At the church where I minister we have just experienced an incredible season of grief. Two members in the span of a week passed away after multi-year battles with cancer. As you can imagine, the issue of suffering, what philosophers sometimes call “the problem of evil,” has been on my mind a lot, lately. The Bible says that when we suffer, we are experiencing the “discipline” or “training” of God (Hebrews 12:7). And it further says that this training is designed to train us to “share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10), to become like God. How does suffering mold our character into conformity with God’s? To provide a partial answer to that question, I would like to offer some thoughts about Jesus’ most famous parable.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of those stories everybody knows. A man was traveling on a route that was notoriously dangerous in Jesus' day - from the holy city of Jerusalem down into the Jordan River Valley to Jericho. He fell among robbers who were not content simply to steal from him. They beat him - so severely that Jesus says they left him “half dead.”
Three people came upon this dying man. Two of them were part of the special religious class of workers in the temple back in Jerusalem, a priest and a Levite. And both infamously passed him by. Jesus doesn't explain why - we can imagine a backstory for them that would make them reluctant to touch a dead body, since that would lead to defilement under the purification rules of the Law of Moses and preclude them from service in the temple.
The third person who came upon this man was not part of the temple personnel. He wasn't even Jewish. In fact, to the shock of the people who first heard Jesus tell this story, he was a Samaritan. Although related to the Jews by blood, the Samaritans were not of pure Hebrew stock, and they had many serious differences with the Jews about the right way to worship God. The Jews therefore despised the Samaritans as those who had racially and religiously contaminated the pure practice of the Law.
But when the Samaritan saw the victim of this brutal assault, he did not see things in terms of Jew vs Samaritan. He saw a fellow human being who needed urgent help, and Jesus says, "when he saw him, he felt compassion." This compassion was more than just an emotional reaction. It led him to care for the man immediately and tangibly. He "bound up his wounds,” which - given the fact Jesus says the man was left for dead - must have been severe. Giving aid to a man that grievously injured would have been messy business. No wonder the priest and Levite didn't want to help. But the Samaritan did. And you know the rest. He put the man on his own animal, took him to an inn, and personally cared for him - a total stranger. And when he had to leave, the Samaritan gave the innkeeper money to cover any further expenses.
As Jesus told this story, He described a world in which bad things happen. The backdrop of this parable is the presence of evil. One form this evil takes is the wicked choices people make that cause harm to others, like what the thieves did to the man from Jerusalem. Another form of evil is the sort of suffering that compromises physical health, like infection and illness. In the parable, Jesus says that the Samaritan anointed the wounded man with oil and wine - oil to soften the wound, and wine to cleanse the wound. That's our world - people sometimes do terrible things, and fragile bodies are subject to injury, disease, and death.
So evil and suffering were the backdrop of the story of the Good Samaritan, just as they are undeniably present in our story. But that's not the main point of the parable. Do you remember why Jesus told this story in the first place? Here's what Luke 10:25-30 says:
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers….”
You see why Jesus told this story? The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a story about the meaning of love. Love like God's love. Free, unconditional, and sacrificial.
Scripture says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). And Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that God’s love is universal - “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” (Matthew 5:45). Further, Jesus called His followers to imitate this wide love of God, “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:45). But this is difficult. We are much more prone to love only those we like, or those who reciprocate. To love like “tax collectors” and “Gentiles” rather than God (Matthew 5:46-47).
That’s why the story of the Samaritan is so significant. He loved generously and unconditionally - and it was the existence of suffering that provided the avenue through which he could demonstrate this. The Samaritan knew nothing about the man he helped. Most likely he was Jewish - an ancient adversary. And he certainly had no reason to think the man could ever do anything in return for him. But he tended to him personally and provided for him generously with no other motive than the desire to do good for this man. And it was the presence of evil that afforded the Samaritan the opportunity to love someone in this selfless, God-imitating way, and - ironically - it was the same evil that granted the anonymous victim the gift of the extravagant and undeserved love from the Samaritan.
Because it is so easy for us to have ulterior motives when we love others, the existence of evil and suffering provide us the training ground through which we learn to love others with pure motives and sincerity of heart. In other words, to share in God’s character. It is one way the Father trains us to be like Him.
What I am suggesting is that one reason God permits evil and suffering in our world is that such a world allows us to learn and experience His love. I am not proposing that - as the Beatles might say - “love is all you need” to understand the problem of suffering. But I have seen many Christians emulate the Samaritan-esque love Jesus described in this story through selflessly caring for others in great suffering, and by doing so, bearing unmistakable family resemblance to their Father. And I have seen Christians receive such love - like the precious sisters we just lost in our church - and experience on a human scale a glimpse of God’s infinitely beautiful love and care. This was only possible because of the reality of suffering.
As Paul reflected on the sufferings Christians faced in the first century, he wrote this:
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
We have hope in the midst of our suffering because “God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” When the Samaritan anointed the wounded man with oil and wine, he was pouring the love of God into the man’s heart, and learning to be like his Father in the process. And this gives us hope that in the midst of the ugliness of evil, it is possible to experience even more beautiful love.