Gustave Dore, The Arrival of the Good Samaritan at the Inn, etching, 1868.
We all know the story already. After being passed by on the road by a priest and a Levite, a half-dead man who was robbed of everything he had was tended to by a Samaritan, who bandaged his wounds, poured oil and wine over him. And then the Samaritan picks up the man, places him on his donkey, brings him to an inn where he may rest and recover. Then the Samaritan takes leave of the man, pays the innkeeper for the accommodations, and then says: “Look after him, and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have” (Luke 10: 35).
We were told this story in our youth in order to learn that helping others meant helping any man we come across on the road. That even strangers by the wayside deserve our aid when they need it. Also, we were inspired by the mercy that the Samaritan showed toward the fallen man; that mercy meant that urgent response to him who suffered; that one cannot, like the priest and Levite, simply be indifferent to the call to help which is right there. But looking back at the story when time has passed and life has taught you enough to understand old lessons anew, it happens that we see something new even in what used to be exhausted tales. And what has since struck me of all the dramatic details we glean from the Good Samaritan parable would be the last written line of the tale—or better, the last act of the Samaritan: his promise to go back and pay the innkeeper for any expense he may incur in caring for the stranger. This is so because making promises even after having accomplished what needed to be done, after already showing mercy, is what seems so difficult to make.
But before the promise was made, we see in Gustave Dore’s etching The Arrival of the Good Samaritan at the Inn (1868), the moments that transpired before the conversation between the Samaritan and the innkeeper. We find, as the story did go, the Samaritan arriving at an inn, where we see the innkeeper along with probably his attendant, welcome the stranger who had an unconscious man riding on his donkey. Whence the surprise of the innkeeper: who was this man with whom he will do business, what happened to him, what strange services will be required? The scene marks for us that precise moment when the Samaritan picks up the stranger from his donkey to bring him up to the inn. Because he is unconscious and dead beat from the beating he took from the robbers who preyed upon him, his weight is dead weight—making the tedious ceremony of bringing him up the stairs to enter the inn more difficult than desired.
So we see the Samaritan embracing the stranger, trying to balance himself. But he fails to do so. He has to lean back, considerably at that, in order to prevent himself from falling. His embrace, both arms wide open, legs wide apart, braces and supports the stranger’s weight, in order to deliver him safely to his proper rest. Or again: the Samaritan braces himself from a possible fall by embracing the man whose face he did not recognize, a face hitherto unknown, to support him and buttress his weight. And all the while the Samaritan himself turns his back to us, not revealing his face, himself without a name or title, recognized only by the general designation of the place from which he hails—Samaria—from which also hail a people known as indifferent to the Jews. Here is the Samaritan, perceived enemy at worst, a nobody at best, carrying the full burden of a responsibility which first he merely chanced upon but now has already assumed in all its weight. Yet that is not all.
After having treated the stranger’s wounds, upon delivering him to his recovery, after paying the innkeeper in advance—he makes one more step, the final act of charity by promising to pay a cost yet to be incurred. What in the end the Samaritan promises is the future—always uncertain, always undetermined, a cost unforeseen because impossible to calculate. But the ground of uncertainty on which all promises have to walk, like thin sheets of ice that may give way at any time to him who dangerously decides to tread them, is itself the necessary condition of the possibility for promises in order to really mean what they say. You do not as yet know what will transpire, you do not yet know the future costs of a promise pledged here and now; but by promising you gather the many possibilities that determine the future, decide what will and what will not happen, as if you already knew. And only charity, or love, or responsibility for the other can make promises—for it has by one final impetus already gone beyond its own time, entered the future, transgressing the limits of what is, what can be seen. Only love sees the future by already assuming responsibility for whatever it may bring; love already keeps the future as only love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:7).
The full weight of responsibility for the other does not limit itself to asking itself what ought to be done now, what is apparently urgent, what is evident, that is, responsibility does not remain with what can be seen. The Samaritan indeed had to attend to the immediate needs that gaping wounds and a beaten, bloodied body required right there on the road. To tell you the truth, there is really nothing special about that. That was not what made the good Samaritan good. Any one can answer such an immediate call so long as he has eyes to see, so long as he has rationality, by which he can determine what ought to be done by any rational being in the face of a fellow human being who suffers. This is the easy part.
But the Samaritan kept on going by bringing the stranger to a place where it could recover in the coming days, to let the wounds heal for a while, at a time when the Samaritan will be absent, or can no longer see what ought to be done next. In promising to pay the innkeeper for any possible expense to be incurred more than what he had already given, the absent Samaritan also takes leave of sensibility and reason by giving what can no longer be required of him, or any other man—to love the other more, that is, to love the other continuously from now on.
Love already loves what is not yet, what is still to come. Most of the time, however, as most tragic loves which were once so certain at the beginning eventually find out—fulfilling that promise could be the greatest weight to bear.