A Different Take on the Samaritan Story

I want to subtitle this post:

Defending the Priest and the Levite.

Not long ago, we had a lesson in priesthood on the Good Samaritan.  This is one of my favorite parables, but the lesson quickly devolved into the traditional platitudes.  People began to point fingers at the “hypocritical” priest and the Levite walking past the injured and robbed man “on the other side.”  I decided to speak up and noted that there could be good reasons why the priest and Levite failed to stop and help.  It was probably a bad neighborhood, known for robberies, and the Levite and priest might have been concerned about their own safety.  After all, this man has just been robbed; maybe they also feared being robbed.  We might want to cut the priest and Levite some slack.  Would you help and stop a gang member in a bad neighborhood in Compton?  I’d probably just get out of there.  (I remember a black woman on my mission in Georgia told me she got a speeding ticket because she wanted to get through a county that had a strong KKK presence.)  And if this was a bad neighborhood, I think it further explains the priest and Levite’s possibly prudent actions; if it was a bad neighborhood, it further illustrates how wonderful the Samaritan was for risking his own safety to help an injured man.  

You may have seen signs like this, encouraging you to help by avoiding panhandling and helping homeless charities.

You may have seen signs like this, encouraging you to help by avoiding panhandling and helping homeless charities.

I was glad I spoke up.  This led to some better comments about how often we walk by people in need.  Do we help them?  I admit that I usually pass by the homeless without offering help.  I rarely give money.  Why?  I think they will waste it on drugs or alcohol.  There is also a sign at the Utah Jazz arena telling people not to support panhandlers.  So I often justify my inaction.  However, I have seen former Utah Jazz players Thurl Bailey and Pace Mannion give money to the homeless every time they walk into the arena.  I have been impressed by these acts of generosity.

The Smart Family was overjoyed Elizabeth (middle) returned safe from being kidnapped by Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee

The Smart Family was overjoyed Elizabeth (middle) returned safe from being kidnapped by Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee

There can be good reasons to justify not helping.  Rather than give a homeless man money, Ed Smart gave Brian David Mitchell a job at his house, not knowing Mitchell would come back and kidnap his daughter Elizabeth.  While Elizabeth returned to the family 9 months later (after being raped countless times by Mitchell and his wife Wanda Barzee), it could easily be argued that Ed put his family in danger by his act of charity.  I doubt Ed invites the homeless to his house anymore, and like the priest and Levite, we can justify this inaction.

But I am impressed that Ed Smart still does good.  He is now part of a foundation to rescue women forced into prostitution.  Truly he should be admired for his Samaritan-like actions.

As for me, I’m no saint.  I get annoyed when people approach me, and I have a bad attitude.  But there are occasions that I do help.  A few years ago I was approached in a Walmart parking lot.  A man said he was broken down, trying to get to Oregon.  It was December, very cold outside and he wanted to spend the night at a hotel not far away.  He had a debit card with $30, but the room cost $50.  He asked if I would cover the difference for the night.  I agreed and drove him to the hotel.  I was not surprised in the least when his debit card was declined.  I said Merry Christmas and paid for his hotel night.  Yet I did so grudgingly, and I thought “God’s not going to like my bad attitude.” I still don’t know why I don’t feel good helping people in need.  I think it’s because I feel manipulated.

My sister is/was a foster parent to a two young girls around 5 years old.  In both cases, the girls’ mothers were arrested on drug charges and put in a rehab program.  Each mother was warned that if she failed rehab, her parental rights would be terminated.  In the first case, the mother completed rehab and regained custody of the child.  In the second case, the mother re-offended, lost her parental rights and went to jail.  My sister has adopted this little girl and allows visitation with the birth mother.

The child has been challenging.  She was taught to lie and steal by her mother.  It is pretty much a survival mechanism.  I remember one time my sister’s family visited my house around Christmas.  As they got ready to leave, I helped deliver their luggage to their car.  My sister’s husband went through his daughter’s luggage and joked that this was a customs inspection.  There were a few items of clothes and electronics he didn’t recognize and he asked if they belonged to my daughter.  They did.  He said they had to do this because the foster daughter compulsively steals stuff.  I was grateful for his inspection.

This foster/adopted daughter is now 9-10 years old.  Her behavior has improved markedly, though I admit I have trouble trusting her and I wonder how she will turn out, given her terrible start in life.  Will she follow her birth mother’s bad example and get into drugs, or get pregnant out of wedlock?  I hope not.  But my sister says she is there to help no matter what bad decisions this young girl may make.

