I want to tell you right up front that the topic I want to get to is the teaching in Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan. I mention that because it is going to take me a little while to get there. I’m going to begin with a few fragments.
Fragment 1: Bette and I will be moving soon into a retirement center. We are really excited about it. Everything seems wonderful. I am still in the infatuation period—and I am remembering when I use that word that we get it from the Latin fatuus, “foolish.”
I’ve been there a lot in the last few weeks on one errand or another and I have used the restroom on the first floor just north of the lobby. There is good hot water there and a soap dispenser and a tray of rolled up cloth towels. Very classy. Because people wash their hands at the sink, there accumulates on the counter little pools of water and soap suds. So after I have wiped my hands on the towel, I mop up all the water and soap and throw the towel into the basket under the sink.
Why do I do that? Well, as I said, I’m feeling foolish about the place and it just feels good to me to help make it look really good and all the materials are there. But why that action particularly? I wouldn’t feel any need to clean up a mess anyone had left on the floor or to wipe down the mirror. Why that cleaning of the counter in particular?
Let me spend a sentence reminding you that I am still working on the Good Samaritan story. Really I am.
Fragment 2: The story I am about to tell you has bounced around in my mind for quite a few decades now. I’m not sure anymore what the original version of the story was, so I’m just going to tell it the way I remember it. It’s true; I’m just not sure it is accurate.
A faculty colleague of mine at Westminster College in Pennsylvania used to take the paper towels he had left over from drying his hands and dry the faux marble top of the counter in the locker room where the sinks were. I remember seeing him do it and I remember thinking that it seemed a really good thing to do. I thought more highly of him because he chose to do that and I began to do it myself for no better reason than simple imitation. It was “what he did” so it became “what I do.”
The Good Samaritan
A lot of lessons have been drawn from this story.  I’m going to assume you know the story. If by any chance you don’t, you can check it out at Luke 10: 25ff. It ends like this.
36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Now “likewise” means “like he did.” Do what the Samaritan did. That sounds like a law or a principle to me. I have always heard it cast as a principle and therefore also as an obligation. But as I consider it, I am not sure that is the best way to think of it and I am not sure, either, that that is the way Jesus intended it.
If “likewise” means, “Do what he did,” then it might pay us to look at what the man from Samaria did. That’s a few lines up the page.
33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
I am looking now at the sequence. He saw him. He was moved with pity. He took care of him. One, two, three. What if he hadn’t been moved with pity? What if you take the moving—using the same root, we all them motives today—out of the sequence. Nothing connects one and three. Nothing happens.
Moved with compassion
When I finish this essay, I am going to go down to the office at Portland State that I share with a number of other adjuncts. Portland State is an urban university; it is very “downtown.” When I walk to the office, I am going to walk past any number of people whom I will see sitting on the pavement with their signs and toward whom I will not feel compassion and whom I will not offer to help.
Should I? Does the “lesson” of the story instruct me to help these people? Is that what “do likewise” means? I have always thought so and I have always been taught so, but how I am beginning to wonder. And I didn’t do it anyway.
That way of understanding the story has not helped me. It has brought a consistent and principled demand down on my behavior. It has not caused me to intervene when otherwise I would not have. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone intervene because of the “do likewise” instruction. That formulation is really good for blaming yourself, of course, and it is even better for blaming other people, but without compassion, it doesn’t actually work and I think we know that.
I had some fun with this a few years ago. I developed two alternative tracks to this narrative, neither of which required a compassionate enemy. In the first, a businessman with a lot of contacts in Jerusalem and Jericho developed a stretcher service that ran on a regular schedule. The compassionate Samaritan is systematized so that no actual compassion is required and many more people are helped. No one liked it.
In my second track, I developed a large scale economic intervention that began with a man with contacts in Rome. He got a planning grant from the emperor, using “law and order” arguments. He discovered that there were valuable minerals in the wilderness through which the road passed. He developed a mining operation that provided stable employment with good wages to people who used to be only highway bandits. No one got hurt. No one liked that one either.
