Not long ago, a man in Hamilton, Ontario became identified with one of Jesus’s best-known characters without intending to.
The man lived in a downtown condo, and got tired of looking out his window at the trash in the parking lot below. So he decided to clean up the mess. He collected several boxes of assorted cans, bottles and paper litter strewn on the ground, and stacked them against a posted sign in the alley advertising designated trash pick-up times.
While working, the man was approached by three city of Hamilton bylaw officers. He thought they were coming to help him. He was wrong. They rewarded his good deed with a $125 fine. When the man asked what he had done wrong, the officers told him that he had committed “illegal dumping.” He had moved the trash from private property to a public alleyway. “It’s alright for you to pick up the trash,” the officers said. “But when you place it on city property, the taxpayer ends up paying for it.” They said the man should have called the city to report the litter, rather than cleaning it up himself, though the city conceded it could have been seven days until it got removed.
The connection between this well-intentioned citizen and Jesus lay in the story’s headline: “City trashes Good Samaritan for downtown parking lot clean-up.”
The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is one of the best-known stories of Jesus. “Good Samaritan” has become so much associated with doing selfless good deeds that the label has been enshrined in the names of hospitals and care centres, housing projects and boys ranches. There are even Good Samaritan laws to protect us from liability suits, should we stop to help a stranger in distress and get into legal trouble.
But Jesus’s original story contains sharp twists and subtle layers of meaning that we may miss because it is so familiar. On Sunday, July 19, our worship will focus on this famous parable. We will try to listen to it anew, and see what fresh insight the story of the man who did good might yield for us.