I greatly admire my sister for being a living example of the Good Samaritan.  I couldn’t do it.  I don’t have the temperament.  I am grateful that people like her make this world a better place.  I don’t even think I’m as good as the priest or Levite.  Sure there are times I’m not scared to help, but there are plenty of times I avoid helping when I could help, or I help with a bad attitude.

So that’s why I love the parable of the Good Samaritan, and realize I fall way short of those ideals.  I wish we would better apply this story without falling into the same platitudes.

Today (Sunday) I had to work.  “Had to work” may not be entirely accurate.  We’ve had some expensive car repair bills recently, and spent too much money on a summer vacation.  We’re in a little bit of debt, not major, but the money working would definitely help things out.  On the other hand, our stake has made a big push for “keeping the Sabbath Day holy.”  My wife was upset when she learned I was working.  When I got home from work today, she let me know that I missed seeing my daughter set apart as Secretary of the Beehive class.  She also told me one of the young women I’ve been helping in our family history class was sad I wasn’t there today.  So suffice it to say, I’m in the doghouse right now.  Could we do without the money?  Well, I suppose.  But we’re counseled to get out of debt.  Feeble attempt at rationalizing?  Yeah, probably.

My employer gave me a bonus today: a 2 hour meal break.  I decided to go to Denny’s because I knew it had free internet and I could catch up on some tasks I needed to do.  Here I am not only working, but spending money on the Sabbath, forcing others to serve me.  My wife wouldn’t like this either.   I guess I have a small taste of being a despised, sinning Samaritan right now.

As I got out of the car, I could vaguely hear a homeless man asking for help.  I pretended I didn’t hear him.  As I got closer, I was prepared to tell him I didn’t have any change but he surprised me by asking if he could get something to eat.  I invited him to join me in the restaurant.  It was still morning, so I ordered a veggie omelet with water.  He asked if he could get the $4 all-you-can-eat pancakes and a coffee.  It was probably his only meal that day, and made me a little sad.  (As we left, he asked if he could get a strawberry milkshake to go.)  He thanked me many times.  Still, I didn’t have a very good attitude in helping him.

I wondered why he was homeless, and asked if he had a story.  I hoped that it would help me build some empathy.  He said he once had a job selling stuff at a second hand store.  The owner went out of town to buy stuff for the store, and promised him he would give him a bonus if the store performed well in his absence.  Upon return the homeless man asked for his bonus.  The store owner replied that the bonus was that the store would not close and he could continue to work there.  Upset, he quit.  That was 4 years ago, and he has been homeless and without a job because he doesn’t have an ID so he can’t work.  He also didn’t have the $30 to get his birth certificate from California, or $20 for his social security card in order to get an ID and a job.  He asked it if was going to rain today.  I told him the forecast was for rain.  He was a little concerned but said the rain didn’t bother him too much. (Lucky for him it didn’t rain, but was windy.)

He cut off the top so he could stuff some clothing in this jug.

He cut off the top so he could stuff some clothing in a jug like this.

He was carrying a big water jug with a few possessions in it, and I asked him if that was all of his possessions.  Yes it was.  He said it was “easier” to not have possessions because he didn’t have to worry about getting his stuff stolen.  Theft is a big problem among the homeless as they steal from each other.  He said he didn’t want to be mad at anyone so it was good not to have material possessions.

He said he regretted quitting that job.  He really enjoyed it.  I asked if he ever thought about asking for his job back.  Yes, but the owner refused.  He also said his dad owned a lawn care business and he could get a job if he got his chemical license.  I had never heard of needing a license to apply fertilizer, but he said he needed it to work for his dad.  While he saw his dad occasionally, his father wouldn’t help and expected him to tough it out on his own.  He had been kicked out of the house at age 16.  He just got his high school diploma last year.  I asked his age, and he was 34.

Conversation was difficult.  I didn’t want to lecture him, but I hoped that the meal would be the start of something better for him.  Since I didn’t know what else to say, I pulled out my laptop and began working on the tasks that I had originally planned to do.  I knew I had written a post about how Salt Lake has reduced homelessness considerably, and asked him if he had contacted social services for help.  He had not, because he felt that was for women and children, and he didn’t want to take away their access to the program.  He also said he heard that the services provided needed to be paid back.

