The Parable of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus narrates in response to the lawyer’s query “Who is my neighbor?,” reminds us that all are our neighbors, worthy of our care. God’s law of love does not permit indifference to those we discover suffering on our path, but rather calls for an extravagant, loving response. The Samaritan not only helped the man heal physically, but spiritually as well, restoring his dignity as a human being created in God’s image.
In stark contrast, the priest’s and Levite’s actions clearly characterize them as indifferent to the suffering of others. According to Martin Luther King Jr., “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” The Samaritan did what was right, despite the burden the decision carried. In fact, the Samaritan risked his life to assist his wounded neighbor. King, who related helping the neighbor to assisting persecuted African Americans in their fight for not only basic civil and judicial rights, but also dignity and respect from others, thought of this parable and its application to present-day social justice when he wrote his well-known sermon “On Being a Good Neighbor.” King believed so strongly in the dignity of all that he vehemently opposed radical modes of protesting when his movement’s opponents moved toward reconciliation. He kept this goal in sight, dismissed the temptation to take revenge, and gained the increased respect of his adversaries as well as the occasional sharp criticism of his more acrimonious colleagues.
Two decades before King’s sermon, Dietrich Bonhoeffer meditated on the same parable. In his case, the “neighbors” in question were Jews. Given the scope of suffering under Adolf Hitler, Bonhoeffer considered how he should react to the wounded neighbors he encountered daily. He prepared himself to answer this question long before Hitler unleashed his grand plan on the continent of Europe. He strongly believed that faith finds expression in helping others even at great personal sacrifice; otherwise, the grace behind that faith could be considered “cheap.”
Bonhoeffer courageously chose to act like the Good Samaritan. He helped some Jews escape from Germany, joining a conspiracy group that attempted to assassinate Hitler. His bold efforts led to his imprisonment in Berlin for 18 months and his later move to Buchenwald concentration camp in February 1945. Just two months later, on April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate price for being a Samaritan; he was hung at the Flössenburg concentration camp, about two weeks before Hitler committed suicide.
Though King and Bonhoeffer chose to be Good Samaritans and died for their choices, believers today may not be faced with such dire circumstances. Yet we daily encounter wounded persons whom God may be calling us to help—an unemployed couple with depleted savings, the overwhelmed caretakers of an Alzheimer’s patient, or the homeless person we drive by on our daily commute. Whom shall we help and to what extent? God can and will show us. If we choose indifference, we risk spreading a contagion of indifference among others, as King experienced among southern segregationist Christians and Bonhoeffer witnessed among many German Lutherans. If we decide to follow the Good Samaritan’s example, to both care and do something for the one on our path, then we are certain to receive God’s grace to love extravagantly as He guides us. We find the strength and wisdom to act compassionately in ways that we never could have predicted before facing such a crisis or challenge. The Good Samaritan responded contrary to the world’s sense of safety with grace-motivated acts of compassion. We must do the same.
Why take such risks? Because Jesus resides in the victim: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matt. 25: 37–40) These strong words and this parable exemplify the Holy Spirit dwelling within believers, and how we can truly love God and our neighbors as ourselves. Human sinful nature strives against this, but God calls us to something higher. That is why we should be Good Samaritans, because doing so reflects the pure love of God toward sinful people. The parable illustrates beautifully how we were once poor and beaten, robbed and wounded by Satan, then blessed by Jesus’ compassion. Jesus loved us when we were rebellious enemies, and even gave His life for us. Now we, filled with His Holy Spirit and energized by His gift of salvation, must go and do likewise.
Carole J. Lambert, Ph.D., is a professor of English at Azusa Pacific University. This essay is part of a new book in progress titled Against Indifference: Christian Responses to Jewish Suffering during World War II. firstname.lastname@example.org
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works. Vol. 6. Ed. Clifford J. Green. Trans. Douglas W. Stott. New York: Augsburg Fortress, 2008.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. Strength to Love. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.
Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010.
Smith, Kenneth L., and Ira G. Zepp Jr. Search for the Beloved Community: The Thinking of Martin Luther King Jr. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1998.