Are You a Good Samaritan?
The parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke 10:25-37, is a familiar passage even to those who know almost nothing about the Bible. If you were to talk to your non-religious neighbor about being a “Good Samaritan” chances are they would understand you. The term “Good Samaritan” is so common in English, it even has a dictionary entry- “a person who gratuitously gives help or sympathy to those in distress.” Even some jurisdictions in the US have “Good Samaritan” laws aimed at legally protecting people who help those in need. Whether in religious or non-religious circles, we think being a Good Samaritan is a good thing. We have no problem praising Good Samaritans or trying to be Good Samaritans ourselves.
Reading the parable of the Good Samaritan, we readily see the main point. The Samaritan helped the man left for dead on the road, and we should be like the Samaritan. As 21st century Americans, we have no problem associating ourselves with Samaritans or even taking on the mantle of “Samaritan” ourselves. As Americans, we freely and happily will associate ourselves and others as Samaritans and believe we are complimenting each other when we do so. This was not how the parable of the Good Samaritan would have been heard or understood at the time of Jesus.
When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, it was a challenging and provocative teaching. Jesus told it to Jews who viewed the Samaritans in a very dismal light. The Samaritans were not only ethnically different than the Jews, having much Gentile heritage in their background, the Samaritans were also religiously in error. The Samaritans did not worship at the Temple, but at their own mountain, for example. The Samaritans were, as viewed by the average Jew, religiously in error and inferior, worthy of condemnation by God.
So when Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero of a parable, it is disturbing to his Jewish audience. Consider also that a Levite and a priest are also made “bad guys.” Even when Jesus asks the lawyer “who was the neighbor to the man who fell into the robber’s hands?” The lawyer cannot even bring himself to say, “the Samaritan,” but only, “the one who showed him mercy.” To this, Jesus says, “go and do likewise.” Jesus is telling the man to emulate the Samaritan. This would be an extremely troubling statement for a Jew to accept.
Why don’t we have this same reaction as Jesus’ original audience would have? First, none of us feel the sort of animosity toward Samaritans that the first century Jews did. We don’t have this gut feeling that Samaritans are wrong and ought to be judged by God, at least on a personal level. Second, we like associating ourselves with the heroes of stories. So if the Samaritan is the hero, that’s who we want to be. But as the story was originally told, Jesus purposely chose someone that the Jews did not want to be.
If we were to update this story in a modern context, we wouldn’t use a Samaritan because none of us have the cultural and religious apprehension to the Samaritans today. Instead, replace the Samaritan with someone else. In fact, replace the Samaritan with the kind of person you think least ought to be there. Who, in your mind, is least likely to be the hero? What if the story was the same but instead it was the parable of “The Good Atheist?” What about the Good Muslim? Or the Good Homosexual? Or the Good Liberal? Or the Good Illegal Immigrant? Or the Good North Korean? Or the Good Fill-in-your-own-prejudice-here?
Now it becomes harder to associate ourselves with the hero, because there is a tension. Some aspect of the hero might make them seem to us to be totally unworthy of admiration in every way. But one of the points that Jesus makes in the parable of the Good Samaritan is that righteousness is not about who you are, but what you do. So just like the priest and the Levite leave the man on the side of the road to die, but the Samaritan helps. In that moment, the Samaritan is closer to God than the priest or the Levite, despite what other religious problems he might have. So too, if the Christian refuses to help someone in need, but the atheist or the Muslim or the homosexual or the whatever does help… who followed God better? Christians are commanded to love their neighbor, but in that scenario, who was the neighbor?
Let us use this parable to examine ourselves. Are we being a good neighbor, not only to those we like, but even to those we may despise? Can we recognize when those who are not Christians actually act more Christ-like than we? And will we use that to motivate ourselves to be more Christ-like in word and in deed? Will we allow ourselves to broaden our definition of what it means to love and to be a neighbor to all? Will we go and do likewise as the Samaritan did?