Be a Good Samaritan, not a passerby

By Francis Gonsalves

‘Good Samaritan’ is a term that has come to stay. It originates in one of Jesus’s parables that shocked people in his day. Pope Francis has popularised the parable in his encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti’, meaning, ‘all brothers/ sisters’, subtitled: ‘on fraternity and social friendship’.

Many are familiar with the Good Samaritan parable of a wayfarer waylaid, beaten and robbed by bandits. Left half dead beside the highway, he’s ignored by passersby and finally helped by a Samaritan-stranger. Simple as the story sounds at surface level, its meaning is radical if one delves deeper into Jesus’s choice of places, characters and events.

Jesus narrates the parable as response to a lawyer’s query: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” When tutored about the dos and don’ts of his relationship with God and neighbour, the lawyer is pleased and proud that he has followed all religious regulations. However, seeking to appear more meritorious, he asks again: “And who is my neighbour?”

‘Neighbour’ in Jesus’s time simply meant one’s co-religionists, kith and kin, who formed a ritually pure and religiously righteous closed circle. It certainly didn’t include ‘others’ of different culture and religion. Thus, a Samaritan would not only be labelled impure by religious affiliation, but also uncouth by upbringing and unworthy of any social contact. Yet, he’s the hero of Jesus’s story since he cares for the wounded wayfarer as he would his own brother.

The scene of the crime is the downhill, meandering road from Jerusalem to Jericho, called the ‘way of blood’ since many robberies and murders took place there. Jerusalem is the ‘holy city’: housing the Temple, God’s dwelling place. Interestingly, the passersby are a priest and a Levite who, says Jesus, “saw the half-dead man, and passed by on the other side”.

It seems insensitive, even inhuman, for a priest and Levite – steeped as they were with the nitty-gritty of the cult and adherence to religious laws – to pretend to see nothing and pass by unaffected. Did religion help them to be better persons or did religion prevent them from doing good and being ‘neighbour’ to someone in need?

Most religions have teachings, ritual practices and ethical codes as their time-tested treasures. First, the religious tenets of the priest and Levite stipulated that contact with blood or a corpse would render them ‘impure’. Second, the ritual activity associated with ‘Jerusalem’ was judged holier and godlier than healing an unknown wounded man. Third, by defining ‘neighbour’ in exclusivist terms and by cultivating holier-than-thou attitudes, the priest and Levite turn out to be villains.

The caring Samaritan not only carries the wounded man to a hospice for help and healing but promises to return and repay every expense to restore him to full strength. Thus, Jesus tells the self-righteous lawyer and his hearers: “Go and do likewise!”

In ‘Fratelli Tutti’, Pope Francis writes: “The parable is clear and straightforward, yet it also evokes the interior struggle that each of us experiences as we gradually come to know ourselves through our relationships with our brothers and sisters. Sooner or later, we will all encounter a person who is suffering. Today, there are more and more of them. The decision to include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project. Each day, we have to decide whether to be Good Samaritans or indifferent bystanders.” Or passersby.

Last week, Pope Francis went on a pilgrimage to Iraq to meet the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husayni Al-Sistani, the leader of Iraq’s Shiites. While world leaders dialogue and build bridges, worldwide, can’t you and I sincerely strive to be Good Samaritans, not passersby, as life swiftly passes by?



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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