Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
— Luke 11:36-37
In December of 2019, I was travelling with a friend in Saudi Arabia, shortly after the borders had opened to tourists, rather than just pilgrims and businessmen. In those days, it was a nation that had a very short history of tourism (read: there was nothing to do), but a very long history of hospitality, and our first few hours proved to be the most memorable of the trip. To the best of my recollection, the events played out as follows.
Our flight had touched down in Riyadh in the small hours of the morning, and we had booked ourselves into one of the few airbnb apartments available in the capital. We took an Uber from the airport, and went our weary way along the city’s broad boulevards, then past innumerable identical gated compounds and villas. At around 1:30am, we arrived where we thought we ought to be. We asked the driver wait for us to find the keys to the flat, which we found hidden behind a fusebox. Our driver insisted we take his phone number and call him if we needed anything, and we bade him farewell.
The keyring we found held together three keys. The first opened a gate from the street into a courtyard. The second would lead its bearer from the courtyard into the building, and the third from the building into the flat itself. Even the harshest of critics could find no fault in key number one, and the optimistic reviewer would extend the same compliments to key number three. We shall never know, because it was with key number two that the problems began. Once in the lock, it turned and turned, and yet the reassuring clunk of the bolt being drawn never came. We tried and tried again, my companion insisted I try the other (clearly incompatible) keys in the lock. We tried calling the owner of the Airbnb, but he was, unsurprisingly, asleep. We prayed over the lock, but no joy.
By this time, it was around 2:00am, and we so we resigned ourselves to formulating a new plan. We sat on the kerb, and evaluated our options: a) we could sleep on the ground in the courtyard, and hope that we don’t spook anyone in the building who may have found us in the morning; b) we could head back to the airport, and sleep on the floor there; c) we could forgo sleep altogether, and wander around until morning. We chose option b), and my trusty companion called the driver.
It was about 2:30am, our driver, Majed, returned. He’d just got back to the airport, and had rejoined the queue of cabbies when he got our call. Immediately, he left the queue, and came to pick us up. As he drove us around, he cursed the man who had left us stranded.
‘This man, who is this man? Your friend?’
‘No, we don’t know him. We found him on the internet.’
‘This man, he is bad man. He is dog — he is worse than dog!’
‘Well, you know, these things happen.’
‘This man, he is dog, he bring shame upon all of Saudi Arabia! You must go to — what is word? — your country, you have one here. It is like box…’
‘You mean the embassy?’
‘Yes! You must go to embassy and tell them.’
‘I really don’t think this is a diplomatic matter.’
‘This man… how he do this? We are Muslims, he bring shame on all of us!’
We continued to drive around Riyadh, without much of a plan. We had thought that we would return to the airport, but Majed insisted on finding us another hotel. We were spoilt for choice, and drove past streets with three or four hotels next to each other. It was approaching 3:00am, and we were exhausted.
‘Really, anywhere is fine. We can stay anywhere.’
‘No, for you my friend, it must be good place.’
‘It’s OK, what about this place here?’ I gestured at a brightly lit hotel on the right hand side.
‘No, no, this is no good. You are guest in my country. For you, four star, five star.’
It seemed our friend had overestimated both our standards and our budget, and so we continued to drive along Riyadh’s broad and ordered streets, looking for a hotel that our driver deemed acceptable. Eventually, at around 3:30am, he lowered his standards for us, and found us a three-star hotel. We didn’t speak a word of Arabic, so he told us to wait in the car while he went inside to sort things out. I sat anxiously thinking about whether we would be able to get the money back on our airbnb for the night, and irritated by the fact that the first job of the morning would be checking out of this hotel, a frustrating and unnecessary expense, and going over to the airbnb we had previously booked.
Eventually Majed emerged, and led us to our room: two single beds in a shared room, but with a spacious living area and kitchenette as well. I was unhappy about how much this might cost, since I wouldn’t have been content with somewhere far simpler, before we discovered that Majed had himself paid for us to stay there for three nights — as long as we were due to stay in Riyadh — and wouldn’t accept any repayment for the accommodation or his services driving us around for the previous ninety minutes. The best we could do was persuade him to let us take him to dinner when we returned to the capital after a week. He agreed, but he still drove us back to the airport free of charge at the end of the evening.
When I returned to the UK, I told this story to just about everyone who would listen. It was so unlike anything I had experienced before, and I couldn’t imagine a cabbie in London — even a devout Christian — doing anything like what this Muslim had done for us. It was real good Samaritan stuff. But one response was common, though not universal, amongst the Christians to whom I told this story. Several Christians said, ‘Yes, but he’s probably only doing that because he thinks he needs to do good things to earn his way to heaven.’ That is possible, but even if it were, what difference would it make to me? After all, the whole point of the good Samaritan story is that the one who acted as a neighbour came from outside of Israel. For all of his good deeds, the Samaritan committed one sin, which had nothing to do with heterodox theology. The unforgivable sin was this: he made the Jews in the story look bad.
To let the Good Samaritan parable work on us, we have to let it unsettle us, showing us that our neighbours are those we had always deemed the ‘bad people’, or, if not bad people, then at least people who have no right to be as moral as we are — Muslims, Mormons, Catholics, liberal Christians, take your pick — and to unsettle us in showing us that they might possess virtues that we do not. Were the Samaritan the neighbour who had been helped by the Levite, the parable might have still been distasteful, but at least we could see ourselves as the one who helped the person ‘beneath them.’
The solution is to avoid the motive of the lawyer asking this question: ‘He, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus…’ Insist on justifying yourself, and you will either reduce the category of ‘neighbour’ to so small a grouping that loving them becomes easily achievable, or reduce the good works of the neighbour to expressions of their faulty theologies, and, therefore, not actually good works at all. Or, perhaps more likely, both. This is where the parable confronts us: sometimes the godless do very godly things, and when we see that, we might be better off ignoring the theological questions, and simply doing likewise.
As we said goodbye to Majed at the airport, he spoke about his dream of coming to the UK. I said that I would meet him and look after him when he visits. We’ve since lost touch, which is just as well: if he comes, I will be bankrupted trying to match his hospitality.