The theme of God’s provision through human labor continues in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable, God’s provision for a crime victim comes through the compassion of a foreign traveler, who evidently has enough wealth to pay for a stranger’s medical care. This may be the best-known of all Jesus’ parables, though it occurs only in the Gospel of Luke. It follows immediately after Luke’s account of the Great Commandment. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus says that greatest commandment in all of scripture is to “love God” and “love your neighbor.” In Luke 10:25-37 the discussion of the greatest commandment continues directly into the Parable of the Good Samaritan. For the workplace implications of the Great Commandment, see "The Great Commandment is a Great Framework (Matthew 22:34-40)” and “Our Work Fulfills the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34).”
In Luke’s account, the lawyer begins by asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks the lawyer to summarize himself what is written in the law, and the lawyer returns with the Great Commandment “Love the Lord your God… and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replies that this is indeed the key to life.
The lawyer then asks Jesus a follow-up question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds by telling a story which has been called “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” This story is so compelling that it has permeated into popular knowledge far beyond Christian circles. People who have never picked up a Bible will still recognize the meaning of the term “Good Samaritan” as someone who takes care of a stranger in need.
Given the cultural idea of a “Good Samaritan” as someone with an extraordinary talent for compassion, we might be tempted to overlook the actual Samaritan in Jesus’ story. And yet it is important to our understanding of our own work to examine why the Samaritan Jesus describes was a successful businessman.
The Samaritan in Jesus’ story comes upon the Jew injured by robbers along a well-known trading route. The Samaritan likely traveled that trade route often, as evidence by the fact that he was known at a nearby inn and deemed trustworthy enough by the innkeeper to demand an extension of services on credit. Whatever the nature of his business, the Samaritan was successful enough to be able to afford oil and wine for medicinal purposes and lodging at an inn for a complete stranger. He is willing to spend his money on the stranger, and his time too. The Samaritan puts his other business on hold to see to the needs of the injured stranger.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan can thus be interpreted as a story about using our material success to benefit others. The hero of the parable spends his money on a stranger without any direct obligation to do so. They are not related by kinship or even by faith. Indeed, the Samaritans and the Jews were often antagonistic toward one another. And yet in Jesus’ mind, to love God is to make anyone who needs our help into our “neighbor.” Jesus emphasizes this point by reversing the thrust of the lawyer’s original question. They lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” a question that begins with the self and then asks who the self is obligated to aid. Jesus reverses the question, “Which of the three was a neighbor to the man?” a question that centers on the man in need, and asks who is obligated to help him. If we begin by thinking of the person in need, rather than ourselves, does that give us a different perspective on whether God calls us to help?
This doesn’t mean we are called to absolute, infinite availability. No one is called to meet all the needs of the world. It is beyond our capability. The Samaritan doesn’t quit his job to go searching for every injured traveler in the Roman Empire. But when he crosses paths—literally—with someone who needs the help he can give, he takes action. “A neighbor,” says the preacher Haddon Robinson, “is someone whose needs you have the ability to meet.”
The Samaritan doesn’t just help the injured man by throwing a few coins his way. Rather, he makes sure all the man’s needs are cared for, both his immediate medical needs and his need for a space to recuperate. The Samaritan thus cares for the man as he might care for his own self. This fulfills Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Samaritan takes on an extraordinary degree of risk to help this stranger. He risks getting jumped by the same bandits when he stoops to see what has happened to the man. He risks being cheated by the Innkeeper. He risks being saddled by the expense and emotional weight of caring for someone who has become chronically ill. But he takes on these risks because he acts as if his own life were the one in question. This is Jesus’ best example of what it might mean to be a neighbor to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Another feature of the story that would have surprised Jesus’ listeners is the ethnicity of the hero, a Samaritan. Jesus’ people, the Jews, considered Samaritans ethnically and religiously inferior. Yet the Samaritan is more attuned to the Law of Moses than the Jewish religious leaders who pass by on the other side of the road. His presence in Jewish territory is not a danger to be feared, but a saving grace to be welcomed.
At work we have many chances to be neighbors with co-workers, customers and others across ethnic or cultural divides. Being a Good Samaritan in the workplace means cultivating a specific awareness of the needs of the other. Are there people in your workplace who are being robbed in some way? Often specific ethnic groups are deprived of recognition or promotion. A conscientious Christian should be the one to say, “Are we giving this person a fair shake?”
Similarly, just as enmity had grown between the Jews and Samaritans, management and employees often think of themselves as two distinct tribes. But that doesn’t need to be the case. One company didn’t see it that way at all. Arthur Demoulas, CEO of the chain of groceries Market Basket, made it a point to treat his workers exceptionally well. He paid them well over the minimum wage and refused to scrap the company’s profit-sharing plan even when the company lost money during an economic downturn. He forged direct connections with his workers, learning the names of as many of them as possible. This was no small feat in a company of 25,000 employees. When Market Basket’s board of directors fired Arthur Demoulas in 2014, due in large part to his generous practices, the employees of the supermarket chain went on strike. Workers refused to stock the shelves until Arthur Demoulas regained control of the company. It was perhaps the first instance ever of workers of a large company organizing at the grassroots level to choose their own CEO, and it was fueled by Arthur Demoulas’ self-sacrificing generosity.
In this case, being a Good Samaritan actually boosted Arthur Demoulas’ success. Perhaps it’s not only good spiritual counsel but good business advice when Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
Thanks to everyone who has invested in the Theology of Work Project! Thanks to your generosity, we were able to meet all our needs for 2017! We ask that you continue to keep us in your prayers and charitable giving in 2018 as we equip Christians to connect to God's purposes for work.