The Light of Life Magazine
A ministry of Christian writing

January 2011


Shantanu Dutta

Why did the Good Samaritan accept the risk?

As someone working for a charitable organisation, raising resources is never far from my mind. Without money, without gifts, be it in the form of volunteers, gifts or services, charitable work would die out. Charity survives on the benevolence of others and yet often the relationship between a charitable entity and its funders is ambivalent with charities often feeling like supplicants before an imperial power. And yet the two cannot exist without the other-the philanthropist who has the money and resources, but often not the time and the charitable entity that has the calling, the personnel and the expertise to address a particular need.

And so, of late, I have been thinking about the fourth character in the parable of the Good Samaritan-one not often talked about-the inn keeper and the coins given to him without which the success of the Good Samaritan in restoring the wounded and broken man would have been limited. The innkeeper and the amenities in the inn represent resources of charities, which act out the part of the Samaritan, if we are to use that analogy integrally. They need to carry out their work, and demonstrate a mutual interdependence. The innkeeper needs people to stay in his inn and his bills paid through the coins so that he can stay in business; the Samaritan too needs inns and innkeepers if he has to fulfil his purposes. The two need each other.

Given the risks, why is it that the Good Samaritan did not turn his eyes away and pass by on the other side of the road like the priest and the Levite? Why did he come to the aid of the alien in that hazardous place, even when he must have assumed that the injured person was a Jew? Why did he accept the risk?

In the parable, the Samaritan knows little about the wounded Jew, but he knows he has the means to assist. The man has been robbed and can't pay for what he needs, and so the Samaritan pays the innkeeper to care for him long enough to get him on the way to recovery. Then the Samaritan says that he'll come back-not to collect what is owed him by the victim, but to be sure that all the bills are paid. And that provokes us to ask, "When does an act of charity end?" For instance, who should pay the arrears of bills that would accumulate if the victim's recuperation takes longer than expected?

Of course, there are questions surrounding the Samaritan's arrangement with the innkeeper-the funder vis--vis the implementer. The support of the innkeeper is vital for the Samaritan's costly gesture to be really effective and the wounded man to recover. What if he had chosen not to help? Does the innkeeper have a right to a reasonable profit for his pains or would we be expecting him to be content with breaking even? Should he accept a loss? Should the innkeeper simply view the victim as a commodity? After all, someone will have to pay, and pay the going rate. On the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, victims may be numerous. We might ask at what point charity can no longer be sustained without someone deciding to pay the bills.

Charitable work traditionally has relied heavily on trust. In the parable, the Samaritan trusts the innkeeper to care for the victim until he recovers. What if the innkeeper throws the man out before he is completely well? People who are street-smart often fleece those who show compassion. Perhaps the innkeeper reasoned, if the Good Samaritan was willing to put up two denarii to help this man, chances are he would be willing to pay another one or two when he comes back. If we assume the innkeeper is a Jew, another conceivable reason for him to profit from the situation is the ethnically based hostility he almost certainly feels for the Samaritan.

If the Good Samaritan scenario occurred today, how would the thieves and robbers be treated? What might the Samaritan do to help? Would he find an inn and an innkeeper so easily in a climate that is politically charged and polarised? Our imagination is always at work, challenging us. Perhaps this was a first offence. May be the robbers were young Samaritans, primed and brought up to hate Jews. Can they be held responsible for their behaviour when they were themselves victims of a long standing ethnic conflict? There are philanthropists and philanthropic organisations on all sides of this issue. There are those whose goal is to rescue thieves from a life of crime; there are others whose call is not for compassion or rehabilitation, but for retribution. However, the Good Samaritan parable suggests that we are not to deny help to either a stranger or an enemy, and that every human being may qualify as neighbour-even thieves, robbers, inns and innkeepers are sorely needed to be places of healing and wholeness for those broken and wounded whoever they might be. And yes, we need those coins to pay the innkeeper and keep the inn running and the Good Samaritan in business!

Light of Life