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Pointless Compassion - June 2012

In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus tells a story which has become widely known, even beyond Christian circles.  The basic plot is this.  A traveler is attacked half to death and left on the road; two religious leaders pass by, but an outsider has compassion and helps the left-for-dead traveler.  The basic point of this basic plot is to demonstrate the nature of neighborly compassion.

This, of course, is an important lesson, but the story is too rich to be left at this familiar level.  

Commonly called the parable of the good Samaritan, this familiar title can draw our attention away from the other characters in the story.  I personally enjoy reading through a story several times, trying to put myself in the perspective of a different character each time.  This helps me to understand and even experience the story more fully.  When I have performed this exercise with this story, I have imagined myself in the role of the first two characters and considered the lack of compassion in my life.  Then I would switch to the role of the Samaritan and try to grasp some of the abundant compassion shown by that character.

What was I missing?  I never, ever imagined myself in the role of the traveler!  I was willing to put myself in the place of the not-so-good characters, and I had no trouble putting myself in the role of the “good Samaritan,” but I never bothered with the traveler.  I just left him in the ditch, the very thing this story speaks against.  Clearly my compassion needs some work; even my reading shows little consideration for beaten-down characters, much less my living.

I decided to consider this story from the traveler’s perspective, even re-naming it in my own mind as the parable of the wounded traveler.  This approach to the story offers much in the way of reflection, of which I have only scratched the surface.  One thing grabs my attention, however – how does the story end?!  When I read as the traveler, I realize that this character’s fate is frighteningly unresolved.

Here’s what we know.  The traveler is beaten, stripped, and left half dead.  He lies in the road in this half dead state long enough for at least three people to come along.  He is attended to by the Samaritan through the night.  After that intensive care, the Samaritan leaves two days’ wages for continuing care – not exactly an overwhelming display of confidence.  And then … we’re in the dark.  This person’s life is in the balance, and Jesus does not tell us the conclusion.  When I have read the parable of the good Samaritan in the past, I have unwittingly assumed that they all lived happily ever after.  That’s what made the Samaritan good after all – he saved the day.  When I read this as the parable of the wounded traveler, though, I lose the Hollywood ending.  The outcome is suddenly unclear.  The situation feels touch and go.  We simply don’t know if he makes it or not.  Talk about loose ends!

If the traveler did not survive, then what was the point of the Samaritan’s compassion?  Was it a waste of time, effort, and money?  Was this great display of compassion pointless?  Jesus seemed to think that it did not matter if the traveler survived or not.  He didn’t even include that “detail” in his story.  That just wasn’t the point.  Survival, a tangible return on the investment of compassion, was not the point.  The compassion was not for the sake of some other accomplishment; it was not a means to some other end.  The compassion’s purpose was compassion itself.  Whether or not it achieved a desired outcome, whether or not it had a lasting benefit, the point was to demonstrate neighborly compassion.  This, of course, is an important lesson, and it shines through this rich story on many levels.

The ministry of Inheritance of Hope fits this story so well.  Here’s what we know.  The families we meet are attacked by diseases (and their treatments).  They are stripped of their health and their hopes.  Their finances are drained, their relationships are strained, and they are left half dead.  They are wounded travelers on life's journey, relegated to the sidelines for far too long while far too many pass them by.  Inheritance of Hope compassionately and intensively cares for these families at Legacy Retreats.  We make some provisions for continuing care.  And then … we’re in the dark.  People’s lives are in the balance, and we do not know the conclusions.  Talk about loose ends!

Volunteers at Legacy Retreats know all too well the challenge of pouring out compassion on new families when some we met just months ago already know the bitterness of death.  Caring for people when you are acutely aware of the nearness of their death can feel like a waste.  Something inside of me longs to know that my time, effort, and money will accomplish something of lasting value.  We do not, though, have that guarantee.

If we take Jesus’ story seriously, we don’t need a guaranteed outcome.  That’s not the point.

But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where the traveler was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. … And Jesus said, “You go and do likewise.” – Luke 10:33, 37