14 November 2005
by Kristine Morrison
Last month Sydney’s Plunkett Centre for Ethics hosted a symposium on the theme Helping the Needy Stranger, at which Raimond Gaita (University of London and Australian Catholic University) John Quilter (ACU) and Warren Reich (Georgetown University, Washington D.C.) presented papers.
Prof Reich argued that the story of the Good Samaritan provides the preeminent narrative of care that informs and illustrates the Western tradition of care for the needy stranger.
He made a compelling argument for links between seeing someone in need and acting compassionately toward that person. He noted that, when the Samaritan saw the injured traveller, he was “moved with pity” (Luke 10:33). Similarly, in another Lucan parable, when the father of the prodigal son saw his son still some way in the distance he was “moved with compassion and ran to him and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
Prof Reich acknowledged that to see someone in need is not all that is needed to motivate a compassionate act. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Priest and the Levite saw the injured traveller but did not stop to help. When we are able to see ourselves in the situation of need, we are free to act compassionately toward a needy person because that person is no longer strange to us. Caring for a needy stranger becomes an act of self-completion as one finds in the other some element of the self.
While some may gain profound satisfaction in caring for the needy, we find no hint in the story that the Samaritan recognised something familiar in the injured traveller and responded to him on that basis. Moreover a notion of care dependent on self-recognition in the face of a stranger flounders if one cannot imagine oneself in the stranger’s circumstances. In failing to make an empathetic connection with the person in need, one is free to ignore the stranger’s needs – as did the Pharisee and the Priest.
Who then do we see when we care for the needy stranger? As a young student nurse I was told by a mildly eccentric and supremely devoted older nurse to “care for people as though I were caring for my mother”. She told me it was not enough to care for people as I would want to be cared for. As she sweetly expressed it, “You would accept second best for yourself, but not for your mother”. Seeing the image of someone we love in the face of a needy person can be a powerful motivation to offer practical care.
There are, however, limits to this idea as a model for care. Prof Reich recounted an instance when he visited a Paediatric Oncology Unit in his professional capacity. He was so overwhelmed by the sight of a young patient who was much like his own young son that he had to leave. If compassionate care for the needy stranger requires us to identify someone we love in the face of a stranger our ability to care for them is at risk of being paralysed if we over-identify with the needy person.
Traditionally, Christian care for the needy stranger has been sustained by the conviction that we are serving Christ when we serve those who are needy. Christ himself said that when we feed the hungry and care for the sick and visit those in prison we are offering service to him. However, in challenging us to care for the needy as though we were caring for Christ, did he ask us to supplant a vision of himself in the faces of the needy? Did he ask us to “see Jesus in the faces of the needy and the suffering,” as Christians often express it?
These questions bring to mind the older biblical narrative of an encounter between God and Hagar in the desert after Hagar’s expulsion from Abraham’s household (Genesis 21:1-19). Hagar is in desperate need. She is alone and in peril but God sees her and comes to her rescue. Whom did God see when looking at Hagar? Was it an image of God’s own face that moved God to act compassionately towards her? The story does not seem to indicate that.
Did God see Jesus, the Son who would later suffer for humankind and therefore relieve Hagar’s need in his name? There is no reference to Jesus here. Did God see Abraham, or the face of another beloved creature, or perhaps an angel whom God deeply loved? It does not appear so.
What the text suggests is that God saw Hagar. Hagar gives God the name El-roi, “the God who sees,” and calls the place of her encounter “the well of the Living One who sees me”. In the words of the Michael Card song El Shaddai, “To the outcast on her knees, you were the God who really sees”. God did not regard the difference between creature and creator as so vast that he was immune to her sufferings. Nor did he insert a more favourable or worthy face on the suffering Hagar to make assistance to her more palatable. God saw Hagar and responded to her with compassion and mercy.
Prof Reich is right to claim that the story of the Good Samaritan is the archetypal story for the compassionate care of the needy stranger. Its appeal and application are universal. The story speaks to all cultures, all religions and all eras because it models care for the needy on the basis of need alone and, on the part of the one who is caring, some capacity to alleviate that need.
Kristine Morrison is a midwife at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
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