I heard the story of the Good Samaritan for the first time when I was a child, back in ‘Kindergottesdienst’ or Sunday school. Right away I loved this story: it has drama, action, and a happy ending. And it had an easy message: the Samaritan is a good guy because he helps the poor beaten man in the road. And Jesus wants us to be like that Samaritan. Which, in my opinion, is a perfectly good and important message.
It’s a message about Christian love, it’s a message about compassion for the neighbor in need. It’s a message that even – or maybe especially – children can understand. There is a reason why the story of the Good Samaritan can be found in every children’s Bible and is a favorite subject in Sunday. Love your neighbor. Have compassion. Help someone in need. It’s that simple.
How could anyone disagree with that message?
Now as I grew up, I figured out that things are not always simple, but very complex and complicated. For example, I learned that acts of charity, like giving money to certain causes, is very important, but that, in the long run, the systems that keep people in poverty and dependence need to be changed. That charity can only be a stepping stone one the way to justice. It’s along the lines of ‘Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will eat a lifetime’. But it’s so much easier to give money than to actually advocate for change and justice, and so that’s what most people prefer to do.
I also learned that sometimes, people are being punished for showing compassion for their neighbor and for helping them. History is chock-full of stories of people who acted according to their faith and helped those oppressed or persecuted – be it African-American slaves in this country, or the Jews in Nazi Germany – and who were prosecuted and sometimes even executed for their acts of love.
I learned that, sometimes, God’s law, Christ’s law, to love our neighbor clashes with the laws imposed by worldly powers – and that not all agree on how to best help our neighbors.
Case in point: there are two stories that recently made the news.
The one story is about Carola Rackete, a German sea captain who commandeered the ‘Sea Watch 3’, a ship owned by a Dutch non-governmental organization, short NGO, whose mission it is to save the lives of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean.
The ‘Sea Watch 3’ was one of the last ships patrolling the Mediterranean. Since more and more countries in Europe have shut their borders and/or elected politicians who are anti-immigration, the situation for refugees – and those who help them – has become dire. There has been a clamp down against NGOs saving the lives of refugees in the Mediterranean. Faced with prosecution – or the threat thereof – there are practically no private ships patrolling the sea between Africa and Europe anymore. The European Union just announced this past spring that ‘Operation Sophia’, the EU’s program to save lives in the Mediterranean, would be cancelled.
Since 2014, when the civil war in Syria became violent and forced many people to flee, more than 2 million refugees reached Europe, most by sea. In that same period, more than 18,000 refugees (!) lost their lives or went missing (data from the website of UNHCR, the Refugee Agency of the United Nations). Since the second half of 2018, after NGOs were threatened with legal consequences, the number of casualties rose dramatically: according to the UNHCR, 1 in 18 of the refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean has not survived. That’s more than 5%.
On June 12th, the Sea Watch 3 picked up 53 refugees off the coast of Libya, among them children and pregnant women. Captain Rackete refused to take those rescued to the nearest port, which would have been Tripoli in Libya, a port considered unsafe by humanitarian organizations.
Instead, the ‘Sea Watch 3’ headed for Lampedusa in Italy, the nearest safe harbor according to maritime law. As the ‘Sea Watch 3’ approached Lampedusa, Italy closed its harbors to rescue ships carrying refugees on June 14th. The ship wasn’t allowed to dock, but 10 passengers were allowed to disembark – children, women, and the sick.
The Italian minister of the Interior stipulated that he wouldn’t allow the ship to dock until other European countries agreed to take on the remaining refugees. On June 28th, several European countries offered to do so. One day later, one June 29th, Captain Rackete docked the Sea Watch 3 in Lampedusa – albeit without permission. Her motivation was the exhaustion of the people on the ship, who had been on board for more than two weeks. Rackete was arrested on the spot. Several European governments and organizations intervened on her behalf. She was released on July 2nd after a court ruling that she had broken no laws and acted to protect her passengers’ safety.
Many have hailed her as a Good Samaritan of our day who has compassion toward others. Others have condemned her as a criminal. But what do you do, in a complicated and complex situation like that? Look the other way as you know that there are people dying in the sea?
Another story happened thousands of miles away from the Mediterranean, in the desert of Arizona.
Arizona has always been a crossing point for migrants from Latin America. Here, like in the Mediterranean, people die every year as they make the dangerous trek to escape violence, civil war and poverty – in the Arizona desert alone, more than 3,000 people have died since the year 2000. For 15 years, volunteers have put out provisions like water jugs and food in this treacherous stretch – and for many years, they did so without any intervention. However, in 2017, a brutally hot year, several volunteers of the group ‘No more deaths’ were arrested on federal misdemeanor charges for placing water on federally controlled lands – basically for trespassing.
In 2018, one of the volunteers, Scott Warren, was arrested for providing a pair of migrants with water, food and temporary shelter. He faced several federal charges, one of them ‘conspiracy to shield migrants from law enforcement’, a crime that could mean 20 years in prison.