There was no compassion in them. It was the compassion that made Jesus’s story appealing. The the command “Go and do likewise,” doesn’t have any compassion in it either unless it begins with verse 33c. The story might be understood as a demand that we should be neighborly in some general way. Maybe you believe that commanding people to feel compassion causes them to feel compassionate. That has not been my experience.
Beginning with the experience of compassion
What if “go and do likewise”(verse 37) were understood as beginning with compassion. “When something really moves you,” this version of Jesus’s story would hold, “follow that compassion with action.” This way of understanding opens up a whole new approach. It is addressed to people who are in situations like that and who feel compassion. It says that compassion is a good instigation and should be trusted. It doesn’t say anything to people who don’t begin with the experience of compassion. But what if other kinds of things move you to compassion? The man who is hired to play the part of Jesus in a passion play in Montreal  takes compassion on the actors who are auditioning for a beer commercial and smashes all the video equipment and chases the advertisers out of the building with a whip made of cords. “Contempt,” he says, “really upsets me.”
This way of looking at it not only changes the way the “lesson” takes shape, but changes the role Jesus plays as well. He is not The New Lawgiver in this way of looking at things. If the punchline of the story is “Go and Be Neighborly,” then Jesus is, in fact, the New Lawgiver. Instead, Jesus is someone who tells a story about a really appealing person—the kind of person you feel drawn to. The kind of person whose actions—not his feelings—you might want to emulate. Jesus, in this way of looking at him, is the kind of guy who says, “Let me tell you a story about my Uncle Abram. He was on the road one day….”
I want to end with that approach because it is appealing. I am going to skip over all the objections people are going to offer to this new way of looking at it. I think I’ve heard them all. I may have used them all myself. But I wouldn’t mind hearing them again.
Instead, I would like to look at bullying. Every school I have ever attended has had bullies. Every school has had people who somehow evoked bullying behavior. Predators, in other words, and prey.
There has been a lot of attention recently to cutting down on bullying. It begins by identifying people who are standing around watching the harassment as it starts. It asks them to intervene and it gives them some language that might work; it gives them some training in using that language.
I think that’s a really good idea. The bully’s aggression works by isolating some vulnerable person. If the bystanders refuse to fall away, to expose this boy or girl to abuse, then he or she is not isolated and the bully will have to reconsider. He may very well reconsider by going after you, but that is one of the things you might have to risk. You might be willing to risk it because you feel compassion for the bully-bait, especially if you have seen it before. You feel compassion and you are impelled to follow those feeling with actions.
But what if you can tell, walking into a new school, who is going to get bullied. You can tell just by looking around. The person is doing everything but holding up a sign saying, “You can bully me with no risk. I have no idea what to do.”
What are you going to do when you walk into a new place and see that person? What if you can see the bullying coming and you would like to intervene before it all gets started? What if you look at this kid and feel compassion? What actions would flow from that compassion?
Would they be getting to know this kid? No one else seems to have bothered. Would it be teaching him that presenting himself this way is not a good idea and here is why? Would it be teaching him that this is not a good place for him to be at this time of day and here is why? Could it be that your compassion might flow out of you not when you see the bully looming over him, but when you see him inadvertently inviting the bully to loom over him?
Would that work?
I don’t know whether it would or not. It does begin with compassion and eventuate in action. It does seem silly to continue to use the setting of Jesus’s story—beaten up by the side of the road—as the only kind of event that might evoke compassion. Why not the school setting? What if that evokes my compassion?
Finally, I want to go back to my friend who cleaned up the counters before he left. I don’t bring him back to help me close this essay on the grounds that his action proceeds from compassion. Compassion for puddles of soapy water? I bring him back because seeing him do what he did and admiring it as I did has helped me to remember to do it myself. When I find myself in that situation—and I just did at the retirement center—I want to act in that way. I want to “do likewise.”
My friend at Westminster is Jesus’s Uncle Abram. He’s a character in a story and when you see who he is and what he does, you feel sometimes that you would like to be that kind of person yourself.
And maybe that’s a good way to teach. And maybe that’s why Jesus used it.
 Jesus of Montreal. A superb “play within a play” treatment of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.