No matter which denomination each of us identifies with, we all know the parable of the Good Samaritan. The story is short and deceptively simple; its telling gives rise to deeply seated emotions and brings about nods that this is indeed common experience to us all.
Jesus is being tested by a lawyer, who asks, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus draws from him the answer that he must love God and his neighbour as himself. The lawyer is persistant: “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus then relates the story of the Good Samaritan:
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half-dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.”
Jesus then asked the lawyer, “Which of these three do you think proved neighbourly to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer replied, “The man who showed mercy on him.” To which Jesus responded, “Go and do likewise.”
Jesus agreed: the Samaritan had compassion. But this completely threw the lawyer. You see Samaritans were the mortal enemies of the Jews, and Jesus was a Jew speaking to an audience of Jews. In those days, a Jew who was proud of his blood line and a chauvinist about his tradition would not permit a Samaritan to touch him, much less minister to him. The hero of the day was the Samaritan who did good by the robbed man.
Three lessons emerge from the parable of the Good Samaritan. The first lesson is the implicit answer to the question, “Who is my neighbour?” The second is that we should go to the aid of others even at some risk to ourselves. The third is that we are all vulnerable; one fine day we will need the help of others, even perhaps the help of an enemy. This third lesson is a tough pill to swallow.
According to religious tradition God had given the Good Samaritan the capacity to feel compassion. Nowadays, however, we in the main are calculators of self-interest; our actions are motivated by self-interest. It is the priest and the Levite who calculate their self-interest, for they cross to the other side of the road and avoid the risk and inconvenience of offering assistance. True philanthropic spirit – compassion – is shown by the Samaritan. It was compassion which inspired him to act; not a cost-benefit analysis.
The philanthropic state of mind begins with core values such as those embedded in us all to varying degrees—compassion, self-sacrifice, trust, generosity, courage—values present in all cultures. Charity is still the heart of philanthropy.
Our minds work overtime in calculations concerned about the state of our finances and of personal wellbeing. This is fact. But charity bypasses all of this, pointing its arrow to our hearts. Compassionate hearts beget philanthropy which beget community. Tis good to give. The world benefits.