The Good Samaritan

“. . . he was moved with compassion.”  Luke 10:33

July 14, 2019

In the early morning hours of March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese is walking to her Queens apartment from an adjoining parking lot. A stranger emerges from the shadows and quickly overtakes the smaller woman. The man stabs Kitty several times with a knife in the back, all the while she is screaming.

At this point, several lights turn on in the nearby apartment complex and some of the tenants take notice of the attack occurring on the street below. Irene Frost, a resident of Kitty’s apartment building, later testified that she heard Kitty’s initial scream plainly. “There was a shriek,” Frost said, “and I could see Kitty lying on the ground crying.” Yet, Frost failed to do anything about it.

Likewise, upon hearing the first shriek, Robert Mozer, a resident on the 7thfloor of the same building, slides open his window and sees the struggle taking place down below. Mozer yells out, threatening to call the police. But Mozer neither follows through with the threat nor comes down to assist Kitty.  Instead, he closes his window, turns off the lights, and goes back to sleep.

Kitty remains lying on the sidewalk, sobbing, and bleeding badly from several open stab wounds. Despite her injuries, Kitty manages to drag herself to the side of the building. However, at this point, the attacker returns, only to stab her again.  These screams, too, are heard by several people in the apartment building.  They turn on their lights, go to their windows, and watch.

Upon seeing lights go on within the apartment building, the attacker withdraws, not wanting to be caught. Kitty manages to pull herself into the apartment lobby, where she collapses. The attacker waits until he believes all the onlookers have gone back to bed.  Then, he returns and stabs the semi-conscious woman again, and leaves her to die.

Sadly, this is a true story, and one that does not have the happy ending of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Kitty Genovese died alone in her apartment building lobby that morning.

Kitty’s story, which was first reported in the New York Timesin March 1964, has become a classic reading in courses on social psychology and moral philosophy.  38 people heard or saw what happened that night, but did nothing. It is the dark counterpoint to the parable of the Good Samaritan, and it is just one among dozens and dozens in the so-called literature of “the bystander effect.”

Social psychologists have theories to explain why otherwise decent people are prone to stand on the sidelines rather than help in such situations. One factor, ironically, is the number of people involved. It turns out that a person is less likely to help someone in need the more people are around. Everyone, it seems, assumes someone else will come to the rescue.

Another factor is simple fear:  fear of getting involved; fear of being inadequate to the task of helping; fear of the unknown consequences of helping.

And then there is the question of who is watching:  people are more likely to help if they believe others are watching and there is a risk of embarrassment should they not help. Conversely, a person is less likely to help if he can do nothing unnoticed.

All of us want to believe that we would be the Good Samaritan in situations like these. But the empirical evidence shows that most people in fact fail to do what they ought. Even when we know what we should do, we oftentimes lack the will to do so.

Jesus’ parable this morning contains a clue, I think, to sorting out why this happens.  When Jesus describes the conduct of the Good Samaritan he says in verse 33 that the Samaritan “was filled with compassion.”  This is one of those places where the translation of the original Greek matters a lot to our interpretation. The NRSV translation of the Bible, which we usually follow in church, renders this clause:  the Samaritan “was moved with pity.”  But “pity” is really not quite right. “Pity” suggests that the Samaritan “felt sorry” for the injured man in some detached and slightly superior way. But the underlying Greek word expresses an emotional solidarity, a deep empathy. Literally, it might be rendered this way:  when the Samaritan saw the injured man, he suffered with him. That is, of course, precisely the meaning of the English “compassion”:  to suffer with someone else.

Jesus is telling us something important about how the capacity to feel the pain of others is a necessary predicate to love. The Samaritan is able to reach out in love to his hurting neighbor precisely because he first notices his neighbor’s pain and then allows himself to feel it. The priest and the Levite, by contrast, fail to love their neighbor exactly because they have, for whatever reasons, closed themselves off from noticing, much less feeling, the pain of others.

Love and suffering, it turns out, go together.  Just ask a mother:  the intense bond she feels for her newborn child grows in part out of their shared journey through the mysterious, wonderful, yet painful experience of childbirth.  Or ask two lovers forced to live apart from one another for a lengthy spell:  it is a platitude to say “separation makes the heart grow fonder,” yet it is still profoundly true.  Or ask a Marine:  the fierce loyalty and love soldiers feel for each other in combat arises out of their shared endurance of the horrors of war.  Or ask someone who has held the hand of a dying parent:  the grief that pierces our hearts as we watch someone dear to us slip away brings into the sharpest focus the love we feel for them. To love is to risk suffering, and to love deeply is to know suffering.

Paradoxical as it sounds, we are never more alive than when it hurts. And when we hurt we are also never more aware of our powerlessness. It is at times like these – in the midst of our pain – that we become aware of the possibility of a power beyond ourselves to save us and heal us if we only open ourselves to it.

This intimate link between suffering and love is at the heart of who Jesus is. God’s decision to become human in Christ was a choice, borne of love, to share our human condition, both its joys but also especially its suffering.  And at the center of Jesus’ ministry was his willingness to tend to the suffering of others, and to bear all of the injustices, evils, and hatreds of our world – and, yes, all of its pain too – as he made his way to the Cross.

The great Christian writer, Frederick Buechner, who lost his father to suicide when he was a young boy, put it this way:  “Being a good Christian means being a good steward of pain. It involves being fully alive, of taking the risk of being available to others, of keeping in touch with the pain as well as the joy of what happens, because at no time more than at a painful time do we live out of the depths of who we are instead of the shallows. There is no guarantee that we will find a pearl in the depths, that our pain will have a happy end, or even any end at all, but at least we stand a chance of finding in those depths who we most deeply and humanly are and who others are. . . . The universal experience of pain is what makes us all brothers and sisters, the parents and children of each other, and when we share our pain, the story of one of us becomes the story of all of us.”[1]

What we discover in Christ’s life, and what the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches, is that the capacity to love is inextricably bound up with the capacity to notice and share each other’s troubles.  If we are to “go and do likewise,” as Jesus commands at the end of his parable, if we are to become truly compassionate people rather than sorry bystanders, then we must first stop ourselves in our tracks and look into the world’s wounds.

The very last sermon Martin Luther King, Jr. preached, the day before he was assassinated in Memphis, and just a few years after Kitty Genovese’s murder, was about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. King ended his discussion of the parable with this observation:  When we come upon someone in a ditch along the road, who is hurting and in pain, we can ask ourselves one of two questions.  We can, like the priest and the Levite, say:  “If I help this person, what might happen to me?”  Or, like the Samaritan, we can say to ourselves: “If I don’t help this person, what might happen to him?”  Everythingturns upon which question we ask.

            [1]Frederick Buechner, “Adolescence and the Stewardship of Pain,” inSecrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons (San Francisco: Harper Books, 2006), p. 216-17.