Rereading the Parable of the Good Samaritan
By Tyler Watson
Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan is a brilliant gut-punch. At least, it was to its original audience. It could be a gut-punch for us again, if we can set aside our familiarity with the story.
We know some of the parable’s influence in our collective imagination. We name hospitals and classify laws in honor of the story’s protagonist, testaments to the story’s enduring nature. Unfortunately, that very popularity may inhibit our ability to allow the tale to challenge us. We’ve heard it so many times we no longer see the scandal in it. In this case, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, but indifference.
Throughout history, interpreters have read the Parable of the Good Samaritan as an exhortation to limitless compassion. This valid analysis continues to push us to greater and broader love, but such a reading alone does not appreciate the full challenge Jesus presents us in the story. He also confronts our presumptions of who God can use. Jesus shows us that anyone is capable of exhibiting neighborly love. Jesus’ original audience would have seen the story’s hero, the Samaritan, as sub-human or as an enemy. Yet it is the Samaritan alone who extends God-like compassion, and acts as a neighbor to the hurting man. The reprobate, the sinner, the enemy; that is, one of “those people,” becomes a conduit of God’s mercy in this world.
We’ve heard the story so many times we no longer see the scandal in it.
Jesus displays his storytelling genius in the details he gives. With a little translating, these details ensure this story will remain provocative no matter the context of the audience. To begin, it’s worth reading the story again. I recommend going slowly.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 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 given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25–37, NRSV)
The historical background of this parable is generally well-known. The Jewish people of Jesus’ day looked with disdain upon Samaritans, whom they considered heretics and half-breeds, the products of remnant Israelites commingling with Assyrian invaders centuries earlier. (It should be noted, Samaritans similarly despised the Jews.) To Jesus’ original audience, a Samaritan was the absolute “other,” against whom any smear could be said because everyone just knew it was true.
In casting a Samaritan as the hero of this story and portraying the priest and the Levite critically, Jesus is guaranteed to offend those listening to the story, especially folks like the legal expert who originally questioned Jesus. Jesus deftly upends his audience’s prejudices, in order to evoke a response. To the legal expert’s credit, his biases and shock don’t keep him from understanding Jesus’s point.
Let’s place ourselves in the role of that lawyer. He essentially asks, “Whom am I required to love, and whom am I not required to love?” As humans, we tend to shrink our circles of welcome, and then make those boundaries impermeable. We want to love only people we perceive as being like us. The lawyer’s question is often our question. Are we required to love people of other ethnicities, nationalities, or religions? Are we required to love people who cannot reciprocate, or who might squander our charity? Are we required to love people whose words and actions we find repugnant? Are we required to love people of other political parties? Are we required to love people who want to harm us?
The Samaritan can probably discern the beaten man on the roadside is Jewish. He would be safe in assuming the victim likely views Samaritans poorly. Yet he helps anyway. Therefore, we see the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” and after reading the parable, we see that the answer is, “Everyone!” Unsurprisingly, this parable is often used to illustrate how we are to help our fellow humans, no matter where they live or how they suffer. Our neighbor is every person, not merely someone who shares our ethnicity, nationality, religion, or other affinities. This sort of reading has motivated many excellent acts of compassion throughout history, and we still need to hear this message.
We could arrive at a similar interpretation, though—that everyone is our neighbor—even if the roles were reversed and the hero were an average Jewish person who crossed the social barriers of his day to help a victimized Samaritan. Jesus’ original audience does not come to a mawkish change of heart regarding the Samaritan’s humanity. The love Jesus describes is more than a disposition or a perspective. In this parable, Jesus shows us that the Samaritan loves by acting to the point of accepting the cost of that love.
Making the Samaritan the hero is not an incidental detail—it is central to understanding the scandal and the power of the parable. Jesus challenges his audience to see that the presumed reprobate has the capacity for God-like altruism. In fact, he is the only person in the story who extends it. The Samaritan does what we would expect of a person who keeps the Torah’s teachings. If we were to draw a picture of a citizen of God’s kingdom, we would probably come up with someone a lot like the Good Samaritan. In answer to the lawyer’s original question, Jesus shows the Samaritan, the dehumanized other, is capable of inheriting eternal life. The Samaritan becomes an agent of God.
Making the Samaritan the hero is not an incidental detail.
Jesus pushes the audience by flipping the lawyer’s self-justifying question back on him. After the parable, Jesus asks his own question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He presents readers with the same challenge. “Who is my neighbor?” becomes a question we ought never ask. Instead, we should examine ourselves with the question, “Am I being a neighbor to others?” Jesus eliminates any definition of “neighbor” that has anything to do with shared attributes. “Neighbor” is now a moral designation to which we aspire—we hope we can be neighbors to others. And becoming a neighbor is contingent upon our showing mercy in tangible ways. Remember, Jesus’s conclusion is not, “Now think differently;” his exhortation is, “Go and do likewise.”
Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of the parable is just how eminently translatable it is in any cultural context. For those of us living in America today, we have to peel away the layers of our cultural familiarity to recapture how a Samaritan hero would be controversial to Jesus’s audience. This parable has become so well-known that in our context the term Samaritan is now synonymous with a charitable person. To call someone a Samaritan today is a compliment of a high order.
Merely change the characters to modern equivalents and the power of the parable immediately returns. Cast in the role of the Samaritan a person you could never imagine being a part of your faith community. Make them someone from a people group who scares or angers you, a group whom you cannot envision God ever using to establish justice and mercy. Then, change the Levite and priest to respected members of your community.
After the attacks on 9/11, I heard preachers tell the Parable of the Good Taliban Fighter, or the Parable of the Good Muslim. Thanks to our propensity to tighten the circle of people we think God should love and use, the possibilities for new Samaritans are nearly endless.
The Parable of the Good Gang Member. The Parable of the Good Atheist. The Parable of the Good Religious Right Christian. The Parable of the Good Progressive Christian. The Parable of the Good Syrian Refugee. The Parable of the Good Drug Addict. The Parable of the Good Oil Tycoon. The Parable of the Good Traditional Marriage Proponent. The Parable of the Good Homeless Man. The Parable of the Good NRA Member. The Parable of the Good Transgendered Woman. The Parable of the Good Black Lives Matter Activist. The Parable of the Good Communist. The Parable of the Good Capitalist. The Parable of the Good Environmentalist. The Parable of the Good Blue Lives Matter Advocate. The Parable of the Good Undocumented Immigrant. The Parable of the Good Hillary Clinton Voter. The Parable of the Good Donald Trump Supporter.
However you recast the roles of the parable, just be sure the new players make you feel uncomfortable. Then you’ll know you’re on the right track.
Tyler Watson is a stay-at-home dad living in the Bay Area of northern California with his wife and three children. Prior to his current vocation he served as a pastor in congregations of the Evangelical Covenant Church. He received his MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary. He has written devotionals on the Psalms and blogs at The Space Between My Ears.