To Be or Not To Be a Good Samaritan

See if this sounds familiar. I was driving down the highway when I saw someone slowly, very slowly driving on the shoulder of the road. When I got closer, I saw their left rear tire was flat and they were obviously attempting to make it to an upcoming exit to stop and maybe get help in changing the tire. When I passed them, I thought to myself: “Why didn’t I stop to help them? The driver may not have known how to change a tire and I could have done that.”

Feelings of guilt lingered as I continued on my way. I am willing to say my guilt may have been stronger than most. After all, I work with a ministry that equips churches to mobilize their members to serve people in need. I preach on it… write on it (e.g.: this blog)… and sleep on it. What a louse I am, I thought. What a hypocrite!

Why People Do Not Serve Others

You know how I felt. You’ve felt it too… when you passed up the unkempt man on the corner holding up a sign that says “Anything will help”… when you decline to round up what you’re paying for a soft drink at the convenience store to contribute to a local cause… and so on.

Why don’t we stop what we’re doing to help others when they are right there in front of us? For those of us who claim serving others is valued and admired, why don’t we do it more frequently? What’s up with our passing by?

Good Samaritan

At some point when we find ourselves in the midst of another refusal to act in doing what we can to meet another’s need, the image of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) surfaces. Remembering Jesus’ story about the two religious leaders who passed by the robbery victim on the Jericho Turnpike and the Samaritan who did act is enough to make our stomach roll and our conscience scream. We cringe to think we are no better than those insensitive, cowardly characters in Jesus’ story.

How much thought have you given to why the priest and Levite “passed by on the other side?” Sermons and Sunday School lessons on the story talk about the Jewish cleanliness rituals that required them to avoid dead bodies and bloody people. That is true, but it’s not convincing. We still criticize them and feel guilty when we do the same thing.

Digging Deeper

When I wrote The Samaritan Way several years ago, naturally I included a discussion of the popular story. (Even I know better than to borrow the name without talking about the story from which it comes!) I shared the most intriguing study I found about why people do not stop to help someone in need. Two profs at Princeton Theological Seminary conducted a little experiment with their students to find out why people do not stop to help others. They created a situation in which the seminarians would encounter a man bent over, coughing, and giving the impression he was in trouble and watched to see which young theologians stopped. They added the variable of telling some of the students to prepare a short talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan and others on a totally different subject. Then they told some they were running late so they should hurry to give their talk and others that they had plenty of time. Of those running late, whether or not they had just reread the parable of the Good Samaritan, only 10% stopped to see if they could help the man in trouble. Of those who thought they had plenty of time, 63% stopped. Having sufficient time mattered more than preparing for ministry or preparing to talk to others about the Good Samaritan.

As I have reflected on this experiment, I agree that convenience of having sufficient time to stop is a major factor in why people do not help someone in need even if the need is squarely in front of them. That doesn’t do much to relieve our guilt when we pass by people needing help, but it may face us with the kind of truth we need to be more like the Samaritan than the priest and Levite in Jesus’ story.

There are possibly a thousand different circumstances in which we may encounter someone needing help and we decide either to help or not to help. This blog can’t begin to cover all those circumstances. So, for our purposes here, let’s confine our questions about helping to those that occur literally on the highways we travel.

Asking the Right Question

When it comes to deciding whether to stop to help someone in need, it matters what questions we ask. What will happen to me if I stop? What is the person going to do with my help? Is what I do real help (in the case of giving money) or feeding a destructive habit?

The best insight to this part of the question of whether or not to be a Samaritan-like comes from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

The first question which the Priest and Levite asked was “if I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” The Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

I did not ask that question when I passed by the motorist with a flat tire. But I felt sufficiently guilty that I said a short prayer asking God to forgive me and if He would give me another opportunity, I would not pass by again. Sure enough, not 30 minutes down the road, I saw another motorist stopped on the shoulder. I exited at my first opportunity, turned around and went back. He was pouring gas into his vehicle. I asked if I could help. He said he was okay, but he thanked me for stopping. We talked a few minutes (actually I listened to him talk for at least 10 minutes while he poured gas). Eventually, I went on my way without doing anything to help the man. Nevertheless, he was grateful I stopped, and I was, too. When he thanked me for stopping, he said people don’t do that anymore. As a former truck driver, he had seen plenty of instances in which people refused to stop (probably including him though I can’t be sure of that).

So I didn’t help him. Or did I? Was my stopping at all helpful? No, if you think only of the material help he needed—gas for his car. But the answer can be yes if you think of the encouragement it was to him that someone cared enough to stop. My focus is not on what I did but on the impact someone stopping to ask if he needed help was on him. What this man said told me he was truly grateful I stopped, and the fact that someone—at least one of the thousands of motorists who passed by—stopped, and he was given hope, if only for a few minutes… of the reminder of the day, that the road is not such an impersonal, uncaring place after all. One can never overestimate the power of hope.

