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Our Good Samaritans

By July 14, 2017 3 Comments

“It is best that we do not behold our spiritual beauty.”
Rev. D. R. Drukker, The Beauty of the Lord. Eerdmans, 1927.

Okay, at least the man in the ditch in the famous New Testament parable, the poor guy put upon by robbers, wasn’t alone, says the gospel of Luke. The road above him was not a freeway, but at least there were passers-by, even if neither of the first two paid him the time of day in his suffering. The third one helped the guy out and up. What I’m saying is, at least the poor guy wasn’t alone.

Now when it came to 19th century American homesteaders, no properties were suburban. Some pioneers, alone in a world of long grass out here, would have greatly appreciated a few rubber-necking neighbors or party-line telephones. In isolated sod houses, loneliness swept in like contagion. Some folks went a week or more without seeing another human face, red or white.

Take a young man named Peter Jansen, who claims to have traveled Minnesota, Dakota, and Kansas before taking a claim outside of Beatrice, Nebraska, somewhere beyond the Big Blue River. Jansen set up for a farm twenty miles southeast of town; when he’d drive his team in from across open prairie, he claimed he’d pass only one house.

Jansen was a kid. He and his brother were alone in all that open space. The truth is, they’d been warned that the land near the river might have been usable, but the upland stuff, where they’d laid claim, was questionable.

But Jansen, and his people, had come from Russia, where working stubborn prairie land had become a way of life. The Jansen brothers took upland sections, and like a thousand other German-speaking Mennonites, they simply told themselves that, locally at least, the common wisdom was uncommonly wrong. They were determined to make a go of a farm all right. They’d done it in Russia, after all.

But their oxen were rookies too, and their plow was sticky-new. Truth be told, neither Jansen knew the first thing about breaking unbroken ground or running a team. Headstrong maybe, sure, but experienced? —heavens, no.

It was, Peter Jansen says in his memoir of those early days, a very hot day on the plains, and the work was not going well. Soon enough the oxen broke contract and simply took off, hauling that brand new plow along all the way to a nearby slough, where they waded in belly deep to cool off, the whole kit-and-caboodle with them.

“When I reached the slough,” Jansen, a very pious young man, claims he was “thoroughly disgusted.” He sat down and almost started bawling, he says, wishing that for all the world he was back in Russia.

As you might have guessed, there is a Good Samaritan in this parable from the Plains, a homesteader named Babcock, who just happened by, serendipitous, you might say, a man who lived four whole miles away.

“Trouble?” Babcock asked, when he came up on that new plow and a team of oxen going nowhere, cooling in the slough.

Peter Jansen claims he had more trouble with the English language than he did explaining to neighbor Babcock that he was ready to throw in the towel on the whole, ugly business of farming out there on the upland.

“Take off your trousers, son,” Babcock told him. “Get in there and plow yourself out.” And then came the magic words: “I’ll help you lay off the land and get your plow a’going.”

Jansen ends his tale without fanfare, nothing but the abiding truth about his own good Samaritan: “. . .which he did, and so started me farming.” Right neighborly.

Jansen kept on farming, and his operation kept growing until, some years down the road, he was feeding as many as 30,000 sheep. Much later, he served in the Nebraska legislature and might well have been governor if he hadn’t turned down the nomination because his faith wouldn’t allow for capital punishment.

And farmer Babcock? —what about him? We know barely anything. But then, when Good Samaritans, Lone Ranger-like, ride off into the promising sunsets of our parables, it makes a far better story. Don’t believe me?–walk through Matthew 25, hearken to a more reliable narrator.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


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