A few weeks ago on a Friday, on my usual morning walk, I was pondering the gospel for the coming Sunday … especially the part known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Knowing I have to watch my time in the mornings (because my commute now takes about three times as long to detour around construction), I was trying to decide whether to take the full walk or save a few minutes time by cutting it a little short. When I reached the point where I’d need to turn back or keep going, I decided to keep going.
Just past that point, I encountered a white Labrador dog walking around loose … up on the path, then down in the street. I really did not have time to deal with a lost dog, I tried to tell myself. But what had I just been thinking about? A story Jesus told that turns on whether or not people will interrupt their own agendas for the sake of a stranger in need. And here was a creature in need of help. The dog had a collar … which would indicate she belongs with someone … so even if the dog didn’t quite qualify as another human being, the person the dog belonged with surely qualified.
I convinced the dog to come to me. But as I attempted to search her collar for a tag, she darted back into the street. There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the street at that time. The posted speed limit is only 25mph because the road has lots of sharp curves, poor sight lines, and is a popular area for bicyclists, walkers (with and without dogs), and the occasional roller-skier. However, drivers regularly disregard the speed limits … and one such driver was approaching. I yelled and waved my arms to warn him of the dog just ahead. He stopped … and the driver coming from the other direction stopped as well. The dog made it safely out of the street and I was able to grab her collar. There was no tag.
As I pondered what to do now, a man rode by on a bicycle. “That’s a nice puppy you got there,” he said. I explained she wasn’t mine and asked if he knew where the dog belonged. He said he didn’t and pedaled on. Looking around at the houses across the street, I thought I remembered an older man sitting in a lawn chair tossing a ball to a similar dog in one of the yards. So I started to lead the dog across the street. Her collar was loose and she pulled out of it. Once I got her across the street, I managed to slip her collar back on and led her to the house where I thought she might belong. She went up the steps to the door readily enough and I rang the doorbell … realizing as I did that it was about 6:30am.
The door was answered promptly by a woman who was fully dressed, with a dog beside her and a man standing behind her. I asked if the dog were hers and she said no. She recalled a white lab that had been lost from a home a few doors down … but that was a couple years ago. Then she explained that she was getting ready for her mother’s funeral that morning … if not for that, she would have been glad to help. She gave me the name of a neighbor a few doors in the other direction who had lived there for years and who might know where the dog belonged. Watching me struggle with the dog’s collar (it pulled loose again as I tried to lead the dog away), she offered to lend me a leash. I accepted and promised to return it.
I took the dog to the house she suggested and, knowing it was still pretty early in the morning, I only rang the doorbell once. A number of lights were on, so I had some hope someone might answer. But no one did. Without a watch, I wasn’t sure of the time, but I was going to be late for work at the rate things were going.The loaner leash made it much easier to walk the dog and we headed back home. As we walked, I noticed she was favoring one of her hind legs a bit and I wondered if it had been that way for a time (she was an older dog) or if she’d been injured while she’d been lost. But she kept up at a good clip as we walked.
Once we reached the house, I secured the dog’s leash in the back yard, went in the house and woke the kids up. The time wasn’t as late as I feared; there might still be enough time to make it to work. I gave my son the task of calling animal control to report the lost dog. After helping me find dishes to put out some food and water for the dog, my daughter took care of our cats (a task that I usually do) and put my lunch items into the bag. As I dressed for work, the kids took reluctant turns sitting out with the dog and keeping her company. My son called animal control as soon as the office opened and reported that they would come at some point to pick up the dog.
I was just a few minutes late to work. As soon as I reached my desk, I had a text from my daughter letting me know that animal control agents had just picked up the dog. They had left a card so I could follow up on the situation. My daughter had also taken a picture of the agent’s card in case she encountered anyone looking for a lost dog when she went out for a walk. My son was able to walk his dog and make it to his job on time.
Between the bad leg and the fleas my daughter noticed on the dog, we thought she might have been lost for some time. We agreed the dog had such a sweet disposition; she was instantly charming. If no owner showed up, we were seriously considering adopting her ourselves.
The following Monday, I called animal control to find out what had happened to our little friend. I was told that the dog had been reunited with her owner a little more than an hour after she had been picked up at our house. Maybe she did have a microchip and they had a way of scanning for it in the truck. Maybe the dog had already been reported lost with such a good description that the officers decided to contact the person who reported the dog missing before taking her to the shelter. In any case, the dog was reunited with her owner quickly. It all worked out.
That particular day, I was thinking about that parable of the “Good Samaritan” and how I would actually tell it (rather than read it) to the congregation that coming Sunday. We all know the form of the story; it is certainly one of the best-known among the parables …
A certain person was going down the road that leads from Jerusalem to Jericho. As he went, he fell among some bandits. They stripped him and beat him and left him half-dead by the side of the road. Then they went away. By chance, a priest (a holy man) came along the same way. He saw the man lying naked and half-dead by the side of the road. But he passed by without attending to him. Likewise, a Levite (a higher order of priest) came along the same way. He, too, saw the man lying naked and half-dead by the side of the road. But he, too, passed by without attending to him. But when a Samaritan – one of those despicable half-breeds of bad faith and questionable character – when this Samaritan saw the man lying naked and half-dead by the side of the road, his guts were twisted with compassion. Taking oil and wine, he came near the man and poured these on his wounds. He bandaged the man’s wounds. Then he put the man on his own beast of burden and transported him to an inn where travelers lodge. There, he cared for the man. The next day, he took out two coins, each worth a day’s wages; these he gave to the innkeeper. “Take care of him,” he told the innkeeper; “if you spend more than this on his care, let me know, and I will repay you when I return.”
