Jesus shook the accepted cultural prejudice of his people with his story of road-side kindness. The hero who stopped to help the victim of gang-violence was a man from neighbouring Samaria that his listeners considered a total outsider. Jesus was offering an open challenge to the strict orthodoxy of his audience. He knew they would never have dreamed of putting the words ‘good’ and ‘Samaritan’ together. The tale of this anonymous rescuer was so impactful, it has fixed the phrase ‘good Samaritan’ permanently in the English language as a term that speaks of surprising, unexpected generosity.
A few years ago, the southern NSW country town of Gundagai enshrined a muscular version of a similar story in their town centre. The striking bronze memorial celebrates Yarri and Jacky Jacky, two tribesmen from the local Wiradjuri people, who ferried an astonishing 69 people to safety when the town was swept away by a raging Murrumbidgee River in 1859. They were assisted by other Aboriginal people, including Long Jimmy and Tommy Davis.
Over three days and nights, these men were urged by the townspeople’s desperate friends and family to brave the torrent. Using traditional bark canoes and a recently-repaired wooden canoe, they swam and paddled to pluck stranded people from rooftops and trees. Sadly, 89 of the 250 residents were drowned. It remains Australia’s highest death toll from a flood event.
The story of those humble heroes touched me when I visited Gundagai recently. It seems the settlers had ignored the warnings of the local tribe when they went ahead and built the town in a flood zone. In the 19th century, many used evolutionary theory to place the Aboriginal people on the lowest level – out of the reach of Western education. Some in the church theorised they had no spirit and were beyond redemption. These ideas took on at a popular level and the indigenous people, in spite of their proven intelligence at survival, were marginalised everywhere.
I know from Bourke history of many times when the settlers called on the unsurpassed tracking skills of the Aboriginal people to find lost children and capture criminals on the run. Out in the Corner Country, John King, the lone survivor of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, was famously rescued by the Yandruwandha tribe on Coopers Creek. King reported that they wept bitterly over Burke’s remains and treated him with great tenderness until he was rescued. He became Australia’s first national hero. His rescuers remained in obscurity.
Interestingly, Yarri, Jacky Jacky and Tommy Davis were later honoured by the government with bronze breastplates. A pension was allocated in 1875, but Jacky Jacky was deceased by then. Now the two rescuers stand in pride of place in the heart of Gundagai.
Jesus’ story told of two other travellers who walked by the injured man because their mindset said he was an untouchable. Jesus’ inquisitors fell silent when he asked them to decide which of the three men truly fulfilled God’s call to ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ To their embarrassment, the despised Samaritan was the only candidate.
It gave me pause for thought and I wondered if Jesus told that story today, would the Good Samaritan’s name perhaps be Yarri? Then the moment in the Easter story came to mind, where a black African man was forced to carry Jesus’ cross for him when he staggered. Would his face be more like Jacky Jacky’s than mine? And what of the women from despised Nazareth, who wept bitterly as they watched Jesus die? Would it have sounded something like the voices of the tender-hearted Yandruwandha mourning the tragic death of explorer Robert O’Hara Burke?
Maybe Gundagai should add the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ to the memorial.
Maybe that’s a question we all need to ask ourselves as millions around the world this week, recall the day the carpenter from lowly Nazareth turned the meaning of a Roman cross upside down. He made all of us his neighbours that day.
Have a thoughtful Easter.
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