A portion of Texas State Highway 118 runs south from Alpine, Texas through the Chihuahuan Desert to Big Bend National Park. This particular stretch of road is a two-lane strip of sun-bleached pavement running for over 80 miles through the desert. There are no towns, farms, rest stops or gas stations along the way. It was 1990 and my wife, Myra, and I were on our way to Big Bend to backpack for three days. We’d left Dallas earlier in the day and were intent upon making the 533 mile drive without an overnight stop. We wanted to be at the ranger station when it opened in the morning in order to secure our choice of campsites overlooking the majestic South Rim of the park. It was 3:00 a.m. in the morning when we stopped for gas in Alpine, before heading south on that desolate stretch of road.
There were no street lights or even the ambient light of civilization. Only our headlights and the glow of a partial moon lit the way. I had to drive more slowly I wanted because the deer were out and periodically darting across the roadway. And to make the scene more eerie, there were sporadic patches of wispy fog moving along the ground.
We were about halfway down the road when out in the darkness we spotted an old car parked on the side of the road. Its lights were off and two men stood together at the rear of the car, looking at us as we approached them. They weren’t trying to get our attention, and they didn’t appear to be in distress, but it was 3:30 a.m. in the morning in the middle of the desert. Immediately, I faced a dilemma. Should I stop and ask them if they needed help? What were they doing out here at this time of the night? Were they criminals or drug dealers or robbers? What would happen to us if I stopped? In that moment I decided not to stop and we drove on by. For almost 30 years, I continue to think about those men whenever I read the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It would be the last speech or sermon he ever gave. He was in Memphis, Tennessee and the very next day, his life would tragically end by an assassin’s bullet. But on that night he talked about developing “a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” Illustrating his point, he asked the crowd to consider why the priest and the Levite failed to stop and help the bleeding man on the side of the road. Maybe they were late for church, he hypothesized. Then he gave his theory: “they were scared.”
He explained that the setting for Jesus’ parable, Jericho Road, was known as a dangerous road. A “winding, meandering road; really conducive for ambushing.” It was called the “bloody pass.” Dr. King suggested that maybe the priest and the Levite were worried that the robbers who’d assaulted the bleeding man were still around, or maybe the man was only pretending to be injured so that he could rob them. Dr. King suggested that the question the priest and the Levite had asked themselves was: "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But the Good Samaritan turned the question around and asked: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"
Who among us wouldn’t stop to help a bleeding man on the side of the road? It seems like an obvious choice where there’s not much room for debate, but the truth is that life doesn’t always present us with choices that are easy or clear. It’s unlikely that many (or any) of us will be called to truly risk death in order to help someone in need. And our decisions are often influenced by fears that aren’t related to our physical safety. It could be a matter of economic security, or even the demands of busy lives, that rob us of our ability to focus on those who are not immediate family or friends.
As I reflect on my decision in the desert, I can easily come up with numerous justifications for my choice to keep going: They didn’t appear to be in distress, they didn’t try to waive me down, it was the middle of the night, and we were near the Mexican border. They might have been drug dealers or human traffickers, and there were no cell phones in 1990. Honestly, I’m not sure I would make a different decision if it happened again tomorrow. But truth be told, the only question in my mind at that particular moment was: “What will happen to us, if I stop?”
Dr. King’s point is helpful. Being the Good Samaritan is a lot about our state of mind: thinking less about what will happen to us if we get involved in the problems of others and more about what will happen to them if we do not. Like it or not, we are faced with this question every day, as we speed down lighted, newly paved toll roads, trying to make it to that next meeting, kid activity, or even to church. Sometimes being the Samaritan is easy; sometimes it’s not. And at other times, we may be so distracted by the road in front of us that we don’t even see the bleeding man, or at least we chose not to notice.
We also face these dilemmas of personal safety and economic security when we contemplate difficult issues such as immigration, border security, childhood hunger, a failing educational system, racial unrest and the challenges of devising a healthcare system that is truly accessible to everyone. These are big issues, and it’s often easier to keep on driving than to stop and find out how we can help.
As our NorthPark mission trip participants drove the winding, back roads of East Texas last weekend, they were challenged to think about the moments in their lives when they encountered the bleeding man on the side of the road. As you look ahead in the next week, month, season, ask yourself: Were you the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan? In what ways can we better focus on the question: “What will happen to him if I don’t stop?”
Resources for Further Reflection
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King’s Speech (“I’ve Been to the Mountain Top”)¹
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base....
Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn't stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "thou," and to be concerned about his brother.
Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn't stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn't be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that "One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony." And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem – or down to Jericho, rather to organize a "Jericho Road Improvement Association." That's a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.
But I'm going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It's possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, "I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable." It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1,200 miles – or rather 1,200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, 15 or 20 minutes later, you're about 2,200 feet below sea level. That's a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the "Bloody Pass." And you know, it's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked – the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"
¹Delivered April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee
Listen the audio recording of Dr. King's speech on YouTube