Ruth Burns is a senior studying Religion and English at Andrews University. | photo credit: Elah Nicolas
For what it’s worth, I know the parable of the Good Samaritan pretty well. I’ve heard several sermons on it, and I’ve even read over the passage on my own a few times. In fact, when my brother and I were young it was one of our favorite Bible Stories to act out for charades because it has such a simple plot. Our childhood reenactments stopped when the Samaritan picks up the Jew on his donkey, leaving out the ending where the Samaritan pays for the inn fare and tells the innkeeper he will take care of any additional costs when he returns. Honestly, I think this scene was a little too mature for our young minds to grasp. Like many youthful ideals the grown-up truth isn’t as black and white. Yes, it’s important to be good neighbors, but “treating people as if they were Jesus” isn’t always easy. Applying the parables to your own life doesn’t just look like pretending to be a donkey while your brother carries a floppy doll on your back over to the nearest couch. In “real life,” the characters of the story often look very different than you would expect. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised to find out that, in my life, the Jew was actually a homeless Catholic woman and the good Samaritans were a family of kindhearted Adventists driving back from having Sabbath lunch with the grandparents.
My Granny and Papa live “over the river and through the woods” from us in a little town called Eau Claire. After spending a very pleasant lunch together we’d said our goodbyes, dashed through the chilly January air outside into our warm car, and taken off—late, as usual, to an afternoon appointment. Chatting with dad on the phone, mom drove as quickly as she could while still safely navigating the winding, icy highway.
On our way back through the woods we sped past a small figure hunched up against the wind, struggling to walk besides the road. Bent under the weight of two large backpacks, she was wearing only leggings, a windbreaker, and boots in the below-freezing weather. I think all of us in the car noticed her at the same time. After a few seconds of silence, mom spoke.
“Did you see that girl?” We nodded. “Was she a teenager or a woman—could you tell?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied.
“Do you think we should we go back to see if she wants a ride?”
Mom’s voice betrayed her hesitation. With dad currently traveling abroad, it was just the three of us. Would it be safe to pick her up? Besides, we were already about five minutes late to the evening presentation. After a little deliberation, we made up our minds. It would be wrong to leave this person out in the cold. Finding an open driveway, we turned the car around.
The woman glanced in the car briefly before accepting our offer and climbing in to the back seat next to me. She was petite, probably in her late thirties. Her thin brown hair framed a narrow, anxious face, heavy eyeliner emphasizing her striking blue eyes. Quickly she informed us that her name was Mary and that she was currently homeless—but she had a friend in Bridgman who she was trying to get to that night. If we would be so kind as to take her part of the way, she explained, she would be eternally grateful. After we assured her that we’d be more than willing to help any way we could, Mary relaxed a bit. We learned more of her story as we continued to drive.
Mary’s tale was a sad one. She had been living with her three sons and daughter when her youngest son, Maddox, had unexpectedly passed away during the night. He was only nine years old. Autopsies afterwards revealed that he’d been living with a cardiac defect since birth. His heart had simply stopped beating. Mary produced several pictures of Maddox from her backpack, printed out in black-and-white on sheets of paper and carefully folded. He was a cute little guy with the biggest smile. “Imagine going upstairs to wake up your little boy for breakfast,” she said, “and finding his feet cold to the touch as you stand by his bed.” Her eyes teared up. “You don’t think that he’s dead, you think, ‘oh! I should get him some nice warm socks to keep his feet warm!’ You say, ‘Maddox, come downstairs for breakfast, I’ve got your favorite cereal ready for you!’ You don’t realize that he’s actually gone. It’s just… so unnatural.”
She was right. It was the story of every mother’s worst nightmare. His passing had been so traumatic that Mary had abruptly left the other three kids with her parents, packed up her car, and taken to the road. She just needed to go somewhere, anywhere, to escape. Fleeing, she’d driven down from Illinois, traveling through Tennessee and Georgia all the way to Florida—where she’d seen her first palm tree. Heading back north, she had been spending the nights in her car until she met up with ruffians in Indiana who broke into it while she was asleep, beating her up, stealing all of her belongings, and totaling the vehicle in the process. She’d lost everything. The friend she was meeting in Bridgman would take her for a while, though. If she could only get there.
