No Excuses

A Personal Illustration

Returning from a long trip several years ago I was driving a highway at night and eager to be home. In front of me I noticed a vehicle whose driver was having trouble staying in the right lane on a two lane highway. Suddenly, the vehicle ahead of me veered to the left and struck head-on a car in the on-coming lane. The car that had crossed over to the left lane spun around and went into the ditch on the opposite side of the road. Now stopped in the middle of the highway and front end smashed, the vehicle struck by the wayward driver was motionless. In fact, both were motionless and I feared the worse.

I pulled over to the shoulder of the highway, stopped my car, got out and began to go to the aid of whoever was injured. However, the traffic on this highway continued to move fast and I was in fear of becoming one of the casualties. I could not safely cross the highway. Fortunately, someone in the on-coming lane stopped and went to the aid of the drivers of the vehicles. Additionally, another motorist, who had a flashlight to warn people of the danger helped others from smashing into the accident scene.

I stayed on until the police came and was able to describe what had happened. Nevertheless, I felt helpless. First, I was not prepared to give any assistance. Second, fear kept from acting. Therefore I had excuses for my inaction: fear and lack of equipment to provide adequate aid. Further, I even doubted my own testimony—did I actually see what I remembered? People have their reasons for not coming to the help of those in need. Some excuses are valid, I suppose. Like my excuses I can justify them. Those who came to the aid of the injured in the accident can be thought of as “Good Samaritans.” It is a term based on a scriptural story[1] of excuses and action.

The Good Samaritan Story

Good Samaritan

Church of Saint-Eutrope in Clermont-Ferrand, stained glasses (Puy-de-Dôme, France). Priest and Levite are seen in background passing avoiding the robbed and injured man on the Jericho Road.


Jesus tells a story or parable in answer to a lawyer’s question about earning eternal life and learns that the law has the answer: love God and love Neighbor. The lawyer, not fully satisfied with that answer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds by telling a story with four characters, one of which is a good neighbor.

The first character in the story mentioned is the victim of assault and robbery is lying near death on the side of the Jericho Road. He never speaks. He is not identified but the reader can presume the victim is a Jew.

The second and third characters introduced are obviously Jews: a priest of the temple in Jerusalem and a Levite, a tribe of Israel charged with specific religious duties.

Finally, the fourth character is a Samaritan is on the Jericho Road. He is only identified as a Samaritan, nothing else. A Samaritan to Jesus’ listeners is a despised and “unclean” class of people to the Jews.

Now the Excuses

The priest and the Levite avoid the injured man and pass by without giving assistance. Surely religious people would give assistance to an injured man. Religious people are “supposed” to be kind and helpful, aren’t they?

Well, no. Not in instances such as this.

The priest and Levite had religious duties to perform or they had just come down from Jerusalem where they had performed those duties. Their focus was on the law, the words of the Torah. Touching blood, for example, would have defiled them. Having been at the temple they were in a purified condition—as the law established. To come to the aid of wounded man was not possible. More than that, even to be close to impure blood was defilement.

Thus, summing up the characters in Jesus’ parable, there are two men avoiding the problem, a fellow Jew on the side of the road in need of aid, and a Samaritan who represented the worst kind of association a good Jew of first century Israel should avoid.

The Jews and the Samaritans

Samaritans and the Jews shared the same ethnicity. They even shared a common story of the Exodus and Babylonian Captivity. The difference between them laid in the number of sacred texts that made up the law and where God was to be worshiped. Recall, in the sixth century B.C., the Jews had been taken into what is known at the Babylonian Captivity. They were forced to live on the banks of the Euphrates River for seventy years. When released from their enslavement, they returned to Israel. Most, by this time, were in favor of establishing Israel as a kingdom in the style of the Persians and Babylonians. A minority wanted to return to a tribal life as it had been before the captivity. In their desire to establish viable kingdom, Jews placed God on Mount Zion at Jerusalem and Samaritans tied to the tribal heritage of Israel claimed that God is worshiped Mount Gerizim in the north of Israel.