After some more awkward silence, and while I was working on my computer, I asked if he would “do me a favor, or rather do you a favor?”  Would he contact social services and get some help getting an ID so he could work?  Ok, but he didn’t know who to contact.  I didn’t know either, so I pulled up the internet and did a quick Google search.  Sure enough, the Deseret News had recently posted an article saying that Catholic Community Services had a program to help get an ID for the homeless.  He even knew where the shelter was.  (I didn’t.)  I pulled out my cell phone to see if I could drive him there and get him some help today, but the office number said it was closed until Monday.  (As I sat there with a cell phone, laptop, and internet, I felt monumentally richer than his guy.  I had resources that he just didn’t even know about.)

I looked at my calendar and knew I would be in the area again on Wednesday night.  I asked if he would meet me at the homeless shelter Wednesday afternoon.  I promised I would help him get an ID so he could get a job and a place to stay so he didn’t have to worry about getting rained on.  He promised to be there.

I’m just really skeptical about giving people money.  I know the verses in the Book of Mosiah about being free with your substance.  I just really have a hard time giving money to people in need.  I don’t even give to the Salvation Army.  I want to know my money is spent wisely I guess.  I also want to know if he will really meet me on Wednesday.  Does he really want to quit being homeless?  Time will tell.

I don’t know what it is about me.  I’m just really skeptical.  Unlike the Good Samaritan, I risk very little to help.  And despite wanting to help this man, and knowing there are thousands, perhaps millions more like him, I don’t get a warm fuzzy feeling.  I don’t want to be manipulated.  I fear of being bamboozled.  I don’t know why I am not more empathetic or sympathetic.  But I’m trying.  And I know I’m not supposed to do my alms before men, yet here I am telling you.

But I’m not going to tell my wife.  She’s still mad at me for missing church today.

What are your thoughts?


6 comments on “A Different Take on the Samaritan Story

  1. I guess all I can do is bring up the platitude about the Sabbath being made for man, and not the other way around. I can’t believe you’re worthy of any condemnation for the way you spent your Sabbath since you made a good faith effort to help the homeless guy when it seems that no one else will. But you’ll have to take these words from a guy who shops all the time on Sunday, because we’re awful when it comes to planning meals.

  2. Thanks Mark.

  3. I showed up at the homeless center, and my friend was a no show. It was strange walking through a crowd of homeless people, looking for him and hoping not to make eye contact with anyone.

    The place to get the ID’s was literally next door to the St. Vincent’s homeless shelter, and I was told they help people every day from 8-9 am and 1-3 pm, and it doesn’t cost any money. Funny thing is while I was trying to figure out where to go, I read the Des News article and it said:

    “Usually, the crowd that’s here for reasons other than trying to get back on their feet, nefarious actions if you want to call it, they don’t want to get their face on a card. They don’t want to get an ID, and they usually don’t have one,” Kelsch said.

    Since he knew about the shelter, I’m sure he knew “The Road Home” was next door where he could get an ID if he really wanted one. If he didn’t want to really get an ID, why tell me to come?

    Whatever. I guess he was trying to act sincere. Doesn’t help my skepticism meter or build my empathy. But I’ll still try to do good. Glad I didn’t get a parking ticket while I was there.

  4. […] exactly what Jesus did.  I feel such a struggle to do this, as I mentioned in my post on my personal Samaritan story.  Anyway, I recommend the book.  It definitely gave me something to think about, and helped me […]

  5. […] exactly what Jesus did.  I feel such a struggle to do this, as I mentioned in my post on my personal Samaritan story.  Anyway, I recommend the book.  It definitely gave me something to think about, and helped me […]

  6. I enjoyed reading your blog.
    I have always given money to homeless, because people who once had so much, now have problems. This can be because of their lack of cpmpassion.

    I cannot afford to give alot, however I will give what I can.

    We all have to pay the bills for the rent, heating a room, because it is essential.

    I could not sleep knowing a person is not safe. Skid row has taught me so much about what others offer the homeless.

    It is very shocking.

    Bring unsafe, vulnerable. It’s horrible. If I know a person needs help I feel we all have a duty to help and treat others as we would like to be treated.

    I’ve been homeless for 2 years and its very scary, and my family did not care. I found very cheap and safe solutions to really serious problems and when I was able to give back to people who helped me with the basics, so buying a vacuum, plates, cutlery, pots, pans and bills. It meant so much to me and I am finding myself helping others with the same items a very rewarding experience.

    To help others makes me feel better and more valuable to society.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: