Friday, January 12, 2007

The Parable of the Overwhelmed Samaritan

Have you ever read this parable … sandwiched somewhere in Luke between chapters ten and eleven? …

A priest happened to be going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he saw a man lying on the road, who had fallen into the hands of robbers. The robbers had stripped the man of his clothes, beat him and went way, leaving him half dead. The priest saw the man, but passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.

He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, and started down the road to find an inn to care for him. But the Samaritan saw that the road was blocked by another man who had also fallen into the hands of robbers. He looked up and cried for pity from the Samaritan, but he did not have room for him on his donkey.

The Samaritan passed by the man, apologizing profusely, but everywhere on the road were people who had been robbed and beaten, or were sick and in misery, or were hungry and thirsty. The Samaritan reached into his pocket but found only two silver coins, just enough to care for the first man he had rescued.

He passed by victim after victim, apologizing profusely until he reached the inn. He gave the coins to the innkeeper and said, “Look after him for me, please,” he said. “I doubt I’ll be coming through here anytime soon.”

Yeah, I like the old version much better, too, the one we call, “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” I have given, and heard, my share of sermons on that story. It’s succinct, powerful, and very moving. It can inspire people to do good deeds, and make churches think seriously about mission and ministry.

This newer version, unfortunately, is much closer to reality. I used to be challenged by the story of the Samaritan who stopped what he was doing and took time to mend a broken man. He probably felt really good about his actions. But what would he have done if the road had been littered with victims? How would he have coped with the enormous need and the scope of the problem?

Upon arriving in Cameroon, I liked to think that the Samaritan was a kind of role-model, someone to emulate. I was happy to look for people who needed help, who could use a hand or a donkey-ride to the nearest inn.

But, alas, it ain’t that simple! Because right next to the guy who’s beaten up is a woman whose baby is sick and doesn’t know where to take him. And just across the road is a refugee from Chad, who hasn’t eaten in three days. And right over there is a family which can only afford to send one of their eight children to school. As you look down the road, there’s a line of unemployed young men and women … Then there’s a group of Methodist pastors who struggle to get by on the meager stipend they get from month to month.

And that’s just Cameroon! You don’t have to go very many kilometers before you’ve reached Darfur, Nigeria, Congo, and other places of extreme violence and suffering.

Relief workers and missionaries often speak of “compassion fatigue,” and perhaps I’ve got it! Yet I remember something Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, once said in a speech. He said that part of the church’s responsibility was certainly to rescue people who were drowning, but also to go upstream and try to stop that which was throwing them in the water!

That’s the hard part, by the way. I suppose it’s easier to stand downstream and fish people one by one into the boat, reminding yourself that every person counts. (It also makes better photo ops.)

But the suffering simply continues, because upstream, something is drastically wrong. Call it what you will – sin, racism, poverty, corruption, colonialism. And it won’t be solved easily, with slogans or formulas, or even lots of money.

The kind of thing that is happening in sub-Saharan Africa today simply won’t be corrected with an infusion of mosquito nets, though I certainly don’t want to discourage the giving of nets! (Rather, let me give a ringing endorsement of the fantastic new UMC/NBA campaign, Nothing But Nets!) These are essential tools, but they are stopgap measures, designed to keep people alive while the ordering of the society is improved, infrastructure can be built, and leaders of integrity and faith raised up.

Here’s a better way to end, “The Parable of the Overwhelmed Samaritan”:

He passed by victim after victim, apologizing profusely until he reached the inn. He gave the coins to the innkeeper and said, “Look after him for me, please,” he said. “I’ll be back.”

Then the Samaritan went to the local council and asked, “How can we make this road between Jericho and Jerusalem safer? And what about some clean water along the way? And don’t you think it’d be a good idea to have an emergency first-aid team stationed at various places along the way? And …”