I recently fell victim to a rule here in Germany entitled ‘The Good Samaritan Law.’
The statute irked me even before I suffered under it, because it evokes a sacred parable, but totally misses the enduring message of the story. Worse, for those not familiar with one of the most important stories in all of Christianity, familiarity with this law will likely make you presume the exact opposite storyline of The Good Samaritan.
You can read the story yourself in any self-respecting Bible containing the book of Luke. Specifically, Luke chapter 10, verses 25-37.
Incidentally, Luke is my favorite of the Gospels not only because he was a doctor, but also because without him, we wouldn’t really know much about the early church after Jesus died. Luke wrote Acts along with his Gospel.
Doctors. Always so thorough.
Anyway, for a brief run-down of the story, a guy gets the smack-down by bandits while traveling by himself on a lonely road.
While laying there – naked, hacking, bleeding and wheezing – 3 different people walk by. The first two people are the most likely to stop and help him because they’re either from his tribe, or religious-types who might just kinda want to reflect the love of God to the lost and suffering (and involuntarily naked).
However, those guys pass right on by as the man lays suffering in the gutter. The person who does stop is the sworn enemy of the beat-up guy: the Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans hated each other back then. So much that cultured Jews wouldn’t even speak the name ‘Samaritan’. Both groups had all these issues with each other and the way they regarded themselves as El Guapo of God, etc.
So, the story in today’s parlayance would be something along the lines of: a hyper-conservative-to-the-distant-right-of-Pat-Robertson guy stops in a discordant wave of compassion to help a bleeding man with a pink neon sign strapped to his body cyclically buzzing “I’m a proud man-flamer and really, really damn proud of it. Christians SUUUUCK!” This would be after Richard Simmons, Barry Manilow, Franc from Father of the Bride, Surge from Beverly Hills Cop and Bruno all sauntered past without so much as a 2nd sideways glance.
THAT’S the story. The point gets at perhaps Jesus’ most profound and challenging admonition: love your enemy. Volitionally. On purpose. ’Cause you want to, you chose to, nobody made you.
In the Sermon on the Mount – by my estimation, the greatest oratory in all of human history – Jesus says,
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others?
Arguably, this idea of extending love beyond your own brethren to everyone – even punks you hate – distinguishes Christianity from all other religions. In my mind, this teaching constitutes both the core of Christianity, and elevates it above the world’s other great religions.
Love your neighbor as yourself was espoused by the common religious teaching at the time, thought to be imported from Asia. Love your brother as yourself is the prominent admonition in Islam. But love your enemy? That’s out there. Was then. Is today. Pretty much never successfully followed by Christians, but profound teaching nonetheless.
So, you can see that when I encounter The Good Samaritan used in less-than-exact terms, I get edgy. That story rests squarely in the central belief system of my life.
And what is the German Good Sam Law? Simply, that if you see someone in need of aid, you are required to offer any assistance you reasonably can (no road-shoulder femur reductions required if you’re a manager at Staples, for example).
The name of this law probably came from an identically-named law in the States. However, in the States, the Good Sam law simply protects anyone from getting sued for attempting to be a “Good Samaritan” by helping someone in dire need…and the would-be Sam actually screws it up, or just doesn’t actually help, or only sorta helped but could have done better…or anything else the average creative American might come up with to get themselves a lawsuit against your average kindhearted bonehead.
I don’t mind the name applied to the American law because it’s simply a protection against lawsuits. It doesn’t reference the parable incorrectly.
The German law is incorrectly named because the whole notion of a Good Samaritan is that their actions are by choice and unexpected. Furthermore, the Good Sam is helping someone he is supposed to hate.
The German law simply forces you to help anyone, love ‘em or hate ‘em. So, the name has been applied lazily, which undermines a story with sacred meaning that shouldn’t be distorted.
Hmph. Did I get old suddenly?
And how did this law affect me? Today, while on an exit ramp on the autobahn, we were flagged down by a couple next to their car. The man waved frantically, wide-eyed, looking like something must have gone terribly wrong. I would not have pulled over at that point in the U.S. I would have assumed it was some sort of scam and known that Emergency people could probably handle it. But this is Germany. I’m obligated to be a “Good Samaritan” (contradiction in terms…see above). So I pull over. The man urgently asks for gas money.
His car is out of gas.
Am I supposed to “help” with this? Would I be a “Bad Samaritan” in Germany if I didn’t help this guy out? Worriedly, I pull out 20 Euro and give it to him, furtively casting glances over my shoulder for the “Polezi” and seeing a disembodied officer’s head nod in approval as I hand over the legal tender.
The guy acts instantly relieved and immensely grateful. He tries to give me his worthless “gold” chain, which we refuse. I then realize that those 20 Euro cost me about 30 U.S. dollars, plus whatever cost I incurred to get them from the cash machine the day before. Driving away, I realize that 30 bucks is more than enough to get some gas. 5 would have been fine. I also wonder why the guy is trying to get money RIGHT THERE, why not wait ’till they got to the gas station, then peddle money? My cash isn’t going to get him off the should of the road.
I gave more than I could afford, trying to avoid becoming a “Bad Samaritan”, and in truth, I was probably scammed. In normal life, I virtually never give money to individual people I don’t know because I can’t be sure that what they do with the money will be beneficial. I’ve long come to accept that giving money to beggars is really about my guilt issues, rather than my genuine desire to help them.
This time, giving that money derived from being afraid that I would go to German jail, forever labeled as a Bad Samaritan.
So, I’m critical of the title of the law. I also think the whole idea of a law that forces you to help people has lots of ethical and liberty issues with it.
Germany’s great…but they ought to take another look at their law, starting with the name of it.