The term “Good Samaritan” does not appear in the Bible, but it has become the common name for the answer Jesus gave to the question, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) In our time, “Good Samaritan” is a common idiom for a charitable person, especially someone who would do as the Samaritan in Jesus’s parable did:
A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead…. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. (Luke 10:30, 33-34)
While the Samaritan offers a beautiful picture of what holistic and loving compassion looks like, we run the risk of misunderstanding it if we do not read it carefully. The differences between our context and that of the Samaritan can make a big difference in what “being a neighbor” looks like. In particular, the element of scarcity highlights the social nature of the human person and the good of cooperative and less personal ministries.
At least two observations are key to making a healthy comparison to our own lives:
- The man has a life-or-death need. Jesus says that the thieves leave him “half dead,” and we can assume that he’d be “all dead” soon if no one helped him.
- The Samaritan has the means to meet the man’s need. He has bandages, oil and wine, a beast of burden, and more than “two denarii” (Luke 10:35)—two month’s wages for most people at that time—to give to the innkeeper. The Samaritan doesn’t just toss him some change. He uses his resources wisely, making sure that the man is able to fully recover.
I do not say this to offer justification for anyone who wants an excuse not to help people in their own lives. In fact, the unfortunate lawyer who asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” did so “wanting to justify himself” (Luke 10:29). Christ comes to us in every person that we meet, and he especially identifies himself with the marginalized and hurting, saying, “I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me” (Matthew 25:35-36).
Rather, the point is only that we need to compare apples to apples. It is when I happen to be just the right person, who knows just how to help someone and has just the right resources (material or otherwise) to do so, that I find myself in the situation of the Samaritan. In those cases I cannot keep walking.
But what if we slightly changed the details of the parable? What if the Samaritan came upon not just one person “half dead” on the side of the road, but ten? Would he have had enough bandages? Could he have fit them all on his animal? Would there have been enough rooms at the inn for all of them? Would the Samaritan have had enough money to pay their bill while he’s gone?
The answer to most (if not all) of these questions is no.
So what then? What could the Samaritan do? How could he still be a neighbor to those who fell among the thieves?
There may be many good answers to that question, but I want to focus on one in particular: The Samaritan can get help from his friends.
No individual, no matter how isolated, can ever fully disconnect themselves from his or her dependence on others. As the Russian Orthodox philosopher Vladimir Solovyov put it, “Deprive a man of what he owes to others, beginning with his parents and ending with the state and world-history, and nothing will be left of his existence, let alone his freedom. It would be madness to deny this fact of inevitable dependence.”
Acknowledging the communal nature of our lives offers us a solution to the problem of scarcity in this case. Adam Smith famously pointed out that scarcity in an economy can be overcome through the cooperation of many people doing different tasks to increase production through the division of labor. Indeed, this in itself has been the most important way in which widespread, extreme poverty has been overcome around the world. Similarly, organized charity is capable of helping many more people than any one individual can do alone.
Giving to charitable organizations doesn’t often feel like being a “good Samaritan.” But just like the division of labor greatly increases economic production, so also, at their best, organized ministries of mercy allow us to help many more people far more adequately than each of us could alone.
I suspect that the disconnect between our feelings and this reality comes from the fact that large institutions are typically impersonal, whereas on the individual level what the Samaritan did was deeply personal. Of course, as I’ve already said, for such a problem what he did is the right response. But when we add the problem of scarcity to the parable by increasing the number of people in need, then the solution changes.
As the economist and theologian Paul Heyne pointed out:
In a family, or another face-to-face society, the members know one another well. In these situations people can reasonably be expected to take the other person’s specific interests and values into account. But in a large society this is impossible. If I tried to apply in a class of 50 or even 25 students the principles of justice that I try to use in my own family, such as “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need,” I would end up behaving not justly but arbitrarily. And therefore unjustly.
We need to be open to the individuals in our lives that we are best suited to help and who desperately need it. Yet at least ever since the birth of the Church, we also live in a world where there are responsible organizations where people come together to do far more good than they could alone.
While the bigger problem for the poor is typically not lack of aid but dysfunctional institutional structures, that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything that can’t be done to help before those are problems are fixed. I’m certainly not recommending just carelessly throwing more money at problems without asking whether doing so will help or hurt. Rather, PovertyCure provides a helpful list of partner organizations that have joined the ongoing conversation about how to pursue effective, enterprise-based approaches to the problem of poverty today, imitating the Samaritan who didn’t just throw a few coins at the man on the side of the road but helped him stand again on his own two feet.
Contributing to such ministries is a vital way that we can “be a neighbor” to people we may never meet. Just writing a check may feel impersonal and less important than actually helping someone ourselves, but if done prudently it may do much more good than we imagine.
Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also a fellow of the Sophia Institute: International Advanced Research Forum for the Study of Eastern Christian Life and Culture. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanPahman.