“Samaritans” today

Even many people who’ve never set foot in a church are familiar with the phrase “Good Samaritan,” and many have at least a rough idea of the story. “Samaritan” has come to mean “a charitable person.” Thus, much of the original point of the story is obscured, if not lost altogether.

For those to whom Jesus told this parable, “Samaritan” did not have a positive connotation. They considered Samaritans to be inferior, half-breed people to be avoided. Sure, the listeners probably got the point about how we should help others, but they may have been taken aback when the hero of the story was “one of those people.” Yet, Jesus told the story in answer to the question, Who is my neighbor? He was expanding the definition of “neighbor.”

In the ’60s, there was a version that was popular with advocates for racial integration, of which I was one. In it, the man robbed was white, those that passed him by were church leaders and the “Samaritan” was Black. Once when I heard it told, someone suggested that the victim could be a white liberal and the Samaritan a “redneck.” Indeed, Harry Chapin, in his song “What Made America Famous,” offers a similar approach to the parable.

I find it helpful to look at the 1997 movie, “As Good As It Gets,” with The Good Samaritan story in mind.

Melvin Udall, played by Jack Nicholson, is racist and homophobic. He earns his living writing trashy romance novels. He won’t bother to take his OCD medication, which would help him be less annoying. He doesn’t seem to like other people and doesn’t seem to care whether they like him.

Greg Kinnear’s character, Simon Bishop, is Udall’s neighbor. He is an artist who is gay. Udall verbally spars with Bishop and with his African-American agent Frank Sachs (Cuba Gooding Jr,), making no attempt to hide his prejudice toward both.

Then Simon is beaten and robbed in his apartment. He’s left seriously injured, and on the verge of bankruptcy. He’s not able to get help from his family nor from anyone on a long list of friends and fellow artists.

Melvin takes him in to his own apartment, to give him a place to live as he heals from his injuries and gets back on his feet financially. It’s a more expansive understanding of being a neighbor.

The Golden Rule reconsidered

Being never-too-old-to-learn, I’ve recently been led to refine my understanding of The Golden Rule. I’ve always interpreted “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” as “Treat everyone exactly as I want to be treated.”

When I began to hear what I took as challenges to The Golden Rule, my first reaction was, “How could they? This is basic to all major religions. This simple rule is how we could all get along, if we followed it.” When I got out from behind my unnecessary defensiveness, I realized the challenge wasn’t to the rule but to how we often interpret it.

What if someone doesn’t want to be treated the same as I want to be treated?

Some examples that come to mind are almost frivolous, others more serious. If I am offering someone coffee the way I want it, I will not provide them sugar or cream. It’s the way I want it given to me, but I’m not being hospitable. Many people enjoy engaging in trash talk. They give it out, because they like to give and receive such banter. But for some of us, maybe a small few, this interaction is not fun at all. In these incidences, people are treating others as they themselves like to be treated, but it’s not working for the others.

On a deeper level, there are psychological, cultural and physical differences to consider. One example: Say someone is at a stage in the grief process at which he needs some alone time, whereas I, at that same point, would want someone with me. If I insist on hanging close right then, my treatment, though well-intended, isn’t golden.

I still think my old way of looking at it was pretty good, but it falls short. Maybe a better way of looking at it is: I want to be treated a certain way. Doing unto others the same suggests trying, in so far as possible, to understand how others wish to be treated and then treating them that way. We aren’t all wired exactly the same.