She hesitated. A lot of people didn’t understand, she said. They criticized her for running away and leaving her kids. It was the cowardly thing to do—but it was the only thing she could do. She just needed to get away. I watched her face, knowing what the numbness of grief does to you. It helped to get away. I understood—at least partially.
Several months earlier a close friend of mine had passed away. After his death all I had wanted to do was to leave, to get out of my sleepy little town where everybody knows everybody’s business. At first I had needed my family and friends, people to grieve with me, shoulders to cry on when the pain washed over me in unpredictable bouts that felt like crashing waves. But then I needed to process, needed space and time to heal my heart. That Christmas break, God worked a miracle to get me on a mission trip to Honduras.
I told Mary I understood the need to get away. I told her about Honduras and the kids there who had healed my bruised heart, how they had put up with my broken Spanish and showered me with hugs and giggles and silly conversations. Because of them I had dared to love again.
“That’s what I need,” Mary said wistfully. “I would love to go on some sort of mission trip like that, to help other people you know?”
She said it as if it had been her idea. Regardless of this I smiled and nodded, knowing that time spent serving and loving people is often the best type of medicine.
At this point my mom and I looked at each other. This woman needed help, and we could help her. But by this point we were almost fifteen minutes late for the meeting so there was only one way it could happen. “You know, Mary, we’re actually headed to a little presentation about the Honduras trip… Would you like to come with us—we can take you down to Bridgman afterwards?” She said that sounded great.
It was a very small gathering of probably less than twenty people. As we slipped in, nearly twenty minutes late now, our director was talking passionately about the Honduran children’s home, the Hogar de Niños. I joined the volunteers taking turns with him at the front, describing how we helped out with various activities during the trip. I shared about the Wednesday night prayer meeting where I’d given my testimony, telling the kids about losing my friend and God healing my heart. After the prayer meeting one of the tough girls, the one who’d proudly claimed she could never love or care about anybody, had come up to hug me with tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry about your friend,” she’d said, holding onto my arms for several moments after the hug, squeezing me tightly.
Mary sat next to my mom on one of the benches, her face masked in an empty smile. Our director talked about the difference between the Children’s Home and an orphanage, explaining how the children there weren’t usually orphans but had parents who had either abandoned them or were unable to take care of them. I wondered what Mary was thinking. Was she remembering her three remaining kids at home?
“I think Trent understands,” she’d said in the car. “He’s the oldest. Zachary…I’m not sure. I hope he understands.” Mary turned away, avoiding my gaze. She looked out the window to the passing scenery, flashes of trees and patches of snow.
“What about the girl,” I asked softly.
“Scarlet?” Her voice trailed off. “No, I don’t think she understands. She’s too young. Maybe one day she will.” She was quiet. “I hope… I hope they can forgive me.” I thought about Mary’s choice. Was it right? Was Mary justified in abandoning her three little kids because of the pain of losing one? Her eyes were sorrowful, haunted.
“Do you think they miss me?” I didn’t know what to say.
“Probably…I mean, you’re their mother.”
After the presentation we took Mary to the store. As the sun set the road stretched red before us. “Get anything you need,” we said. “We’ll pay for it.” She was hesitant at first, not used to people being so nice, she said. We insisted. She filled a cart with food that was nutritious and easy to carry. As she warmed up to us she brightened, telling us little stories and jokes. “Look at me,” she said with a giggle, “My personality’s coming out!”
We helped her pick out a backpacking bag with lots of volume so that she could carry everything with her. Lastly, mom took her to the ladies’ section for supplies while my brother and I chose some scarves for her to pick from. Her eyes lit up as she felt their soft texture. “Oh! Can I have this one?” she exclaimed, “It’s gray—gray is my favorite color! Do you think it looks good on me?” She posed, we complimented. Then she sobered. “Or…do you think I should get black, so I don’t draw attention to myself? There’s some pretty nasty men out there.” We shrugged. It was up to her. She chose the black one. It matched her coat and leggings.