The jury in this case was hung. On June 11th, a mistrial was declared. However, the judge in this case refused to drop all charges against Warren and announced on July 2nd that he would be retried in November on two felony harboring charges.
Warren’s lawyer in his closing statement called Warren a Good Samaritan who simply wanted to give humanitarian aid. And many in this country and around the world – and half a jury – agree. Others condemn him and his fellow activists as collaborators of criminals. But what do you do, in a complicated and complex situation like this? Just look the other way as you know that there are people dying in the desert?
Jesus’ deceptively easy story about the Good Samaritan is much more complex and complicated than it seems. Yes, it is about compassion. However, Jesus also talks very clearly about what keeps us from loving our neighbor the way we should.
Let’s just look at the setup of this story. A lawyer, a man who studied the Torah, the Jewish laws, asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus counters with a question: what do you read in the laws? And the lawyer knows the answer: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.
And Jesus says, great, you got it, just do it, and you shall live.
But the lawyer isn’t satisfied. To be fair, it is the tradition of Jewish lawyers and rabbis to have disputes about the interpretation of the Torah, the Holy Scriptures – it’s their culture to argue, so to speak. And so he challenges Jesus: how do you interpret neighbor? Who is my neighbor? It surely can’t be just anyone, can it?
And Jesus throws back the challenge by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. It is quite a scandalous story, since Samaritans, though they have the same roots as the Jewish people and even observe the Mosaic laws, have been enemies of the Jews for centuries. If Jesus told this story today, the hero of the story might be a Palestinian helping a Jewish settler.
The story is even more upsetting because there are two people who pass by the man who lies bleeding and helpless – and possibly dead – on the side of the road – a priest and a Levite. Now, what’s interesting is that, since the victim is stripped, they can’t tell if he is friend or foe. And apparently that’s not important for the story, or important to Jesus. He just says it’s ‘a man’ traveling the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The victim could have been a Jew, a Samaritan, a Roman or of an entirely different nationality. He could have been gay or straight, young or old, a good guy or a crook. It doesn’t matter. What matters is his need in his bare humanity.
The Levite and the priest look away. It has been pointed out by scholars that there might be good reasons for them to do that – there are Jewish laws that prohibit someone from touching blood and touching the dead – touching an injured or dead person makes someone ritually unclean. And the priest and the Levite would have known about these laws and interpreted them to the effect of, ‘can’t touch this.’
And a disclaimer here: Jewish laws don’t have to be interpreted that way. I already mentioned that there are different interpretations of the law. In the Torah – the Book of Deuteronomy, to be more exact, we find the law of love that tops any other law. The two men could have acted differently. But they choose to follow the rules as they understand them.
Either that, or they really don’t care about that man in the road, or they are bothered by this unwelcome disturbance. Or they panic and don’t know how to help. Or they are afraid that it is a trap. Or they think, why me, let someone else help this guy, there are others on this well-traveled road, after all.
In any case, I think we all can relate to those two who pass by. I think we all have encountered those feelings before when we saw someone in need: but how can I help? It is quite inconvenient for me to help, I have to take care of my own business. I don’t really care about that person, the homeless, the migrant, the stranger, after all, didn’t they get themselves into that situation? Do I maybe get in trouble by helping? Is this person really in need of help, or am I being played? Surely there must be someone else who can help? The government? Non-profits?
From my own experience, I can say that it is so much easier to look away and pass by on the other side. To think that this person who needs help doesn’t fall into the ‘neighbor’ category. To ignore that there are people dying in oceans and deserts and war zones and the streets of San Francisco. Adult life is complex and complicated, after all.
But this is where Jesus challenges the lawyer in the story and you and me today. He talks about the Samaritan who sees the injured man in the road and could have come up with the same reasons – or excuses – as the priest and the Levite. But we hear that he is ‘moved with pity’ as he sees a human being in need. And the English translation here doesn’t quite capture the sensation – and by the way, the German ‘es jammerte ihn’ neither. The original Greek here is much more intense: the Samaritan’s guts are wrenched as he sees the injured man on the side of the road. It turns him inside out, maybe it makes him throw up. We only know that the Samaritan, the scandalous outsider, the enemy, literally follows his guts – and by that fulfills God’s law of love which trumps all other laws and rules.
Go and do likewise, says Jesus. Go and do likewise. Then you shall live.
This is tough. This is tough love. Love is not just some romantic feeling or some beautiful but unrealistic ideal. Think of Christ’s love for us and all creation: his guts are wrenched, looking at us, our need for help and mercy and redemption, to the point that he dies on a cross. If Christ’s life and death show us anything, it is that love is hard. Love is passionate. Love is active. Love overcomes anything. Even death. So that we shall live.
God give us the strength to pass on this gut-wrenching love we so over abundantly receive every day to all our neighbors – human beings in need. No excuses. Amen
Picture by Toa Heftiba on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German