the “good” samaritan

So, the other week, in worship, we considered the parable of the Good Samaritan. In our times of widespread biblical illiteracy, this is an exceptional Bible story that stands out in our culture—though, interestingly enough, Luke nowhere calls it a parable, nor does the word “good” show up anywhere in the story!

(As a lover of Scripture, I would point out that more people know Scripture than know they know Scripture. “The writing’s on the wall,” for example. Scripture. Daniel 5, if you’re interested.) But, as noted, the “parable” of the “good” Samaritan does stand out— one might even say pervasively—in our culture.

After the horror of hurricane Katrina, a civil engineering professor at L.S.U. who served as a consultant on the Louisiana state evacuation plan said that the city of New Orleans relied almost entirely on a “Good Samaritan scenario.” On the news and in newspapers, the person who renders unexpected aid, who extends a grace-full hand is named the Good Samaritan. There are Good Samaritan awards. It’s a popular name for nursing homes and hospitals. We even have Good Samaritan laws: 1/ at the national level, stating that someone voluntarily rendering aid in a crisis situation cannot be held liable for causing injury; and 2/ at some local levels: requiring people to help individuals in need.

Now let’s think about these. While New Orleans, post-Katrina, did, in some beautiful cases, exemplify this story, and while identifying the outstanding nature of the unexpected helper may, in deed, express the surprising truth of this story—while naming the award recognizing those extending grace to strangers does seem an apt application, I would hope that nursing homes and hospitals claiming the name “Good Samaritan” might be non-profit—focused on providing for those who might normally not receive care … or they should consider changing their name to the Helpful Innkeeper Hospital, Genial Hotelier Care (I kind of like “Hostel Care in a Hostile World!”)—reflecting the fact that it’s the innkeeper in the story who provided care and was paid for it … as opposed to the Samaritan who was not.

While these uses of the “Good Samaritan” name in our culture are—or can be—appropriately reflective of the biblical story, the so-called Good Samaritan laws are not in keeping with the story. Because the story is absolutely not about liability, on the one hand, nor legal requirements, on the other. The Samaritan stands, in fact, in stark contrast to the scribe whose question (“what must I do—what am I required to do—to inherit eternal life?”) prompts the story. And the story’s so not about the fear of—so not not about assessing the risks of or the benefits of doing or not doing.

The story of the Samaritan is the story of a Samaritan who knows it’s not about him.

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