The Good Samaritan

The familiar and beloved story of the Good Samaritan has provided inspiration and identity for charitable institutions for centuries. Take, for example, The Pennsylvania Hospital, founded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Bond. The Hospital was very specific regarding who it would admit: “No patient shall be admitted whose Cases are judged incurable” nor “persons suffering with ‘infectious distempers’…” For the hospital’s official seal, Franklin chose a depiction of the wounded man of the story on a donkey, as he is delivered from the hands of the Samaritan who rescued him to the innkeeper who will care for him. “Take care of him and I will repay thee” is inscribed below the image.

Closer to home, the Boston Dispensary was founded in 1796, with a mission of providing free medical care to the poor. (Bear in mind, this was decades before the existence of any of our now-renowned hospitals.) The Dispensary, also, chose a representation of the tale of the Good Samaritan as its identifying image — one that would surely be understood even by those who could not read. It shows the Samaritan tending to the wounded man while the donkey grazes peacefully to one side. When the original Dispensary moved to a new building in 1883, those who came seeking relief were greeted by a bas-relief over the door, based on the original image, but minus the donkey. It still exists, now part of Tufts Medical Center.

Then there’s the Ether Monument, in the Boston Public Garden. It’s the Garden’s oldest monument, erected in 1868. Perched atop the 40-foot spire, the Good Samaritan tends to the wounded man, his act of mercy being linked to the discovery that “the inhaling of ether causes insensibility to pain.” By using the Biblical image, the monument cleverly avoids the controversy that marked ether’s introduction, as Dr. William Morton and Dr. Charles Thomas Jackson each claimed to be the originator. Their competing claims resulted in a fight called the Ether Controversy. Oliver Wendell Holmes, also a physician, remarked that the monument was to “ether or either,” alluding to the claimants of the discovery.

The Advent’s early records include many notations of pastoral visits — often made at the request of a Sister of St. Margaret, frequently to administer baptism — to the House of the Good Samaritan, founded in 1861 in what is now known as the Longwood Medical Area. In the early 20th century, Advent parishioners Catherine Codman (1857-1945) and her brother Edmund (1864-1947) were on the board of the House of the Good Samaritan, which later became part of Children’s Hospital.

These vignettes convey the deep resonance this parable has held over the years and continues to hold today.

Yet I cannot acknowledge this resonance without also acknowledging the uncomfortable conundrums and unavoidable conflicts that arise from the question, Who is my neighbor? This is especially apparent in the description of House of the Good Samaritan in their 1917 annual report, “A hospital for white women and children without condition of religion, nationality, or residence.”

This place of discomfort — can we really honestly say that we love our neighbor as ourselves? — allows us to enter into the story in some unusual ways. Let me speak for myself. As much as I’d like to model my life on the compassion and mercy of the Good Samaritan, I know I fall short every time I avoid or ignore someone in need — from the person waiting for response to an email or phone message, to the overlooked woman sitting on the sidewalk asking for spare change, to the unanswered appeal for funds from a worthy organization. And as much as I’d like to slip into the role of the kind and generous innkeeper, I am all too aware of my shortcomings when I make decisions about resources of time or money (for example) that benefit me more than others.

And in the end, I am all too aware that it’s a nearly insurmountable challenge for me to love God with *all* my heart, *all* my soul, *all* my strength, *all* my mind.

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There’s another way in which discomfort plays an important role in this story. The phrase “Good Samaritan” has become so ingrained in our vernacular that it has become, inaccurately, a way of describing pretty much anyone who does pretty much anything kind for a stranger. Sadly, this serves to blunt the impact of the story. To fully appreciate the tale as Jesus told it and his disciples heard it, first consider the present discord that divides this country (and many others). Now: think of a group furthest removed from, or in strongest opposition to, your beliefs and values. Then: imagine a person from that group, a person unknown to you, the least likely person you can imagine, unexpectedly coming to help you in a time of crisis or deepest need — help you without asking anything in return. That approximates the shock value embedded in the story of the Good Samaritan.

This is not simply a tale of the kindness of strangers. The story insists that enemies can prove to be neighbors, that compassion has no boundaries, and that judging people on the basis of their religion or ethnicity (or —- fill in the blank) will leave us dying in a ditch.

The lawyer asks, What shall I do…? And indeed this is one of the enduring questions of faith. The story of the Good Samaritan is a reminder that the quest for eternal life is firmly grounded in the here-and-now. Each moment of this mortal, finite existence is an opportunity to do as Jesus says: “Go and do likewise.”

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.

May the Lord who gives us the will to do these things give us the grace and power to perform them. Amen.

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