July 2018

How power has hijacked the parable of the Good Samaritan

Sr Patty Fawkner SGS

We can easily highjack the parable of the Good Samaritan, says Sister Patty Fawkner, if we don’t see it within the context of the overarching message of the Bible.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

What do Margaret Thatcher and Martin Luther King Jr have in common? Perhaps many things. But one interesting aspect of their public life is that they both turned to the parable of the Good Samaritan to endorse their political stance on caring for those in need in secular society.

They are not alone. Particularly over the last two centuries, those on the left, right and middle ground of politics, the conservative and radical, the abolitionist and the warmonger alike have used, some would say exploited, the parable of the Good Samaritan for their own political ends.

A recently published book, The Political Samaritan: How Power Hijacked a Parable explores this phenomenon. Its author, Nick Spencer, is Research Director of Theos, a British public theology think tank which aims to stimulate the debate about the place of religion in society.

Taking mainly British examples, Spencer muses on the enduring popularity of the parable of the Good Samaritan within secular society. Calling someone a Good Samaritan is part of our lexicon and a standard cliché for headline writers, news bulletin presenters and commentators alike. Google throws them up instantly: Mother praises Good Samaritan who saved her son on busy Melbourne road; Good Samaritan injured while trying to stop mall theft; and the curious Good Samaritan hits thief with frozen fowl!

Even Donald Trump, Spencer notes, is described as a Good Samaritan by George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

We get the message. We understand the metaphor. But who in the political realm gets it right? This is the question at the heart of Spencer’s book.

Margaret Thatcher is right in saying that no one would remember the Good Samaritan if he only had good intentions. But is she right when she insists that the point of the parable is that the Good Samaritan who stopped to help the wounded man on the Jerusalem-to-Jericho road had to have the resources to do so?

Is she correct in saying that the story is about the individual and not the collective, and that we shouldn’t be handing over to the State what is a personal responsibility?

Or is Martin Luther King more on the money?

In his last speech, the day before he was assassinated, King spoke eloquently about two key lessons he learnt from the parable.

The first, King said, is that the Samaritan decided not to be compassionate by proxy. He decided to get personally involved and got his hands and clothes dirtied and bloodied.

King then says that it’s reasonable to ask, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” I might get mugged, I might get contaminated, I might be late for that important appointment, or I might be ridiculed for helping the enemy. But the motivating question that enables the Samaritan to become the enduring Good Samaritan is: “If I don’t stop to help this person, what will happen to him?”

We can easily highjack the parable of the Good Samaritan if we don’t see it within the context of the overarching message of the Bible, which is one of liberation and hope in a God who sides with the oppressed, and if we ignore the all-important immediate context of Jesus’ story.

Jesus and a lawyer are locked in a Q & A about eternal life and fulfilling the command to love God and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Somewhat pedantically, the lawyer asks Jesus who qualifies as neighbour.

Jesus won’t play ball. He doesn’t give a definition of “neighbour” but tells a story about being a neighbour. In the story, the unlikely neighbour is a despised foreigner who is moved by compassion to show mercy to a wounded enemy. The context for the telling of the story abruptly concludes with the command, “Go and do the same”. Go and be a compassionate neighbour to whoever you come across, irrespective of race or religion.

I beg to differ from Mrs Thatcher. This is not a story about giving out of largesse. It is not a story about resources. It’s a story about compassion and is meant for both the individual and the collective.

Nick Spencer and I believe that it is Martin Luther King Jr who understands the intent of Jesus’ parable.

It occurs to me that much of our policy debate is stymied by our concentration on Martin Luther King’s reasonable question: “What will happen to me if I stop and help?” Self-preservation is an important consideration.

What will happen to our borders if we show compassion to refugees living on Nauru or Manus Island? The government’s argument seems to be that in this case we should walk by on the other side, because stopping to help only encourages more acts of “highway robbery”, that is, more acts of seeking asylum by desperate people arriving on the proverbial “leaky boats”.

We should only confer the title of Good Samaritan on those who are moved by compassion and ask the question with the utmost urgency, “What will happen to them if I don’t stop and help?” King acknowledges that this question is indicative of a “dangerous unselfishness”.

Would that I and our Australian polity were so dangerously unselfish.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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