning our agendas.

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There was a rural church in Irisvale, Zimbabwe, about an hour south of Bulawayo.  That church continues to change my life.  One of the times I visited, the church people were a upset.  There was another church down the road that had received food aid, bags and bags of mealie meal used for the corn porridge called isitshwala that they ate 3 times a day.  My friends were upset because the other church said that people would receive a bag of food only if they came to a church service.  They said that what the other church is doing isn’t right…

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When I was a pastor in Winnipeg, I took some of our youth on an Urban Plunge, where we explored the issues of poverty and homelessness in downtown and the North End.  We split our group into two, and one day half of us served at a faith based soup kitchen and the other half another faith based soup kitchen.  And then the next day we switched and compared our experiences.

The biggest difference my kids noticed?  One soup kitchen made the guests sit through a sermon before the meal.  Another made all religious activities optional, and served a meal regardless of one’s religious affiliation. 

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Hopefully, the above stories make us cringe.  They’re using the power of food as a tool of coercion, all in the name of Jesus.  That’s not good news.  That’s manipulation at its lowest level.

I’m grateful for the story of the Good Samaritan, for there we see one example of loving without an agenda.  He didn’t help the stranger based on church attendance or sitting through a sermon.  I know it’s more complicated than that at times, and that we’re allowed wanting the best for the people that we love, but as soon as our love is conditional on our agenda, I think we begin to miss out on what loving our neighbours really is.

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The parable of the Good Samaritan involves ensuring our prayer lists are also to-do lists.

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I lived in Zimbabwe for year 10 years ago.  At the time, the Zimbabwean economy was ranked among the worst in the world, so times were tough for most people there.  There was 80% unemployment, and inflation was in the millions of percents (actually).

One day, my friend came home from work and realized that, after her rent and transportation, she would have no money left over for food.  I sat with her, not quite knowing what to say. I looked her in the eye and asked “What are you going do?”  She looked back at me, smiled and said, “It’s going to be okay.  I’ll just eat sand.”  We laughed, and then I went to my room and cried. 

I’ll never forget her words… “I’ll just eat sand.”

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“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”  – James 2:14-17

For me, the challenge of prayer lists is not so much that I commit to praying for people or trusting God with those prayers, but rather knowing that my prayers are a reminder that God is trusting me with that very prayer list. 

“Prayer is not so much about convincing God to do what we want God to do as it is about convincing ourselves to do what God wants us to do.” – Shane Claiborne and Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove

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So, I think the parable of the Good Samaritan isn’t only about loving everyone. 

I think it involves asking hard questions. 

I think it involves leaving a lot of our agenda behind.

I think it involves treating our prayer lists also as to-do lists. 

As we rehear the parable of the Good Samaritan, may we remember that he was one who showed mercy.

May we go and do likewise.

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