Bystanders are important too


Susan Holman is a researcher and writer at Harvard University. She has published several books about the early church.

61BSNSDEOEL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Her most recent book is titled Beholden: Religion, Global Health, and Human Rights, published by Oxford University Press. In the beginning of her book she talks about the death of her father in 2009 and her efforts to clear the house. In doing so she discovered an old book, over 200 years old. The full title of the book was: Medical Inquiries and Observations. To which is added an Appendix, Containing Observations on the Duties of a Physician, and the Methods of Improving Medicine. By Benjamin Rush, MD Professor of Chemistry in the University of Pennsylvania. The Second Edition. 1789.

She did some research and found this Dr. Rush was quite an impressive man, a leading physician in early American medicine. He was one of the first American advocates for universal health care, prison reform, the abolition of slavery and capital punishment, equal education for girls and boys, and he especially pushed for respect and dignity in treating those who suffered form mental illness. He founded the first free dispensary in America, and he was one of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. He was a Christian and was a member of several churches simultaneously, “so that he might visit the nearest one should he desire communion with his Maker during rounds.” He described his faith as “a compound of the orthodoxy and heterodoxy of most of our Christian churches.” That could very well describe most or all of us!

Benjamin Rush had a special religious concern for providing medical care for the poor. Thus he advised his students:

The poor of every description should be the objects of your peculiar care. Dr. Boerhaave used to say, “they were his best patients, because God was their paymaster.”…

Whenever you are called, therefore, to visit a poor patient, imagine you hear the voice of the good Samaritan sounding in your ears, “Take care of him, and I will repay thee.”

On this Labor Day weekend it is good to remember a man like Benjamin Rush, who labored in the best traditional meaning of the word. He labored with honesty, integrity and concern for his fellow man and woman. What really struck me is that last sentence I quoted: Whenever you are called, therefore, to visit a poor patient, imagine you hear the voice of the good Samaritan sounding in your ears, “Take care of him, and I will repay thee.”

When we read the Parable of the Good Samaritan – and we will read it again on Nov. 13th – we hardly pay any attention to the innkeeper. And yet, it’s the innkeeper that Rush advised his students to imitate. Perhaps because they will get paid for their labor in healing the sick.

But I draw a different lesson from Dr. Rush’s advice. Many times we read the Gospels and find it hard to relate to most of the people in the incidents and parables. Most of us find it impossible to imitate the Good Samaritan and are scared to even think of doing it. But perhaps we could be like the innkeeper – do what we are paid to do, but do it honestly and with full care for the humanity of others.

In today’s parable, who can you relate to? Perhaps none of us will ever have such a huge debt or sin that needs forgiving. I hope none of us will ever have such an unforgiving heart as the unforgiving servant. And I doubt that any of us will ever be in a position of power like that of the Master. Perhaps some of us have been victims to an unforgiving person. How perhaps we should relate to the witnesses, who were shocked and “distressed” at the hypocrisy and inhumanity of the unforgiving servant. How many of us are shocked at other people’s inhumanity, at other people’s racism, at other people’s obscenities or reckless behavior, or other people’s hypocrisy? That could be all that many of us can take from today’s parable, and it would be enough: To be shocked, to speak up, to do something about a wrong that we witness. Perhaps if more of us did that there would be less violence and hatred in the world.

Don’t look for the impossible. In every parable of Jesus, in every miracle story or incident in the life of Jesus. Look for what you can take home, what you can imitate. Sometimes it could be what the bystanders do or what the least prominent character does. To each of us according to our abilities does God place expectations.

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