Just as despair can come to one only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.

Elie Wiesel

When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, why did he make it so black-and-white? Why didn’t he anticipate other, more complicated circumstances of need and address those? I don’t know… nor does anyone else. What we DO know is Jesus told this story to a man who wanted a definition of “neighbor.” And so, Jesus finished his story by saying to his one-person audience, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37) I am convinced he says the same to us.

Your Thoughts?

I would love to hear your story about being or not being a Good Samaritan when you had the chance. What other insights do you have into Jesus’ parable that can help people in everyday occurrences of need? Perhaps responses here can launch a healthy discussion regarding to be or not to be a Good Samaritan.

David Crocker
Written by:
David Crocker

David Crocker is the Founder of Operation Inasmuch. He was a pastor for 38 years prior to launching the Inasmuch ministry which has equipped more than 2,100 churches in 25 states and several other countries to mobilize their members in mercy ministry. David’s passion is seeing believers serving as the hands and feet of Jesus as a lifestyle.

6 responses to “To Be or Not To Be a Good Samaritan”

  1. Avatar CARL R BROADHURST says:

    David,

    Ever notice how we listen to speakers…carefully…who tend to provide a message we want to hear.

    For example, a few years ago on a Wednesday evening, Snyder invited a Fayetteville Police Sergeant to speak to the church. Much, if not most of her work, is with the homeless in Fayetteville. I only remember one comment by her. She advised us to never give money to the people on the street corner begging for money. She stated the average person on the corner with a sign takes in about $100 per day.

    Since then I have been careful to note the attire of those begging for money. Many times I have observed there is no way this person is homeless. The trousers are pressed, shirt and or coat appear neat, and shoes appear neat. At least some times. The cop made it easier for me to bypass those begging for money.

    In the late 1940’s my parents and I lived near a railroad in a small town. Occasionally a hobo would stop and ask for food. My mother would prepare a sandwich and a glass of water and give it to me to give to the hobo. I do recall my parents discussing angels in hobo clothes.

    I will stop the next time I see a motorist in distress. However, I do wonder what I will do the next time I see the homeless guy who is frequently close to a Starbucks store.

    Keep up the thoughtful work.

  2. Avatar Melanie Davis says:

    As a woman, my concern is whether or not it would be safe to pull over and offer assistance to someone. I feel torn too when I see the signs held up asking for money. I have given money sometimes, if it’s in a relatively safe location. I may be feeding a dangerous habit, but I feel that what I do/say/give is between me and God-what that person does with the money is between him/her and God.

  3. Avatar Stephanie Wyatt says:

    I think this situation is one many of us contemplate as we are driving or otherwise transporting ourselves from place to place.

    Gender is an important element of this scenario –– As a woman, I have been instructed throughout my life NOT to take help from strangers who approach me on the side of the road with the assumption that the person stopping could put me in danger. The standard instruction for women is to roll down the window slightly, inform (usually a man) that she has already contacted a car service and firmly but politely indicate that everything is taken care of.

    I have actually been in this circumstance with two other women stuck on the side of the road in unfamiliar territory and been fearful when a man stopped to see if he could help. We had already called AAA and told him so and thanked him. Now that I am older I try to err on the side of assuming most people have good intentions, but I try to also trust my instincts.

    One scenario that I have thought a great deal about is whether to give money to those who ask for it. I try to give regardless because I feel like it isn’t my place to judge who is supposedly deserving. If someone has reached the point that they are panhandling – they clearly need some sort of help and I would rather err on the side of generosity. I can’t know the situation of the person asking & it is, in my opinion, a gross misuse of our privilege to assume in a moment of need that we are somehow helping by forcing someone back onto a social safety net that can be difficult to access and is underfunded in our country.

  4. Avatar Elaine Womack says:

    David, this blog is helping me to reach out by letter to someone who is far from God. I was feeling led to show this young person some compassion earlier today even though it was way out of my comfort zone to do so! After reading your words, I am going to act. I know now that God has placed this person in my path for a reason and that He is leading me to be the one to communicate His love and hope to him. Thank you for affirming this call and please pray for this young person.

  5. Avatar Jackie says:

    I don’t give money very often, but will pay a bill for people at times. I have done it many times with a credit card. I will buy a meal or offer to call someone for them and when I was physically able have helped push cars out ot the traffic lanes and/or offered to give their car a ‘jump’ start.

  6. Avatar Emily Lisi says:

    The one time I remember vividly being compelled to help someone who asked was a deaf young man (said his sign) in a Costco parking lot several years ago in Cleveland. I went to Chick-fil-a and bought him lunch and brought it back to him (with my young boys in the back of the car). He seemed to be very grateful for the food without being able to communicate with me. What I took away very distinctly from that experience was NOT what I did for him, but what God taught me- and gave me- in my obedience in helping this man.

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