Sunday, September 05, 2004

A Suggestion on the Good Samaritan

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is harder to interpret than it looks at first glance. Essentially, the story is this. Jesus is asked by an expert in the law, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" He replies with the two commandments, '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 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'. Then the expert in the law asks (Luke says it was "because he wanted to justify himself"), "Who is my neighbor?" The parable of the Good Samaritan is an answer to this question.

A man is going from Jerusalem to Jericho, a dangerous journey, when he is waylaid by robbers who strip him and beat him, leaving him near-dead by the side of the road. A priest comes by and, seeing the man, passes over to the other side (presumably in order not to be contaminated by a carcass). A Levite comes by and does the same. But a Samaritan, when he comes by, takes pity on the man when he sees him, bandaging his wound, taking him to an inn, paying for his stay, and promising to reimburse the innkeeper for any extra expenses that might arise.

Then Jesus asks the question, "Who do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" The expert in the law replies, "The one who had mercy on him," and Jesus replies, "Go and do likewise."

In interpreting the story, commentators have often made a big deal of Jewish-Samaritan hatred, and I think this is clearly part of the background of the story. But I wonder if we tend to emphasize only one part of this feud? We tend to emphasize that the Samaritans were hated by the Jews; but surely part of the point is that the Jews were hated by the Samaritans. A Samaritan would have been one of the last people on the face of the earth from whom any Jew would expect such a degree of mercy. But it is the Samaritan in the story who is merciful. So perhaps the point of the story is this. Loving one's neighbor means loving even the last person in the world anyone would expect you to love.

Chesterton once said that we are probably commanded both to love our neighbors and to love our enemies because they are usually the same people. And I think perhaps that is the whole point of the parable. Being a good Samaritan means showing mercy even to the people to whom no one would ever expect you to show mercy. Or to put it another way: It means doing good even to 'those people' that 'your people' like least of all. Jesus never says the Samaritan in any way liked Jews; no one in his audience, I suspect, would ever think that the Samaritan might be some sort of tolerant religious pluralist, who really at heart just wanted Samaritans and Jews to live together in peace and harmony. Quite the contrary, perhaps; it is the fact that even a Samaritan could take pity even on a Jew that makes this a powerful story. It's the double 'even' that really gives the moral its full emphasis. Flannery O'Connor could, I think, have made a good story of it by setting it in a racially tense South. And I think that, understood this way, it fundamentally shames and de-fangs hatred in a way some other interpretations could not.

Anyway, it's just a suggestion.

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