The foolish Samaritan
Someone has just put this comment on my post "The Golden Calf":
Luke 10:30-37This is the story of the Good Samaritan, one of the best-known stories in the Bible. Usually it is used to promote helping others, but this commenter suggested that it justified saving - on the grounds that the Samaritan couldn't have helped the man if he hadn't had savings. This interpretation is not consistent with Jesus' teaching elsewhere, so I thought I would have a closer look at this story to see what I think Jesus is actually saying.
Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
It is always dangerous taking Bible stories out of their historical context, so here's a bit of background. I am no Bible scholar, and there are plenty of people out there who know much more about this than I do, but the historical context for all of Jesus' ministry is the occupation of Palestine (including Israel) by the Romans - hence Jesus' reference to Roman coinage (denarii). Military occupation always causes breakdown in local forms of law enforcement, and Palestine was no exception. By the time Jesus told this story, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was extremely dangerous: robberies were a daily occurrence and murder was common. Robbers set ambushes for people travelling the road. The man who was robbed, beaten and abandoned was ambushed - but his presence on the road was a clear indication to other travellers that robbers were around.
So the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side not because they didn't want to help the man, but because they feared being attacked themselves. They thought the robbers were still around. They may even have thought the whole thing was a trap, set up by robbers to entice the unwary into assisting the wounded man.
Jesus' listeners would have known this. They would have known that the Jericho road was dangerous and it was unwise to travel it alone and unarmed, or to carry much in the way of valuables with you. So the whole story is quite remarkable. All of the travellers are alone - which would have been unusual. And the Samaritan is carrying valuables - oil, wine and money. Travelling alone with valuables would have made him a target, and he would for that reason have been unwilling to stop. So it is even more surprising that he stopped to assist a wounded man.
The payment made to the innkeeper is clearly made from money the Samaritan brought with him for his own expenses. He doesn't have enough money with him to pay for the wounded man's care, so he pays the innkeeper all the money he has with him and sets up a credit line for any additional cost. Now why on earth would the innkeeper care for the wounded man simply on the basis of a small down-payment and a promise to pay up later? Most innkeepers would have expected the Samaritan to pay the whole cost up front. Perhaps the Samaritan was a regular visitor to that inn, so the innkeeper trusted him?
Anyway, the fact that the Samaritan actually didn't have enough money with him destroys the suggestion that he could only help the man because he had savings. It is often assumed that he was wealthy, but the story doesn't say this. What we know is that he was carrying oil and wine - perhaps to sell - and that he had a small amount of money with him, not enough to pay the whole cost of the man's care. And he promised to pay up on his return - which suggests he had to obtain the money. If he actually lived in Jericho, or had land or property there, he might have been able to sell some assets. But the fact that he intended to return suggests that he was only visiting Jericho, perhaps on business. In that case he would have had to obtain the money either by earning or by borrowing. Savings don't come into it.
So Jesus is not justifying saving. This story is, as Jesus indicates, about mercy. And there are two merciful people in this story, not one: the Samaritan, who risked his own life to save another, and the innkeeper, who took on the cost of caring for the injured man with no certainty of repayment.
The essence of this story is that in order to help others it is necessary to conquer fear for oneself. The priest and Levite were afraid to help the injured man, because they feared for their own lives: but the innkeeper and the Samaritan put aside their own fear in order to help another. At the heart of the selfishness that I criticise in my post The Golden Calf is fear - fear of scarcity, fear that no-one will help, fear that God will not provide, fear (above all) of death. That fear leads people to look after themselves at the expense of others, to hoard surplus goods and money instead of sharing it with others, to pass by on the other side instead of assisting an injured man. It is understandable, particularly when times are hard. But it is not what Jesus taught.
This is what Jesus taught:
Luke 12:13-21And Jesus sent out his followers with nothing (Mt 10: 5-15) : he told them not to worry about where food or clothing will come from, because God will provide (Mt 6: 25-34) : and in the Lord's Prayer (Mt 6: 9-13) he instructed his followers to pray for their DAILY bread - not their bread in forty years' time. Nowhere, that I can find, does Jesus promote saving goods or money to provide for oneself. What he promotes is giving without counting the cost and trusting in God's provision.
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Now, for people who aren't Christians, this looks very, very foolish indeed. And I totally understand if people reject Christianity because of this foolishness. Foolishness is at the heart of Jesus' teaching. The Samaritan is foolish, the priest and Levite are sensible - but it is the Samaritan's behaviour that Jesus commends. The man who saves up for his old age is, by most people's standards, sensible: but Jesus describes him as "fool". Saving your life by leaving others to die is contrary to Jesus' teaching: so is saving your surplus while others starve. Using Jesus' parables to justify saving yourself, either physically or materially, is simply unjustifiable.