Given the events at Westminster yesterday evening, including Labour MP Hilary Benn’s questionable allusions to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37) during his call for British aerial strikes against Syria (see the full speech here), it seemed apt to choose an image of that same parable for today’s advent offering. François-Léon Sicard’s Le Bon Samaritain sculpture (1896) stands in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris. It captures a moment from the parable, with the Samaritan picking up the wounded man to put him on his donkey, so that he can take him to an inn and arrange his care.
Sicard portrays both men as being naked, perhaps to accentuate their shared humanity and the absence of ‘otherness’ that stands between these two neighbours; this, after all, is a central theme of this gospel parable. The Samaritan’s taut muscles in his arms and legs testify to the effort he is putting into this task, as he lifts the injured man quite literally off his feet to rest him upon his knee. This is no act of caring from ‘afar’, where our ‘good deeds’ give us a warm fuzzy feeling and we can applaud ourselves for ‘doing the right thing’ without actually getting our hands dirty. As in yesterday’s advent image, skin touches skin here – the Samaritan is prepared to get sweaty, dirty, blood-stained, and tired in order to carry the full weight of the man who needs his help.
In turn, the victim likewise plays a role in Sicard’s retelling of the parable. Weak, hurt, barely conscious, he nevertheless responds to his rescuer’s nursing care with a breath-catching tenderness. Leaning his face against the Samaritan, his left hand reaches across to cup the Samaritan’s head, resting there gently as though to maintain the healing intimacy of the moment. His other arm stays close by his side, leaving his torso and genitals exposed in a gesture that again hints at the utter trust he feels towards the man who is holding him. Unconditional care is reflected back on the carer, begetting a mutual fidelity and a desire to do no harm.
Sicard’s sculpture of Le Bon Samaritain reminds us that this biblical parable speaks of love for one’s neighbour and the need to respond with care, compassion, and healing to those who are hurt and dying. It reminds us that to be a good Samaritan, we have to draw those in need towards us – not keep them at arm’s length – and, in the process, share the weight of their pain and let our skin be stained by their blood and sweat. There is no violent retaliation here, nor even a thought about the victim’s attackers; no one else will get hurt or die – that original act of violence will not be allowed to flourish.
And that takes me back to Hilary Benn’s speech in Parliament on Thursday night. At one point in the speech, he said: “I share the concerns that have been expressed this evening about potential civilian casualties. However, unlike Daesh, none of us today acts with the intent to harm civilians.” Yet history keeps reminding us that aerial bombing does cause civilian casualties – there is less a “potential” for harm here than a shameful inevitability that such harm will happen. In Sicard’s figure of the Samaritan, however, we are offered a glimpse of an alternative response, where this harm is not even considered. Instead, we see two people encountering each other and recognising their shared humanity; we witness a moment where one man’s life hangs in the balance and the other refuses to let it fall.
For an excellent discussion of Hilary Benn’s use of the Good Samaritan parable, read James Crossley’s post ‘Hilary Benn’s Good Samaritan‘ over at his blog Harnessing Chaos.