Updated: May 23, 2022
The disposition that will help us serve with dignity, more than anything else, is one of humble reliance on the mercy of God. That's what the so-called parable of the Good Samaritan is really about even though we tend to tell the story as if it is about helping people. Helping others, even those we might look down on, is clearly an application of the parable but the main teaching is to receive the mercy of God (because we all need it!).
I stumbled across this truth when I was preparing to give a sermon on the text of this parable (Luke 10:25-37) back in 2010. Part of my sermon prep is to read a text over and over until it sinks in, until I get the main point and the basics of what happens or what is being taught - who the characters are, what they experience and learn, how we should apply the text. Further study take me deeper but I don't want to go deep until I understand the basics.
As I continued to read this text, a lightbulb came on, and a surprising one at that. "Wait a minute," I thought, "this guy is asking Jesus how to have eternal life. I know the answer to that question, can't be - 'Be nice to strangers.' " We only inherit eternal life by the mercy of God which I know to be true because of the rest of the Bible.
So who receives mercy in the parable? The half-dead guy on the side of the road. Christians have focused on the response of the Samaritan to half-dead guy and have thereby made the teaching about how to follow the Samaritan's example. This has been reinforced by the publishers of every modern translation of the Bible who have labelled this section - The Parable of the Good Samaritan.
It's a lot more fun to read the story focused on the Samaritan because he's the hero. The half-dead guy passively receives help after being beat up, robbed, and then ignored by a few passersby. His story is a bit pathetic. The Samaritan stops, has compassion, tends to his wounds, and gets him to a hotel for some rest and pays his debt. No wonder we teach - "Go be like the Samaritan" instead of "Go be like like the half-dead guy."
But that is exactly what Jesus is teaching us. And that's what we teach in the Serving with Dignity course. I have led thousands of people through this training over the years and a common characteristic of attendees is codependence (takes one to know one). Most of the people who sign up are already quite active in helping others and often come to the training hoping to finally unlock the secret about how to change the people they are helping.
So we jump right in with the Parable of the Well Served Traveler - a better title - and encourage them to learn to receive well and to lay down the burden of changing people. We are not the answer to anyone's problems but we can often be helpful. As we get the help we need, we can serve out of abundance and can experience joy even when the other person doesn't change. Many times they will change and, almost always, our healthy efforts to help others will change us for the better.
Since I first stumbled on this interpretation, I've learned that the parable has been taught this way from time to time throughout the history of the church and is routinely taught this way in other parts of the world. It seems to be a more recent phenomena to focus so squarely on the heroic role in the story and my suspicion is that in America we like that version all the more.
The call for us today is to let the Great Samaritan - Jesus of Nazareth - help us and heal us and guide us to places of rest. He's the only one who can lead us to an eternal life with God and the one who shows us best how to serve with dignity. It's of no use to try to earn our salvation and it's an exhausting exercise to serve with a need to change others.
It's ok to hope for change as we serve others but let's commit to receive God's mercy anew each day ourselves so that we serve in ways patient enough to allow God to produce the change that is most needed.