He Had Compassion (Luke 10:31-33)

by Kosuke Koyama

>Kosuke Koyama is John D.Rockefeller, Jr., Professor of Ecumenics and World Christianity at Union Theology Seminary in New York City.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 5-12, 1989, p. 651. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The parable is not concerned about the conflict between the principle of good and evil. It is a story neither of fatalism nor of retribution. It suggests no philosophical system. It confronts us irresistibly, disturbing our conscience and urging us toward an ethic of social responsibility.

Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him he had compassion (Luke 10:31-33).

The situation is both ancient and as contemporary as can be. In the ancient tradition of Buddhism we read of the young prince Siddhartha, the future Buddha, taking outings. Outside his palace he sees the human conditions of old age, sickness and death. One day he sees "an aged man as bent as a roof gable, decrepit, leaning on a staff, tottering as he walked, afflicted and long past his prime." On the next outing he sees "a sick man, suffering and ill, fallen and weltering in his own water." The sight grips him. Mentally he cannot "pass by." The Buddhist tradition traces its origin to this "parable."

Twenty-five centuries after the Buddha, I see similar sights in New York City. In the Times Square subway station I saw a black man who was not only old and sick, but who had "fallen among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead." The ruthless power system of our society, propelled by human greed, stripped him and beat him, leaving him half dead. But not all passed by.

Tragically, it is not difficult to make an endless litany of passing by on the other side. It may seem to us shocking and incredible that humanity "passed by on the other side" when Hitler attempted the total destruction of European Jewry in this century. But not all passed by.

A very serious ecological crisis is with us today. We are still trying to pass by on the other side of this crisis, though there is hardly any space that may be called the "other side" in this issue! But not all pass by.

Passing by may be called "keeping law and order" by the ruling class of a community. If the victims are kept invisible the newspapers and televisions can say that law and order have been maintained. The New York Times reports that in Brazil the top 2 percent of the landowners control 60 percent of the arable land. In Colombia 4 percent controls 68 percent, in El Salvador 1 percent controls 41 percent, in Guatemala 1 percent controls 34 percent and in Paraguay 1 percent controls 80 percent. The majority of the people are being "stripped and beaten." The job of the police and military forces is to keep the "undesirables" invisible from the affluent section of the community. But there are people who do not pass by. They make the poor visible. The Samaritan in the parable makes the victim visible. He is in the line of the "troubler of Israel" (I Kings 18:17)

In interreligious discussions Buddhism is often viewed as inferior to Christianity because it is not theistic. Such an argument makes me think of a giraffe declaring a zebra inferior for lack of a long neck. The giraffe will always win, if it is the giraffe who sets the rules of the game. I sense here a hint of the "passing by" psychology. But not all pass by.

In the Book of Deuteronomy we read an admonition to Israel that she should be compassionate (not pass by on the other side) to weak and insecure strangers sojourning among them because once Israel was "a slave in the land of Egypt." Israel, too, had an experience of being passed by in time of need. This terse admonition suggests the disturbing truth that victims can become victimizers in a different setting. But there are still those few who do not pass by.

Is it the "religious" people who usually do not pass by? Not necessarily. In A Theology for the Social Gospel Walter Rauschenbusch wrote:

Some become worse through their revival experiences, more self-righteous, more opinionated, more steeped in unrealities and stupid over against the most important things, more devoted to emotions and unresponsive to real duties. We have the highest authority for the fact that men may grow worse by getting religion.

Yet it is often "religious" people who do not pass by.

All civilizations are guilty of passing by on the other side of dire human need. It may be that they do so in order to prosper. Yet the tradition of the "troubler of Israel" has not completely disappeared’ from human civilization. "Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Rom. 5:20)

By the grace of God a Samaritan appears. Not all passed by! "When he saw him he had compassion." He, who is considered to be religiously polluted, a nonchosen person, saw the victim as God saw the victim. "My soul is like a house, small for you to enter, but I pray you to enlarge it," wrote Augustine. The Samaritan is considerate and responsible. He translated compassion into action. This is a mysterious moment of salvation for all -- the victim, the Samaritan and the community. The tradition of Pentecost is reflected here. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind" (Acts 2:2) "Son of man, can these bones live?" (Ezek. 37:3)