At the register, Mary cried.
“Why are you guys so nice?” she said.
“It’s the right thing to do,” I replied, hugging her.
Mom had tears in her eyes. My brother’s eyes met mine and he made a little sentimental face. I wasn’t crying, I don’t usually cry about sentimental things—but it felt good to help someone.
Mary reminded us of the man staying in Bridgman, a friend of a friend who might let her sleep in his room for the night. We took her to the hotel, a dark, low-lying building with rooms in rows on either side and a run-down office in the middle. The lights flickered. We exchanged uneasy glances as Mary talked inside. Mom shook her head, “She can’t stay here. It’s not safe.” The hotel wouldn’t let her stay. Relieved, we drove her to another hotel a few miles away, passing the sign for a Catholic Church that was nearby. “You know,” Mary said, “maybe that sign is for me. I’ve really been thinking since that mission trip thing you guys took me to. I’d like to go to Mass tomorrow—even though my last confession was only a couple of months ago.” She was thoughtful.
Before we entered the hotel, we prayed together in the car. Then, we went inside and paid for a room, helping Mary load a cart with the many bags of groceries and supplies. A man near the door smoked a cigarette as we went by. He whistled and grinned, showing jumbled yellow teeth.
“Wow, I’d like to see you in the pool tonight.”
We looked at each other, disgusted, not sure who he was talking to. He wasn’t there when we went back with the second load of grocery bags.
Mary said she’d sort out her food and new things later. She chattered on about how excited she was to take a warm shower for as long as she wanted without worrying that she’d be using up someone else’s hot water. Together we rode the lift up to her floor, pushed the unwieldy cart to her room, watched her scan her card at the door. It flashed green and clicked open. We hugged her, tight, and she teared up again.
“How can I pay you back?”
“One day you’ll find someone you can help. Pay it forwards,” we suggested.
After saying our last goodbyes, we headed back with the cart. At the bottom of the stairs we talked with the worker at the front desk. Mom explained the situation, explaining that the lady upstairs was a homeless woman, that we had paid for her room, and that her friend should be coming to pick her up in the morning. “Okay…” The man said, staring at us as if we had purple skin, an awkward grin on his face.
On the way home the three of us were thoughtful. I looked past the empty seat where Mary had sat to the window where stars twinkled in the sky outside. She had believed Maddox was up there, watching her. She said that he had turned ten in heaven just last month. I wondered if she really planned on going to Mass tomorrow.
Together we discussed Mary’s tales with tentative skepticism. It did seem a little strange that she hadn’t used our phone to call the friend she’d said would pick her up in the morning. After a little while though, we felt bad for doubting her. She’d seemed pretty genuine overall, and there was no doubt her grief for Maddox was real.
“You know,” I said slowly, “all this really reminds me of the parable of the good Samaritan.” Mom brightened, suggesting we read the story for worship as we drove. Obliging, I pulled out my phone and opened the Bible app to Luke 10.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers…”
When it finished, we were quiet.
“Wow,” said my brother. “That really hit home a lot harder than I expected.”
We pondered the stories’ uncanny similarities. The traveler, beaten and robbed. The helpful passer-by, tending to the man’s wounds and taking him to an inn. Even the conversation with the innkeeper. “I feel bad about what we said to the guy at the front desk,” I said slowly. “We were worried about her overstaying, but the Samaritan tells the innkeeper to look after the Jew no matter the expense… he even says that he’ll pay for anything extra that might come up.” There was a lot to think about.
I had been struggling lately with the idea that, as Christians, we should treat everybody we interact with as if they were Jesus. The concept seems pretty straightforward at first but I’ve always wondered—what about when the person you encounter is clearly not like Jesus? It’s all good when you’re helping innocent orphans and abandoned children who give you hugs and laughter and beg you to come visit again, but what about when the person you help takes advantage of your kindness? What do you do when they use your well-intended help to hurt themselves further?
