MLK Day 2018: The Good Samaritan Revisited

By Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, J.D.
Founder/President, G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice

On Martin Luther King, Jr Day, we not only honor the person and the impact of this Christian preacher and justice advocate, we also celebrate his words. Dr. King shared a powerful array of quotes during his lifetime that continue to resonate during ours. But on this MLK Day 2018, I’m particularly struck by this one: “Life’s most persistent question is: What are you doing for others?”

This question that MLK raises not only goes to the heart of community and humanity but also to our individual purpose in this world and in this life. It touches the fundamental lessons that come from the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan. Certainly, most of us have heard or read the parable before. But it is worth revisiting that story with a fresh perspective for this new year.

The Biblical account in Luke 10: 25-37 tells us of a man who is robbed, beaten, and left injured on the side of the road. A group of Pharisees, high priests of the church of the time, saw him, but walked past without aiding him. But a Samaritan man saw the injured individual, assisted him and took him to an inn to rest and be cared for while also covering any related costs. This parable has often been cited many times in many contexts to show the importance and value of caring for others, even strangers, and even in a sacrificial way.

But there are more layers to this story. The man who was injured was a Hebrew. The man who assisted him was a Samaritan. These two groups of people generally had many racial and cultural clashes even to the point of despising each other and being considered enemies. So, it is indeed significant that the injured person was not assisted by Pharisees who shared his culture, but by the Samaritan who was “other.” The Samaritans service went beyond simply assisting a person in need, but crossed cultural bounds. It reminds us that our service is not limited to those we know or who are close to us in relation or proximity. Service can start at home, but can and should extend to the farthest reaches of the world and perhaps to the aid of those who are truly “other.”

If we are present in some one’s moment of need, we have a moral opportunity to serve and support them. But when that need is persistence and pervasive, we then have a moral opportunity to serve continually and broadly.

Further, while the Good Samaritan story itself exemplifies sacrifice, it is not limited to the acts of that day or moment. It leaves us with another set of questions – what if there was yet another man or woman or child in similar circumstances down that road? And what if there were other men, women, and children in these circumstances each and every day that the Samaritan or the Pharisees walked down that road or other roads? What would then be the response of any of these individuals to what they saw?

These questions are not to diminish the care and generosity of the Samaritan on that day, but to highlight that serving others doesn’t stop with just a moment in time. If we are present in some one’s moment of need, we have a moral opportunity to serve and support them. But when that need is persistence and pervasive, we then have a moral opportunity to serve continually and broadly.

How each of us serves may vary based on our circumstances, means, and opportunities. But the question of “what are you doing for others?” should be motivated by our thoughts and actions in the contexts we face. Martin Luther King’s thoughts, words, and actions were motivated by his Christian perspective, his skills, and role as a preacher and as an advocate. And, his pursuit of justice was charged by the overwhelming reality of what was happening to so many in his community and around the country and globe.

So on this MLK Day and in the year ahead, let us ask the persistent question of ourselves and let us be the Good Samaritan for a man, woman, child, community, or country as we are called to do.