Washington National Cathedral’s director of program and ministry, the Rev. Lyndon Shakespeare, and Dr. Matthew Sleeth, executive director of Blessed Earth, explore the biblical case for caring for God’s creation as interpreted in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Cathedral is partnering with Blessed Earth in the coming programmatic year to offer a series of programs focused on the importance of careful stewardship of the earth.
None of Christ’s teachings offers better instruction on how to care for all of God’s creation than the parable of the Good Samaritan. At first this might sound surprising, given that the parable doesn’t speak specifically about the created order—let alone our part in creation care. But what it does address is how we are to act for the sake of love, and that lesson provides a basis for the way we live on this earth.
In the Gospel of Luke, Christ is asked, point blank, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He replies, “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” (Luke 10:27). Eternal life is seeing love at work in us and through us: not the warm fuzzy feelings or positive emotions or even the niceties of religious piety, but the love that sets people free and allows something new in the world. This is God’s love. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams notes that it is a love that deals “with the deepest tangles and knots of our situation, the love that was the essence of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.” It is this love, the right kind of love for our fellow humans, which is the basis for keeping the earth as a place that provides a secure home for all people.
The Good Samaritan
The man in Luke’s Gospel follows his question by asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Christ tells of a Jewish man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he falls into the hands of robbers, who strip him, beat him, and go away, leaving him “half dead.”
Jesus then tells of a priest from the mugged man’s own religious group who walks by yet offers no assistance.
A second religious man comes along, a Levite. He sees the man, crosses to the other side of the road, but also offers no help.
Finally a Samaritan comes along, traveling on a donkey. He is from a wealthier socio-economic class, riding rather than walking. He is also a Samaritan, a group of people despised by the Jews (and vice versa). But the Samaritan is moved by compassion. He gets off his donkey and begins making bandages, using his own oil and wine to help the man. He then puts the mugged man on his donkey and pays for care at an inn, the equivalent of a hospital in that day. Lastly he agrees to pick up the bill for any additional care.
Christ closes the parable by asking who truly showed mercy to the mugged man. The scribe must answer, “The Samaritan.” But the answer might also suggest an instruction in how we can thrive as humans.
The parable demonstrates a continuum of compassion. It is also instructive in our thinking about how the right kind of love is the basis for our care of all creation. Consider for a moment how the priest might represent those of us who refuse to take any responsibility for environmental problems. We are faced with the consequences of generations of failure to cherish each other and the earth as we could—so we close our eyes and walk on by. All of us have choices. For the priest, it seems as if fear and greed have been given freedom to rule his heart and imagination.
The second passerby, the Levite, is perhaps like most of us: he sees the problem and then says, “I should get back to Jerusalem and raise awareness. Maybe I’ll blog on the problem of highway muggings or send a letter off to the Roman centurion about beefing up patrols and installing better street lights.” Like the Levite, we see the hardship caused by environmental problems, particularly for the poorest among us. We hear of devastation and desertification, of biological impoverishment and degradation, and are tempted to fall back in fear in the face of the magnitude of the problems. Perhaps we are tempted to blame former generations or wait for someone else to make the first move in the right direction. Our hearts are moved to compassion, but we do little (if anything) to help. The problem seems too big, too overwhelming. We are paralyzed and so we do not act.
Only the Samaritan, the one who is least likely to view the mugged man as his neighbor, takes action. The Samaritan is like a portrait of commitment to the environment in which God has placed us. It is the recognition that we are called to be, and are enabled to be, the place where God’s love for the world comes through. In the Samaritan’s unquestioning impulse to care and restore, we are shown an icon of what it means to live out of trust in the delight and attention God finds in creation.
What Is the Solution?
When we begin from the belief that God wants us to enjoy and delight in the created world, our basic attitude to the environment will not be the fear and blame of the priest and Levite in the parable but rather hopeful patterns of thought and action, patterns that honor the goodness and needs of our ailing earth. Creation care flows from Christ’s command to love the world we inhabit as an outgrowth of the love we have for each other.
What does this parable teach us about how we should approach environmental problems today?
- To have any lasting effect, our hearts must be moved by compassion, not fear.
- We may have to use our own resources, or trust others enough to benefit from their resources.
- The way forward may be inconvenient and expensive.
- We will have to accept the role of trust in our engagement with others.
- We will have to learn the depth of a Christ-shaped love.
- Everyone is our neighbor, including people across the globe and future generations.
All of these lessons apply directly to our environmental problems today; the most important lesson of the Good Samaritan, however—the one that can separate us from the priest and Levite—is that we must “get off our donkey” before we can become part of the solution.
The future will not be saved by our good intentions. It will be made better, or worse, only by our actions.
We show our love for the Lord by loving our neighbors. Every time we buy anything, or take any action, we should consider a number of questions: Will this help me love God? Will this help me love my neighbor? And finally, what would be a healthy and sustainable relationship with this world, a relationship that would manifest both joy in and respect for the earth? The answer will always lead us to right action.