Meeting the Good Samaritan

Last winter, an astonishing thing happened in New York City. A construction worker named Wesley Autrey was standing on a subway platform with his two young daughters, ages four and six, waiting on a train. Suddenly another man on the platform, apparently suffering from a seizure, stumbled and fell off the platform down onto the subway tracks. Just at that moment the headlights of a rapidly approaching train appeared in the subway tunnel. Acting quickly, and with no thought for himself, Wesley Autrey jumped down onto the tracks to rescue the stricken man by dragging him out of the way of the train. But he immediately realized that the train was coming too fast and there wasn't time to pull the man off the tracks. So Wesley pressed the man into the hollowed-out space between the rails and spread his own body over him to protect him as the train passed over the two of them. The train cleared Wesley by mere inches, coming close enough to leave grease marks on his knit cap. When the train came to a halt, Wesley called up to the frightened onlookers on the platform. "There are two little girls up there. Let them know their Daddy is OK."

Immediately, and for good reason, Wesley Autrey became a national hero. People were deeply moved by his selflessness, and they marveled at his bravery. What Wesley had done was a remarkable deed of concern for another person. He had no obvious reason to help this stranger. He didn't know the man. He had his young daughters to think about. What he did was at severe risk to his own life. But a human being was in desperate need, and Wesley saw it and, moved with compassion, did what he could to save him. "The Subway Superman"-that's what the press called him, the "Harlem Hero." But the headline in one newspaper described Wesley Autrey in biblical terms. It read, "Good Samaritan Saves Man on Subway Tracks."1

Wesley Autrey was indeed a Good Samaritan, and many of us, when we heard his story, wondered, "If I had been the one on the subway platform that day, what would I have done? Would I have been as courageous as Wesley? Would I have had what it takes to jump down on those tracks, with a train bearing down, to help that man? In other words, would I have been a 'Good Samaritan' that day?"

Many people believe that this is the exactly the question that Jesus wants us to ponder. That's why, they say, he told his original parable of the Good Samaritan in the first place. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of Jesus' most familiar stories, and the way we usually hear that parable is as Jesus' way of getting us to ask ourselves, "Am I willing, when the circumstances arise, to be a Good Samaritan to other people? If I see a person lying in a ditch somewhere or in trouble on the highway or on subway tracks in distress, would I risk myself to be of help? Am I a Good Samaritan?

But I wonder if that's what Jesus was really saying in that parable.

Let's take another look at it. You may remember how it happened that Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan. He was headed toward Jerusalem, and in a village along the way, he got involved in a rather testy conversation with a local attorney. The lawyer evidently did not like Jesus' message, and he was pressing Jesus, trying to make him look foolish, attempting to expose a weakness in his teaching. He was figuratively cross-examining Jesus on the witness stand: "In your view," the lawyer asked Jesus, "just what do I need to do to inherit eternal life?"

"You're the lawyer," said Jesus. "What does it say in the law?"

Well, the attorney knew the law, of course, the law of Moses, and he quoted it. "The law says, 'Love God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind and also love your neighbor as you love yourself.'"

"Well," said Jesus. "There you have it. You're right. Love God fully and love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will have life."

But the lawyer was not going to let this drop so easily. "Ahh, but wait just a second," he objected. "There's a problem with your definitions here. State your terms, Jesus. Just what do you mean by 'neighbor'? Be precise here. Who exactly is my neighbor?"

It was in response to that challenge that Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. It's not the story about the man on the subway tracks, of course, but it's like it. Jesus' parable is about a man traveling down to Jericho who is mugged by robbers and left bleeding and near death beside the road. So, like the man who fell onto the tracks, here is another man in serious, life-threatening trouble. A man in desperate need of help. Nothing unusual about this, really. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously dangerous, riddled with thieves, unsafe to travel alone, so the fact that a man was beaten and robbed...well that was a familiar story. Nothing shocking. But now, two genuinely shocking things do happen in Jesus' story. The first shock is that two people who could have helped, in fact who might have been expected to help, a priest and a Levite, both religious people, came up the road and saw the man in trouble, but did nothing, absolutely nothing. They intentionally avoided the man by crossing over to the other side of the road and continuing on their journey. This would be like saying that the pastor of New York's largest church and a New York City police officer saw the man in trouble on the subway tracks, but simply shrugged their shoulders, turned, and walked the other way. That would be a shock. But if the first shock in the story is that people whom we would expect to help did nothing, the second, and even bigger, shock is that the last person in the world we would count on for help is the one who in fact mercifully and bravely rescues the injured man.

Down the road, said Jesus, came a Samaritan. Now Jesus is, of course, Jewish, and the lawyer and the rest of those listening to this parable are also Jews. Even the characters in the parable are Jews-the priest, the Levite, almost surely the injured man, maybe even the robbers. But here comes a Samaritan, and Jews and Samaritans have a bitter history of racial and religious hatred. They have nothing to do with each other. Jews and Samaritans are enemies. In fact, not only would the injured man not expect any help out of one of these despicable Samaritans, he probably wouldn't want any help from a Samaritan. A Samaritan was viewed, well, like a member of Al Qaeda. Better to die in a pool of blood on the road than to be touched by a Samaritan. But it is this Samaritan, despised and rejected, who is nevertheless moved with compassion and who tenderly cares for the injured man. Even though they were enemies, he cared for him.

Having told that story, Jesus now says to the lawyer, "So, you now define the term 'neighbor.' Who proved to be the neighbor in this story?"

The lawyer cannot bring himself even to spit out the word "Samaritan." He simply mumbles, "The one who showed mercy."