“Now,” Jesus said to the legal expert who questioned him, “which of these three are you thinking acted as a neighbor to the man who fell among the bandits?”
The whole story, of course, is intended as an answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” We usually think of neighbors as those close by … people we know … maybe those who live in the places next door to our own. But Jesus answers a question about neighbors by telling a story about people who are traveling. The one who acts as a neighbor is the one who has compassion on the one in need – and does something the alleviate that need, something that demonstrates care and concern. To love our neighbors as ourselves is to act with care and compassion to those we find in need however we find them.
It’s easy enough, I suppose, to stop for a sweet lost dog … for the helpless creature herself, if not for the people who are desperately trying to find her. For those whom we know, whom we care about, who are dear to us, it requires no thought at all. Of course, we will drop everything to help as much as we can when they call. For casual acquaintances, those we know only slightly, we’re a lot less willing – and perhaps wisely so. But what about the complete stranger?
There’s no easy answer. The parable makes it seem simple. The person in need is the neighbor and, to fulfill the commandments, one must show love and compassion to them. We might stop for someone we saw trip and fall in the street … summon help … direct cars around her … stay until help arrives. We might help someone in a parking lot jump start a car or stop for someone stranded at the side of the road … or at least call for appropriate help. But would we stop if there was an accident unless it directly involved us … if there were no police or paramedics or firefighters on the scene yet? And then what do we do for the man standing at the intersection, holding a sign asking for help? The woman begging bus fare in the parking lot between the grocery store and the liquor store? Do the taxes we pay for the transit system count? Does the change we dropped into some kettle back at Christmas count as helping the one with the sign? And would it truly be helping to give money – or is that delaying the person from accessing real help? There are no simple, clear answers.
But here are some clues … because we’ve lost sight of who’s who in the zoo of this parable. We call the Samaritan “good” because of what the character does. But no one in Jesus’ audience would ever have associated an adjective like good with anyone of Samaritan descent. Someone like the priest would be expected to be the hero of the tale, the example to emulate. If not the priest, then certainly the Levite could be expected to rise to the occasion. But just as the right thing to do is murky for us, it was for these characters as well The purity codes priests were expected to follow imposed specific sanctions for contact with a dead body. It would be hard to tell half-dead from all-dead without violating the laws that guided the behaviors of priests. If the person were indeed dead, the one who had contact with him would be ritually impure, unable to perform his priestly duties. That the priest and the Levite are coming from Jerusalem suggests they wouldn’t have been expected to perform any temple rites before they could become ritually pure again. Perhaps for the sake of following the rules, they weren’t willing to risk contact with the man by the road. Should either of them have made an exception to the rules for the sake of the man by the side of the road? These are important people in the community, with places to go and things to do. Should they set aside their duties, obligations, agendas for the sake of whoever, whatever this person by the road happens to be?
The Samaritan, of course, does stop to help. We forget now, but Jesus’ audience would have regarded him as suspect and dangerous, expected a Samaritan to take advantage of a situation like that and perhaps do further harm to the man by the side of the road. But the Samaritan in Jesus’ story does the unexpected. He stops. He does the right thing. He does more than just help a little. He either takes care of what is needed or arranges for the rest of it. But who do we suspect will harm rather than help?
Almost three years ago, I was one in need of help … stuck by the side of the road after a freakish vehicle accident. Those already at the scene responded immediately … checked that everyone was okay, called for the police. The police officer came and did his job – collected the information, verified that all of us would be able to drive or otherwise remove our vehicles from the scene. Once that was done, he left. Everyone else moved on … except me. My vehicle didn’t seem to be drivable (and that did later prove to be the case). I had already called my husband and he was on his way. But that would take time. Everyone left and there was nothing more to do but call the insurance company to initiate the claim, get a referral to a body shop, and arrange for the tow.
While I was on my phone, a man came along the sidewalk, walking his bike rather than riding it. He stopped by my minivan. When a bus stopped at the nearby stop, he spoke to someone on the bus, but he didn’t board it. He just waited. He didn’t say anything to me … didn’t ask what happened. I suppose I could have (should have?) felt a little frightened. After all, I’m a white woman and he was African-American. But I found his mere presence to be a comfort, not a threat. I was still on the phone with the insurance company when my husband arrived. The two of them talked a bit … and then the man with the bicycle moved along his way.
I don’t know why he stopped. Maybe he was curious about what happened. But he never asked … and I never had a chance to ask him. I like to think he stopped to keep an eye out for me while I was distracted on the phone. Once he knew I was safe with the next person who showed up (my husband), then my unexpected helper, my “good Samaritan” went on his way.
We know how to do this with helpless creatures like dogs … We know how to do this for people we know, especially those we love … Can we learn to do these things for one another simply because we are all human beings?