Most of us were raised on the principle of reciprocity: give and take. Indeed, it could be argued that in many respects it’s one of the basic principles on which our social order rests: if I do for you, then you are morally obligated to do for me, and vice versa. We’re also pretty clear on exactly with whom we’re willing to enter into this kind of unspoken social contract…..it’s usually friends, family, members of our own social class or faith tradition, etc. Perhaps it’s because when we know who we’re doing for, or who is doing for us, we’re clearer on possible motives or expectations. If we’re going to feel obligated to someone, we want it to be someone we feel comfortable being obligated to. We also like things to feel even and balanced, predictable and fair, because if they’re not – if somehow the giving and receiving gets out of whack, we can get edgy. Just ask any person whose room-mate habitually leaves the dirty dishes in the sink or never changes the toilet paper roll. We do tend to keep score.
The reciprocity principle was probably behind the question asked by the lawyer in the parable of the Samaritan. What must I do to inherit eternal life? In other words, what and how much to I have to do for God, so that God will feel obligated to do for me? He assumes, of course, that God works that way….an assumption around which Jesus then builds some helpful perspective in a story that is both astonishing and more than a bit scandalous to its original audience.
Most of us tend to hear the parable of the Samaritan as a lesson on the Christian principle of giving, or helping, without counting the cost, right? Because that’s how God loves us – unreservedly. That willingness to give or to help without expectation of reward or tallying of the scorecard makes us a good neighbour (or makes us Santa Claus, I’m not sure which). So when we put ourselves into the story, we tend to identify with the Samaritan, because he’s the super-hero, and we all want to be like him. And indeed, that’s a legitimate way to hear it, but the story, if we read it carefully, is equally about the victim, about the man left by the roadside – and so to do justice to the parable, we also have to experience it through his eyes – as a needy, powerless, and vulnerable person.
Now, we may never have been beaten up, robbed, and left for dead like the man in the story, but perhaps we do know what it feels like to be helpless or vulnerable or disempowered through illness or incapacity, alcohol or drug dependency, unemployment, defamation, discrimination, grief, or some other kind of profound personal distress. Facing the problem itself is bad enough, but then there’s also often an accompanying sense of humiliation or indignity, especially when the crisis requires our dependence on someone else to help us get up out the ditch into which we have proverbially fallen. And in those situations in life, when facing some kind of calamity, we can get quite choosy about who we invite into our world and into our confidence…who we will accept help from, without compromising our dignity and sense of independence and control.
In the parable, when the man in the ditch sees a priest and then a Levite coming toward him, we sense his relief…. they’re people presumably of his own race and culture, and he expects that they will be compassionate and caring….. but for reasons unknown they pass by, and then the helpless one is left to receive the attentions of a total stranger, and the wrong kind of total stranger at that… a Samaritan. Oh, bad luck! This is absolutely the LAST person on earth the man in the ditch would choose to depend upon for help…. he would expect the Samaritan to gloat over his misfortune, perhaps even do him more harm. But no, against all odds, the Samaritan not only cares for him, but provides for his recovery. The Samaritan stranger goes above and beyond…and isn’t this just the most wonderful feel-good moment for us when we imagine ourselves in the Samaritan’s shoes… all that care and generosity just oozing out of us. We like to assume this role because when we’re the helper, we retain power and control – and we get to pat ourselves on the back. But actually, the more challenging dimension to this story is that loving our neighbour also means having the humility to receive help when it comes from an unlikely place; that sometimes other people have wisdom that we don’t, or strength that we need; especially when we are the ones who have been beaten up and left by the roadside, powerless and alone.
I have some personal experience of this. In the parish I was serving before I retired I was in a small town with assorted ecumenical colleagues, one of whom was the pastor of a Baptist church just down the block. He and I used to disagree rather passionately on various points of theology, and to say that I tended to hold him and his views at arm’s length would be an understatement, and I daresay the feeling was mutual. However, when my husband fell ill with pancreatic cancer in 2008 and our family fell into the proverbial ditch, feeling beaten up and robbed of our future, it was this same Baptist colleague who called me up regularly simply to ask if he could pray with me. I can’t begin to describe to you what an incredible gift that was, and it taught me that when the compassion of Jesus is allowed to enter the equation, the differences we think are important suddenly become inconsequential. God can truly astonish us if we permit it.
Over my years in pastoral ministry various people have said to me that they’d rather die than accept help; that they would actually prefer to carry on suffering and be unhappy than to be open to someone they don’t like, or don’t approve of, or are suspicious of. This parable is the corrective for that attitude – it’s the great equalizer that breaks down our isolationist walls and challenges us to embrace our common humanity rather than our political, theological or personal differences.
“What must I do,” the lawyer asked Jesus, “to inherit eternal life?” He probably expected an answer that demanded something costly or clever from him. Instead, Jesus offered a story that is all about receiving, and receiving gracefully, even from someone that we think may have little or nothing to give. Perhaps this is what Christian reciprocity is really all about…. recognizing that there’s no heavenly scorecard, only unending opportunities to drink from the bottomless well of God’s grace.
Thanks be to God.
The Venerable Nancy Adams