In the second century B.C. Israel was invaded by the Greeks led by of Alexander the Great. The Jews revolted against the Greeks in the Maccabean Revolt and established a kingdom that lasted well into the first century A.D. The Samaritans adapted to the Greek invaders. Under the influence of Greek culture the Samaritans adhered to the law less rigidly. Further, they had not accepted the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, as part of the Sacred Scriptures. Some Samaritans even adopted the polytheism of the Greeks. To the Jews of the south the Samaritans of the north are, at least, weak in their devotion to the God of Israel, and, at worse, heretics

Thus, discord between the two became hatred and disdain. The level of discord between them may be similar to the Protestant and Roman Catholic troubles in Ireland and the bloody fights between Sunnis and Shi’ites among Muslims.

A Summary of the Law

No one  hearing Jesus tell this story would expect a Samaritan to go the aid of a Jew and vice versa.

Therefore, the question is, “Does religious obligations or ethnicity excuse a lack of neighborliness?

Apparently, Jesus sees no excuses While the religious practices and codes observed by the priest and the Levite are legitimate, they are not a good reason to avoid meeting the need of a neighbor. A man is lying injured on the side of the road near death and in desperate need of assistance.

In Jesus’ view, the law was given to teach two major principles: Love God and love one’s neighbor. The idea that Jesus had coined a new ideology when he said that all the law and prophets is founded on those two commandments is mistaken. He was actually pointing to the Torah where the Hebrew people are specifically instructed to love God and neighbor—to show mercy, care for the needy, and to be hospitable to the alien. Thus, to use the purification rules as a purpose of avoiding giving aid to a wounded man, in fact, violates the Torah.

Which of These Three?

However, a rush to judgment condemning the priest and the Levite works against the story’s moral. Remember, the story is about mercy not about bias or religious prejudice. The priest and the Levite had legitimate reasons for not stopping and helping.

It did not matter to the Samaritan; no matter what he did he was likely to feel the discrimination and angst that his presence brought to the scene. Nevertheless, the Samaritan chose to overcome the barriers and to show mercy.

When He Comes Back

Jesus ends the parable by having the Samaritan take the injured man to an Inn, pay for his stay and care, and then says, say, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”

Some have suggested that Jesus is making a reference to his return—the Second Coming. That is, when Jesus comes back he will care for those who cared for the needy, he will repay the merciful, and all the differences will be taken care of. I think this is a misunderstanding. Making Jesus into the Samaritan rejects of the facts—Jesus was a rabbi, a devout Jew. It is the Samaritan who promises to come back.

The Samaritan is promising to go the extra mile by stating that when he comes back down that road, he will make up the cost difference.

The reward, compensation for expenses in the relief of the needy, is not the point of Jesus’ parable.

The One who Showed Mercy

The question is who is the one who showed mercy? The lawyer could not say the word Samaritan, but he did get it. The one who showed mercy was the good neighbor.

Show mercy—adherence to the law is not enough.

Additionally, the implication at the end of the story is that mercy requires more than stopping to ask, “Are you okay.” Good neighborliness requires going the extra mile.

If we experience or offer mercy, we feel those words associated with mercy. Mercy conveys concepts such as, compassion, forgiveness, sympathy, humanity, understanding, benevolence, grace, and blessing. These are not abstractions. When we are in need of what those words mean, the true presence of love, of care, of an unconditional service to others are real and help humanity move forward.

As the words associated with mercy are expressed to in action, and as the Samaritan acted, there are no excuses. Even those among us who have no faith know that just being a law abiding citizen is not enough. Those people who left the safety of their cars to come to the aid of the injured that night I witnessed the head-on collision may not have stepped into a church for years—if ever. Nevertheless, they were quick to show mercy to be good neighbors.

When the Good of God expressed in acts of mercy the Samaritan has returned.

[1]   Luke 10:25-37.

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