Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Good Samaritan

Pay it forward. The concept that gave birth to the modern cultural phenomenon of paying forward good deeds was conceived by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin wrote to a friend, “I do not pretend to give such a Sum; I only lend it to you. When you [...] meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro' many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.”

The self-righteous assume they are in debt to no one. The religious person believes himself to be the keeper of all that is sacred; the dispenser of the depths of valuable spiritual information. All who hear him are in his debt. Ultimately, God is even in debt to the self-righteous man. Since he has done only right, God owes him entrance into heaven.

The attitude of the self-proclaimed self-righteous is confronted by Jesus as He tells the tale of the Good Samaritan. To the first century religious Jew, the title, “Good Samaritan” is an oxy-moron. Samaritans were a tribe of hated half breeds possessing a pagan religion peppered with hijacked Jewish precepts. Everything about them was displeasing. Religious Jews didn’t know what were dirtier - tax collectors, sinners, lepers, or Samaritans. It was fun for Jesus to make the hero of His story a Samaritan.

In the familiar narrative, a man beaten within an inch of his life, left to rot by robbers is ignored by men who identify themselves with Right Religion, the Temple, and God. More could be lost, they assumed, than gained by helping this pitiful wretch lying in a heap on the road that day. Time could be lost. Meetings missed. One could not risk becoming ceremoniously unclean if this man was a filthy sinner. It was common to think that karma had caught up with such a soul. If he was hurt, he must have had it coming. This was cosmic justice.

The untouchable Samaritan, however, knew what it was like to be hated, marginalized, and ignored by the religious. His actions demonstrate that religious wrangling is the furthest thing from his mind. While the religious man works from a list of “DON’Ts”, a man of compassion works from a list of “DOs”. DO care for the wounded; DO get him to help; DO sacrificially fund his recovery; DO go in to debt to help.

One that never receives compassion will probably never show compassion. It’s difficult to receive compassion if you never see your need for it. The opposite of karma is grace. Karma is getting what is deserved. Grace is getting unearned favor. The wounded man did nothing to earn the grace shown him. If this story had a sequel, I’d guess that next time, the wounded man would be the hero showing someone else grace.

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