"Go and do likewise," said Jesus.

Now, as I said before, some people think that what Jesus is saying in this story is, "OK everybody, I want you to go out and be just like that Good Samaritan. He cared for someone in need; I want you to imitate him. Go and do likewise." But there are two problems with this. The first problem is that if this were really Jesus' point, then he probably would have told the story differently. He would have made it into a simple moral example and left out all that troubling Samaritan business. What he would have said is there was a man in trouble, and three people passed by who could have helped. The first one didn't, and neither did the second, but the third one did, so be like the third one and not like the first two. But this isn't a simple moral story. It's a parable, and parables always have something shocking, surprising, unexpected, something to be wrestled with and puzzled over, and in this story, it is the fact that an unwanted, rejected Samaritan is the one who shows mercy to his enemy. That throws a monkey wrench into any simple explanation. There's something deeper going on here than merely, "OK folks, go out and be like that Good Samaritan."

The second problem is even more significant. If Jesus' point is that he wants us to imitate the courageous compassion of the Good Samaritan, the sad fact is we can't do it. That is why what Wesley Autrey did on that subway platform is so remarkable and almost incredible. Almost none of us would have done it. It is simply not in our nature to forget ourselves and risk everything for a stranger.

Some years ago a famous experiment was conducted with seminary students. Researchers gathered a group of ministry students in a classroom and told them that each of them had an assignment. Their assignment was to record a talk about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The thing was, the recordings were going to be done in a building on the other side of the campus, and because of a tight schedule, they needed to hurry to that building. Unbeknownst to the students, on the path to the other building the researchers had planted an actor to play the part of a man in distress, slumped in an alley, coughing and suffering. The students were going to make a presentation about the Good Samaritan. But what would happen, the researchers wondered, when they actually encountered a man in need? Would they be Good Samaritans? Well, no, as a matter of fact, they were not. Almost all of them rushed past the hurting man. One student even stepped over the man's body as he hurried to teach about the Parable of the Good Samaritan!2

We should not look down at these seminary students who couldn't put the Parable of the Good Samaritan into practice, because neither can we. Simply knowing in our minds what the right thing to do is does not mean we can do it. If we are going to be Good Samaritans, then this will mean more than a change of mind. It will take a change of heart. And that's what this parable is about: a change of heart.

Robert Wuthnow, a professor at Princeton University, once conducted some research about why some people are generous and compassionate, while others are not. He found out that for many compassionate people something had happened to them. Someone had acted with compassion toward them, and this experience had transformed their lives. For example, Wuthnow tells the story of Jack Casey, a rescue squad worker, who had little reason to be a Good Samaritan. Casey was raised in a tough home, the child of an alcoholic father. He once said, "All my father ever taught me is that I didn't want to grow up to be like him."

But something happened to Jack when he was a child that changed his life, changed his heart. He was having surgery one day, and he was frightened. He remembers the surgical nurse standing there and compassionately reassuring him. "Don't worry," she said to Jack. "I'll be here right beside you no matter what happens." And when Jack woke up again, she was true to her word and still there.

Years later, Jack Casey, now a paramedic, was sent to the scene of a highway accident. A man was pinned upside down in his pickup truck, and as Jack was trying to get him out of the wreckage, gasoline was dripping down on both of them. The rescuers were using power tools to cut the metal, so one spark could have caused everything to go up in flames. The driver was frightened, crying out how scared he was of dying. Jack remembered what had happened to him long ago on the operating table, how that nurse had spoken tenderly to him and stayed with him, and he said and did the same thing for the truck driver, "Look, don't worry," he said, "I'm right here with you, I'm not going anywhere." When I said that, Jack remembered later, I was reminded of how that nurse had said the same thing and she never left me. Days later, the rescued truck driver said to Jack, "You know, you were an idiot, the thing could have exploded and we'd both have been burned up!"

"I just couldn't leave you," Jack said.

Something had happened to Jack Casey that transformed him, made him into a Good Samaritan. Has anything like that ever happened to you? Yes it has. That is the point of Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan. What the lawyer discovered-and what we discover, too-is that we cannot stand on the sidelines and figure out how to be good, defining our terms-is this person my neighbor or not-figuring out just what we have to do to inherit eternal life. For all of our religious virtues and attitudes, we just cannot do it. We are helpless to be Good Samaritans on our own strength. In other words, we are the person in the ditch, the one who lies helpless and wounded beside the road, the one who needs to be rescued. And along comes a Good Samaritan, a Good Samaritan named Jesus -despised and rejected-who comes to save us, speaks tenderly to us, lifts us into his arms, and takes us to the place of healing. As Paul said, while we were still God's enemies, God saw us in the ditch and had compassion, and in Jesus came to save us.

So, the question is not the lawyer's, "What is the definition of 'neighbor'?" The question is who has been neighbor to you. Jesus Christ has been neighbor to you. The crucified one has been neighbor to you. Have you felt his mercy make your own heart merciful? Then in your heart you will know what this means: Go and do likewise.

Let us pray.

O God,
When we are honest about ourselves, we know that we do not choose in our own strength to do what is right. We talk a good game about right and wrong, but we do not have the wisdom or the power in ourselves to be righteous. We lie helpless on the side of the road, and even our best moral instincts pass us by on the other side. Come to us, O God, come to us again in Jesus Christ. Lift us out of our brokenness and take us to the place of healing. Prone to wander, Lord, we feel it, prone to leave the God we love; Here's my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above. Amen.

1 Newsday, January 2, 2007.
2 Darley, J. M., and Batson, C.D., "From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1973, 27, 100-108.