A friend of mine is never slow to express his contempt for invitations to events or activities that he does not enjoy. When invited to something he doesn’t like, he responds, “Thanks very much for the invitation, but I have to stay home to iron socks.” There’s no mistake about the fact that he thinks a flimsy excuse is self-explanatory.
The parable of the good Samaritan is a parable about excuses. The priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan had good excuses to avoid the robbers’ victim. The priest had the legitimate excuse of wanting to follow the religious laws that applied to him. He would have incurred ritual impurity by touching a dead body. If the robber’s victim was dead, the priest would have to return in shame to Jerusalem to purify himself.
The Levite had the legitimate excuse of not wanting to cause trouble for someone else. If he had offered help to the robbers’ victim, he might have made the priest (who refused to help) look uncharitable or unjust.
The Samaritan had the legitimate excuse of not wanting to cause trouble for himself. He was a despised foreigner. If the victim’s family was Jewish, they might have taken offence at interference by a foreigner. If the victim was found alive but died later, the Samaritan might have been blamed. Of all those with legitimate excuses to avoid the robbers’ victim, only one chose mercy over self-interest. Only the Samaritan was neighbor to the injured man on the road.
In a fashion typical of Luke’s Gospel, the Gospel author gives us a great deal of information through the way he depicts the characters in the story. The priest is identified by his religious obligations. The Levite is identified by his tribal affiliation with the priest. The Samaritan is identified by his status as a disreputable outsider. Tellingly, the robbers’ victim is given no identity. The omission of information about the robbers’ victim is as important as the information provided about the three other travelers on the road. The Gospel author acknowledges that everyone is capable of finding an excuse to avoid doing good but the obligation to do good remains – regardless of excuses. The robbers’ victim is not identified in the story because his identity does not alter his need for help. This lesson is reiterated in the conclusion of Jesus’ conversation with the scholar of the Law. Jesus said that, instead of discriminating between who is our neighbor and who is not, we are to be a neighbor to anyone (and everyone) in need.
So, let’s look at some of the common excuses for not doing good. In this country, we like to blame the poor for their misfortunes; a perfectly acceptable excuse for avoiding giving alms is to gripe that the poor should get jobs and get themselves out of poverty. In our culture, the physically and emotionally troubled are shunned; it’s perfectly acceptable to use the excuse that we don’t want to get involved for fear of doing the wrong thing or becoming over-committed. It’s a truism that sinners bring punishment upon themselves through their immoral choices; the unrighteousness of sinners is tantamount to permission to deny them forgiveness and reconciliation.
In the parable of the good Samaritan, the circumstances and identity of the robbers’ victim are unimportant; we are not told whether he was a good person or an evil person. Perhaps, he was a wealthy merchant who was a convenient target for thieves or perhaps, he fell victim to robbers because he spent too much time in the company of robbers. The lack of information about the robber’s victim directs our attention to the other travelers on the road that day. The other travelers had the ability and opportunity to help the robbers’ victim. The difference between the good and the evil among the other travelers was made by the choice to offer appropriate help to the victim (or not).
Jesus wants us to make no mistake about the fact that our many imaginative excuses are as unimportant as the identity of the robbers’ victim. The only important thing about him was that he needed someone’s help. If we look at others through the lens of our excuses, there is always a legitimate reason to avoid doing good. If we set aside our excuses, however, there is never a reason for not doing good because doing good is legitimized by need rather than merit; those who suffer are always in need of help and those who can help are always in need of adding to the goodness in the world.
Jesus told the scholar of the Law to imitate the character in the story who chose mercy over self-concern. In any and every situation, the right thing to do is to go and do likewise.