Changing the Past

Scripture reading: Luke 10: 25-37

In her novel "The Bonesetter’s Daughter" Amy Tan tells us that the past is “what we choose to remember.” We cannot change the events of the past, she says, but we can change our memory of the past and, in doing so, we change our future. The past is always heavy with sorrow, but we can choose to remember how those who loved us helped us get beyond our sorrow. Happiness, Tan writes, can be discovered in the love we know and in “the freedom to give and take what has been there all along.” 

What sorrow from your past are you carrying with you? A failed relationship? A lost job opportunity? A bad investment decision? You can change this memory by recalling who helped you recover and get on with your life. 

We're all familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed and beaten. Two other travelers pass by without offering assistance, but a third traveler goes out of his way to see that the injured man receives the care he needs.

The most obvious meaning of the parable is that we should help others in need. This moral lesson challenges our complacency, and it should. But we might also remember this parable with gratitude by recalling those who have helped us when we were in need. We, too, have been injured on the road of life, emotionally as well as physically. We know suffering and sorrow. But others have gone out of their way to help us recover.

The gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The question seems to be looking for a distinction between neighbors and others, so we can know who we should help (and who we can ignore). In this respect the question reflects memories of strangers and enemies who should be excluded from our compassion. 

In the gospel account, however, Jesus surprises his listeners by identifying a neighbor not as someone we should help, but as a person who helps others. We need to change our memory of being hurt by others with the memory of being helped by others. Without knowing who are neighbors are, we can choose to be a good neighbor. 

It is fascinating that the parable says nothing about the motivation of the Samaritan, who shows us what it means to be a good neighbor. Yet, the events in the parable constrain our imagination. 

Clearly, the Samaritan does not know the injured Jew, so the parable is not about a friend helping a friend in need. In fact, those hearing the story in the first century CE knew that Jews and Samaritans had been enemies for five hundred years. So, we also know that the Samaritan was not likely motivated by a sense of moral duty, as neither Jews nor Samaritans felt morally obliged to help their enemy. Nonetheless, in this parable a Samaritan helps a Jew. In our time this would be like telling a story of a Palestinian on the road to Jericho helping an injured Jewish Israeli. 

Finally, the parable says nothing about the Samaritan receiving any commendation for his good deed, or about the Jew promising to reimburse the Samaritan for covering the cost of his care. The moral of this story is not: Help others so that you may be rewarded for being helpful.

What motivation might we reasonably attribute to the Samaritan? Why is he good? By not giving us a specific answer to this question, the parable invites us to ask ourselves: What would move us to help a stranger in need? A possible answer is that we might feel gratitude for those who have cared for us when we were in need. We might be a good neighbor by remembering when we were helped by one.

The parable challenges us to change our memory of the past when that memory of sorrow is blocking our sense of gratitude. It is possible, scripture tells us, to move beyond our sorrows and anger. Being grateful for the love we have known may help us become more loving. © Robert Traer 2016