Two Lucan Parables: Practical Morality

Wednesday 7th July 2021
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Midweek Service
Luke 10.25-37

We all know the story of the Good Samaritan: a clever-clever lawyer asks Jesus to define the word "neighbour" and he replies by telling the story of a man who was beaten up on the Road to Jericho, who was not helped by a Priest and a Levite but was by a member of the deeply suspect people of Samaria who bound his wounds, took him to an inn and left, promising to pay any resulting bill. He then told the lawyer to go and do likewise. The extenuating circumstances for the Priest and Levite was that if they had touched the injured, perhaps dead, man they would have rendered themselves unclean, unfit to perform their duties. But never mind that, the two questions for us are who is our neighbour and what would it therefore mean to do likewise?

The answer to both questions is, I think, rather more practical than theoretical. We can all come to believe in grand theories of justice, and we do not know whether the Samaritan held views on universal remedies for the ills he saw in his community, but what he did on the road was to deal with a situation as he found it, to bind wounds, take up  the victim of violence and provide for him not only in his present need but also anticipating what he would need in the days to come. He seems not to have had any idea of recompense but only a practical urge to give without thought.

We in our world of mass communication can so easily be overwhelmed by a weight of want that we fall into what is called "compassion fatigue" but we might be better, not entirely losing consciousness of the big picture, to concentrate on the issue at hand. The world might be full of great evils which can only be ameliorated by grand coalitions of concern and philanthropic enterprise, but disaster is usually a mass of individual wants, each person being in himself an individual case and not just one unit in a vast statistical architecture. We live not by adhering to theories but by being existentially aware of the moment, of the individual situation. We are, to that extent, creatures in a novel set against a background of moral dilemma but acting in a practical way; we are as small as the needs we meet but we are also as large as them. Jesus was properly apt, as in this story, to begin with citing a universal law but his parable was one of manageable charity, of human feeling and human nurturing; and in this it was very important to start with the feeling. It might be, in legalistic terms, that it was the duty of the Samaritan to act, what mattered was not the duty but the impulse. But we, being creatures of calculation, wondering which of a myriad of causes to espouse, can so often tie ourselves up in ethical knots, immobilised by complexity. We might, for example, worry whether the victim had brought the misfortune on himself by displaying his wealth in his clothes or the fatness of his baggage, we might wonder whether he had started the dispute which led to his downfall, or we might question whether there were, on balance, better options than helping this one man. But, in the end, the Samaritan seems, in the promptness of his reaction, not to be troubled by such issues. On the face of it at least, the case was straightforward. It usually is.

The issue of human agency in a complex world involves us in making countless moral decisions and they cannot be purely sequential, free from the question of priorities and scale. In this context the issue cannot boil down to an incident. Recently I have been worrying whether to donate more money to help deal with the crisis in the Yemen, worried that the war-induced famine is not capable of solution without peace, worrying that the funds will fall into the wrong hands, thinking that the Arab world should give more generously. I have watched the war in Palestine and wondered at the absurdity of repeatedly reconstructing buildings that will be bombed to pieces in the near future. This is where human calculation gets in the way of spontaneity. I only have limited means to deal with almost unlimited problems. I think in these circumstances we have to acknowledge that we are in a different world from the Samaritan who only had his family and community to think of and who might normally have adhered to the maxim that charity begins at home; but we are seeing with the response to the Covid pandemic that dealing with home is not the answer, that we will be threatened by new variants of the virus until the whole world is vaccinated, so that to be generous to distant neighbours is not only noble but actually pragmatic.

One solution to this conundrum is to look at ourselves carefully, particularly in respect of our motives. Paul Bloom has pointed out that what we call "compassion" often comes down to helping people like us when the people who need the help most are far from being like us. We frequently reduce this feeling to the idea that those who are different are somehow to blame for their own plight, that charity actually begins at home even if our home needs it much less than other, strange homes. There is no simple answer but, whatever his means, the Samaritan took a decision to do good to otherness and, what is more, to a person whose people despised his people.

So, this is our dilemma: while we should be spontaneous and practical, ranking practical action over grand theories, /we are trapped by our own knowledge.

Finally, then, another way of looking at the problem is to be a little more gentle with ourselves as we try to be gentle with others. There is something life-giving about practical love which making donations to distant people lacks; we need to love with our hands as well as with our hearts; but for us, in our sorry world, we will have to do a little of both. We will never be able to do enough but nothing is so little that it should be below our notice. The lawyer probably wanted a simple answer, based on the Law, but the answer of Jesus, based on love, is much more complex.