The Parable of The Good Samaritan is one of the first Bible stories we learn as children. The message is simple, Jesus commands to us to both love our neighbor and to have compassion for him as well. To maintain this parable at this level, does it an injustice. The story is filled with innuendo and insult the modern ear often misses.
In a world that was rigidly defined by birth right and ritual, the parable of the Good Samaritan offers a counter-cultural understanding of compassion and ritual cleanliness. While you and I are horrified at the actions of the priest and the Levite, ancient Jews would not have been. Ritual purity was a key part of Jewish life, priests and members of the Temple class had to maintain a certain standard of purity if they were to function at Temple rites. The man on the side of the road was assumed dead, justifying their passing him by because the act of simply touching a corpse would defile them. Besides, even if he weren’t already dead, the road to Jericho was extremely dangerous, for all the priest and the Levite knew, this could have been a trap and they could become victims themselves.
The fact Jesus uses a Samaritan as the hero of the story is also significant. Samaritans were perceived as the enemy of the Jewish world. If a good Jew saw a Samaritan walking up the street, he or she would cross the other side to avoid the individual. The Samaritans were half-bred Jews who maintained an impure Jewish life. The animosity between Jews and Samaritans is demonstrated in the Gospels when Jesus requests a drink of water from the Samaritan Woman at the well. She is astonished that a respected Rabbi would accept a drink from a Samaritan, let alone a woman as lowly as she was.
So when Jesus answers the lawyers question, “Who is my neighbor?” The Lawyer is embarrassed. Jesus had shattered his well defined world by telling him, everyone is your neighbor, even your enemy.
As we reflect on the parable of the Good Samaritan, I am reminded of two former parishioners from St. Luke’s, Tom and Pat Bassett. I met Tom and Pat in 2003 just after I started in Camillus. Tom quickly took pity on me having to start my tenure at St. Luke’s so soon after General Convention had approved Gene Robinson to be consecrated as Bishop of New Hampshire. Tom did not feel Bishop Robinson’s consecration was good for the church. Tom held a traditional, almost rigid understanding of right and wrong. As most have probably guessed, Tom and I tended to disagree on most issues which faced the church this last decade. He took a more conservative view and I the more progressive. But somehow, despite our differences, Tom stuck with me and St. Luke’s until the day of his death.
It was a few years before I understood why Tom stuck with St. Luke’s and me as his rector. After all,it would have been easy for him to leave. His wife, Pat, a formidable force of conservative christianity left the church years earlier to join an Assembly of God congregation where they “preached a more accurate depiction of the Bible and used much better music in worship.” Members of my parish also told me when Pat taught grammar school she was not only feared by her students but by her younger colleagues as well.
My chance to get to know Tom and Pat as a couple came about three years into my tenure. Pat was diagnosed with terminal cancer, so I would stop in to visit she and Tom to lend my support.
During these visits, I did everything to skirt the hot topics of the day, despite Pat’s vetting. Once passed the vetting, Pat and Tom began to share their stories.
Like most members of the great generation, Tom and Pat felt strongly about serving their community. They were charter members of the local ambulance association where they both volunteered as EMT’s and ambulance drivers. When Hospice came to Central New York, they both trained and became volunteers.
All of this happened in the mid-eighties, right as the Aids epidemic became full-blown. As a country we lived in fear of the disease, we did not fully understand how it was transmitted, patients were often isolated from regular hospital units and funeral directors often refused to prepare the bodies of its victims for burial, fearing they could catch the disease. As Pat told the story, in time, an Aids patient, living in Central New York, was in need of Hospice care. Tom and Pat volunteered, they visited the home of the patient, brought him meals and took home his laundry.
Pat shared their story with great affection and no judgement. So I asked her, knowing the context and knowing how she and Tom felt about IV drug use and homosexuality, why they chose to help this individual. With out missing a beat, Pat responded, “none of those things mattered at the time, all we saw was a person who needed our help, and that’s what we were called to do. I figured God would protect us. As to the other issues, those were for God to handle, not us.”
As long as I live, Tom and Pat Basset will always serve as my object lesson in understanding the depth of the Good Samaritan.
How easy it is for us to objectify and dehumanize large swaths of people. Perhaps the senseless murders this past week would not have occurred if the officers had perceived Alton and Castille as friend and not foe, as neighbor and not part of the throng to be managed. Perhaps if the shooters in Dallas had thought of the officers as fathers, sons, and spouses and not just part of a mass of perceived terror, they would never have thought to take up arms against them. As Tom and Pat taught me, one can accept another person as our neighbor only after we have put our judgement aside and accept that a person is a person no matter the label.
Dr. Seuss in his book “Hortan hear a Who.” Tells the story of an elephant who is able to hear the small voices of Whoville contained in a speck of dust. Their survival is dependent on Hortan protecting the speck of dust from oblivion. So, the loyal elephant, despite being harassed by the other animals of the forest, dutifully protects the speck of dust in rain and snow, heat and cold. When questioned as to why he is willing to make this great sacrifice his answer is always the same, “a person is a person no matter how small.” This is the message of the Good Samaritan, the message lived by Tom and Pat and the message our world and our nation needs to continue learning, “a neighbor is a neighbor, no matter who.”