Sociopaths, Samaritans and all the rest of us

Oct 29, 2015 by

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I’ve never been especially fond of the Parable of the Good Samaritan — or, as I like to think of it, “the Parable of Common Human Decency.” I mean, I know all the stuff preachers always point out about Jewish priests and purity codes. But seriously, who but an unfeeling sociopath sees a mangled, moaning human body crumpled up in a ditch and simply switches sidewalks?! It often seems like the story could be summed up in two short sentences:

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” a man once asked Jesus.

Jesus replied, “Don’t be total jerk, and you’ll get along just fine.”

(Yes, these are the sorts of profound textual insights I went to seminary in order to provide…)

Early last morning Sunday I was driving to church — rather rapidly, so much to do — in the midst of a light Oregon fog, when a person appeared out of nowhere on the shoulder of the road. The figure — a man? a woman? I was past too quick to tell — was wrapped in a dark tarp or blanket and raised up a hand as I zipped by. A hitchhiker, presumably — very common on this stretch of road. No reason for me to stop with just a mile left to go. Several seconds passed before it crossed my mind the gesture could possibly be anything else — like, say, an appeal for help. I looked in the rear-view mirror, just to double-check. But the car was moving far too fast, and the figure was lost to the fog.

“There once was a pastor on the road to church who passed by a half-dead man…”

Genuine sociopaths who would knowingly turn a blind eye to dying a man are few and far between. But what happens, I suddenly wondered, when the road to Jericho gets paved and becomes a four-lane highway? What happens when everyone’s driving too fast to catch what’s happening in the ditches? A human crisis might unfold right there in plain sight, but at 65 mph, would anyone even notice? Of course I’d stop if I saw a bloody body. But moving at this speed, who can afford to look around?

Most of us aren’t switching sidewalks — because we were never on the sidewalk at all. The only sidewalk we walk most weeks is the 50 feet (or less, if we have time to circle long enough) between our parking spot and the take-out door. We spend our days flying down the information super-highway, eyes fixed on the road ahead. Whatever human drama might be unfolding in the ditches, we have no way to know; it’s merely a blur of peripheral vision, speeding toward another goal.

If the Samaritan is Jesus’ picture of eternal life, it seems to me we might have a serious problem.

It might just be that eternal life is incompatible with the fast lane. The difference between the good Samaritan and us might not be common human decency but all the bodies we never notice. It might just turn out that the one thing eternal life absolutely requires is a walking pace.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” a man once asked Jesus.

Jesus replied, “Well, let’s start with this: you’ll have to get out of your car…”

Meghan Larissa Good is pastor of Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church. She writes at, where this first appeared.

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