I must confess I have a “love/hate” relationship with the parable of the Good Samaritan. This parable is unique to the Gospel of Luke and falls in the section called the “traveling narrative” which takes Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem where he will be crucified. I took a class on the parables in seminary and I love the simplicity of the story and the surprise element of the outsider being the one who is commended for his appropriate and merciful response. What I hate about this story is how we tend to warp and twist it into an unrealistic image of what appropriate care for the neighbor is. The “Good Samaritan” becomes a guilt trip for many who feel they just haven’t done enough to render aid to someone in trouble. But look again at the story and see what it says, and what it doesn't say.
A certain unnamed man went down to Jericho from Jerusalem. This man is attacked and robbed – he was mugged and left to die. A priest of the temple and a Levite, one who assists in the temple, come upon this unfortunate victim, but pass him by. They are on the way to Jerusalem, most likely to work in the temple offering sacrifice. Then we hear a Samaritan (an outsider, a despised one) comes upon the man and is moved with compassion. In the Greek, it literally says “moved in his bowels” or “moved in his gut.” The Greek speaking peoples believed that thinking was done in the heart, and emotions and feelings were in the gut. Personally, I think they have this right. I don’t know about you, but when I’m upset or stressed out, it goes straight to my gut! So the Samaritan was moved in his guts with compassion. He then binds up the man’s wounds and uses oil and wine to clean them. Ironically, oil and wine are also offered in the temple as part of the sacrificial ritual – the priest and the Levite would handle the same substances when they arrived in Jerusalem. Yet the Samaritan uses the oil and wine as a compassionate offering of care for a wounded man. The Samaritan then takes the man to an inn, a safe place, and stays the night with him. The next morning, the Samaritan leaves and agrees with the innkeeper to settle up the remaining bill when he returned.
So did the Samaritan do anything extraordinary? Anything outside the bounds of what a reasonable person could do? Not really. He saw an injured person, had compassion on him, rendered the aid he could (not above and beyond his ability), and then he moved on. Was he mildly inconvenienced? Perhaps. He might not have planned on an extra night in an inn. He obviously had the ability to pay for the man’s care, and did so as a generous gesture. But what he did was not super-human in any way. In fact, it was incredibly human because he recognized the humanity of the other in the wounded man.
This past week, I have made several pastoral calls – both in person and on the phone. I’ve noticed that some of the members of the congregation are really suffering from “compassion fatigue.” We have some amazingly compassionate people, but some of them have been pulled into situations that are literally sucking the life out of them. Many times, “compassion fatigue” is the result of treating a condition as if it were a problem, and there's a difference between them. A problem has one or more possible solutions which, when applied to the problem, make the problem go away. Problems have an ending. If I get an ear infection, that’s a problem. With the proper application of antibiotics, the problem goes away. Savvy?
Conditions, on the other hand, do not have an ending. They are just what “is.” As my grandmother used to say, “What cannot be cured, must be endured.” Conditions can be things like addiction, poverty, chronic illness, or mental illness. Conditions can look like problems. In fact, people with conditions seem to have an endless array of problems. They often have a pattern of living from crisis to crisis. The problems they encounter are not really problems; instead, they are symptoms of an underlying condition. You’ll know if you’re dealing with a condition if, once you “solve” one problem for these folks, another “problem” seems to crop up. When we work with people who have an underlying condition which precipitates these recurrent problems, and we fail to see the underlying condition, we get pulled into their cycle of endless neediness. In fact, in many cases, rendering continuous aid to folks with conditions we cannot “fix” steps across the boundary of rendering aid and becomes enabling behavior. This leads to compassion fatigue, burn-out, resentment, anger, and frustration on the part of the care givers.
This is where I think the Good Samaritan’s pattern of behavior can be a healthy model of ministry for us. He was moved with compassion, he did what he could, and then he moved on. I think that last step is the key – he moved on. He did not stick around to get caught up in more than he could reasonably handle. He didn’t get sucked into being the man’s confessor or therapist – he did what he could do and moved on.
God does not call us to do more than we can. It is easy to mistake a condition for a problem – it’s happened to me on more than one occasion. Many times, treating conditions is way beyond our abilities. Treating conditions requires that those who have the condition are willing to be healed. It’s a human tragedy that not everyone wants to get well, but it is a fact of our broken world. Ultimately, only God can heal. When we try to step beyond our abilities and refuse to move on, we are stepping into God's role and have forgotten that God is God, and we are not.
God does not call us to exhaust every ounce of compassionate energy on situations which are spiritual “black holes” of neediness. When we do, we become compassion fatigued and we then do not have the energy or ability to render aid to another who needs it and will benefit from it. Sometimes, the most compassionate thing we can do is say, “No, I’m sorry, I cannot help.” Some folks call that “tough love,” but it’s really ending enabling behavior. God doesn’t want us to be enablers – God wants us to be healers. Saying “No” to someone may actually be the catalyst for them to seek healing for their underlying condition.
Doing what we can and then moving on is the healthy pattern for ministry shown to us by the Good Samaritan. When we find ourselves pulled into another’s condition and its endless problems, it is up to us to draw the boundary line of what is an appropriate response. Do what you can, and then move on. The Good Samaritan knows his limits and stays within them. We are called to “go and do likewise.”