Mom called me the next day with the news.
“Ruth, you’re going to have to cancel your debit card, and you might have to file a dispute with the hotel.” I was shocked. Mom told me that she’d called the hotel that morning to check on Mary and see if her friend had come to pick her up. They told her that Mary had came down after we left and informed the front desk that she would be staying on my card for the next couple of months. My heart sank. “Fortunately, you’re not allowed to do that,” mom continued, “they only book rooms for a week at a time—but there’s still going to be a huge charge on your card.”
I checked, and sure enough there it was. After everything, the total charge was almost a thousand dollars. Gone. I was overwhelmed.
“I’m sorry Ruth,” mom said. “She wasn’t who we thought she was, honey. I checked with a rehab center near where we picked her up and they told me she was a drug addict who had been in their program. They said she left the center yesterday around noon. Just packed up her stuff and left. They were so thankful to hear that we’d helped her. They’d been worried.”
I was dumbstruck.
“Are you ok?” Mom said, her voice worried.
“Yeah,” I lied.
Mary’s actions stung. I felt betrayed. Why did I always trust so quickly, love so easily, give so much without restraint? Why had she lied to us? We could have helped her better if she’d told us the truth. And now my money was funding her. I imagined her bringing men back to her hotel room and using the money she had leftover to buy more drugs. It began to dawn on me that we had helped her to run away from the place she needed to be. We were facilitating her addiction, enabling her to continue hurting herself. Thankfully, my mom and some pastors of the church took care of the financial situation, talking with the hotel staff and paying for the expenses through a special church fund. We learned that Mary had left the hotel room full of trash and even some of the food we’d bought her. Mom told the hotel staff to give the food to someone who really needed it.
That week I struggled. What had we done wrong? We had done the right thing—hadn’t we? God forbid, had we been so focused on doing “the right thing” that we had seen Mary as a good deed and not as a broken, needy individual? And again, the haunting question—how are we supposed to treat people “like Jesus” if they really aren’t like Jesus at all?
Over breakfast I shared my heart with a good friend and fellow theology major. She listened intently, munching on her food, before commenting, “You know what, Ruth? I think that’s a lot like how God sees us.” I was confused. This was about seeing people like Jesus, not about Jesus seeing us. Raabe put her fork down and explained. “We do the same thing to him,” she explained, “with all the blessings he gives us, you know?” My stomach soured at the idea she so casually suggested. It hurt to be treated like this! Catching the look in my face Raabe laughed with surprise. “You really don’t like that, do you?” she said. I shook my head. She was right though, and the more I thought about it the more it sunk in. It wasn’t the answer I had wanted, but it was the answer I needed.
A few weeks after all this happened Mary popped up on my Facebook messenger, to my surprise. I’d forgotten that she added herself as my friend when she was showing me pictures of Maddox. She had said that she would accept the friend request as soon as she could so we could keep in touch. It struck me that she really had been genuine with us—to an extent. Whatever the full story was, it was clear that Mary had a lot of experience with people who had treated her badly. For Mary and many like her, kind people are hard to come by. Thus, from her perspective, our goodness was rationally an opportunity that she needed to take advantage of.
Why she went through with accepting the friend request, I may never know. I’ve thought about sending a message, saying, “I forgive you,” but I realized that for me this was never about her. Telling Mary I forgave her wouldn’t solve any of her problems. No, this was about me, the “Samaritan.” If anything, I needed to forgive myself. It’s okay to be a giving person. It’s okay to be trusting and kind. Hurting people hurt people—unfortunately, they often hurt themselves the most. When we pass by the hurting people of this world, those who have been beaten, broken, and robbed by sin, we must realize that they will not be like Jesus. We can’t blame them for this. As Samaritans, sometimes all we can do is love—just like Jesus would.