Rereading the Parable of the Good Samaritan

This article first appeared at Evangelicals for Social Action.

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.

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’ 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.

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’ conclusion is not, “Now think differently;” his exhortation is, “Go and do likewise.”


“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?”


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’ 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.

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I am Brainwashing My Kids

Recently we marked the anniversary of my daughters’ baptism into the Christian Church. I thought of the commitments my wife and I made as parents to nurture and raise the girls in the Christian faith as best as we can, with the help of our congregation. As I shared before, the faith of my kids at times consumes my thoughts.

Living in the Bay Area of California, I regularly hear adults (parents and otherwise) say they don’t want to force religious beliefs on children and instead want their kids to choose their own faith, or non-faith. Some take this line of thinking further and claim a parent raising their child in a specific faith is akin to brainwashing or, as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins puts it, “child abuse.” Similarly, I have heard it argued children only believe in God because they are taught to do so. While this point is debatable, I will entertain it for purposes of my argument.

We chose to have our children baptized well before they could ever have made that decision for themselves. According to the perspectives I detailed above, my wife and I are brainwashing our children. I am comfortable with that.

Let us set aside the idea that a child would not believe in God unless she was taught about God somehow diminishes theism’s validity. There are a lot of things children (and adults) believe that they would not had no one taken the time to teach them: washing hands prevents disease, carrots are healthier than cookies, humans are more closely related to humpback whales than they are to ravens. That assent to these facts may not come naturally to young children does not make the truths any less true.

I brainwash my children on a host of matters. I put carrots on my son’s plate far more often than cookies, despite his protests that cookies are actually nutritious and will make him just as healthy as any vegetable. I don’t present my children with a series of options concerning safety around water or cliffs. My children will not draft their own moral codes. We teach them stealing is wrong. Punching other kids is unkind and hurts community. It goes against our nature and self-interest to tell the truth when doing so will get us in trouble. All the same, we implore our children to tell the truth even when it hurts. I hope one day they will internalize these ethical values as their own. Until then, we will remind them several times a day to be kind and think about how someone else is feeling.

As a parent it is my responsibility to choose things for my children they might not think of for themselves, or even want. My wife and I will decide whether they go to school. (They do.) We will ensure they have vaccinations so they won’t die from a rusty nail scratching them. And we will tell them over and over again those inoculations, however painful in the moment, will keep them and their communities healthy for a long time.

So we read the Bible with our children. We recount the stories of the Abraham and Sarah, the Exodus, Jesus and Zacchaeus, and the Apostle Paul, as our family’s stories. We tell them God made them and had a great time doing so. I want my children to know Jesus loves them more than my wife and I ever could. We tell them Jesus died because he loves everyone, even the Roman soldiers who killed him. We have to take God’s example, respecting and loving people even if they disagree with our faith or want to harm us. My wife and I practice forgiveness and invite our kids to participate. We join in the life of our church community to show faith in God is not individualistic. We want our kids around other folks who also show God’s love to them. We bake cookies and buy beanies and socks to hand out to our homeless neighbors, in part to foster generosity and compassion in our children. We take our kids to the local Women’s March even if they won’t remember it because we want them to care for the well-being of everyone in our society. We pray with them every day and tell them the Holy Spirit loves to hear their thoughts and questions. My wife and I pray regularly for wisdom in parenting our kids. We know we need help.

The day will come when my children will need to make up their own minds about the Christian faith. I pray they will continue to believe and explore the riches of God’s grace. But I know they may reject what we tell them about God just as they might reject what we say about vaccinations or the ethical boundaries we placed around them regarding stealing. For now we will make choices on their behalf, teaching them the specifics of the Christian faith, praying that these children will be people who “do justice…love kindness, and…walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6.8)

Say Yes, Do Good with Others, The Trump Presidency: Who Will We Become, Part 6

This is the final installment of a short series of posts leading to Donald Trump’s inauguration. I want to ask the question of Christians who opposed his candidacy: Who will we become as we resist President Trump’s policies that contradict what we believe are God’s political values?

As of today Donald Trump is the 45th president of the United States. We no longer have to speculate what his presidency will look like as it is now a reality. Those of us Christians who opposed his candidacy have to renew our commitment to working against the his policies born out of xenophobic, sexist, and racist rhetoric. There will likely be much to protest, to stand against, and say, “This is unjust and it is not who we as a nation should be.”

As I wrote in my first post of this series, “We may want to define ourselves by what we are not. Finding identity in being a Christian who didn’t vote for President Trump doesn’t tell us anything about our true convictions or hopes. Such a self-definition won’t sustain us for very long, nor will it protect us from the very real sins of wrath and pride.” I want to continue this line of thought. Protest alone, merely expressing what we oppose, will not be good enough. By all means, let us protest. Speak, write, assemble, and petition against unjust governmental actions. And may that protest provoke us to other positive action.

We need a protest born out of solidarity. It is in standing with those who will most be hurt by Trump’s policies that we will grow in compassion. Our quest for justice will have a human face for the quest won’t merely be theoretical, but we will know real people who hurt. When I first learned about the problems of mass incarceration through Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, my understanding and anger were well-informed, but largely abstract. When I began worshiping with inmates at San Quentin State Prison, however, I came to know wonderful men who have been hurt by unjust laws and policies. I no longer advocated alone for an abstract population. In worshiping at San Quentin, I found a community, both in the people with whom I went to the prison and, more importantly, the inmates who welcomed me into their congregation. I can say yes to their dignity and the fact God is transforming their lives.

If we find Trump’s treatment of refugees appalling, let us make an effort to tangibly help. Give money to refugee organizations. Petition our elected leaders on their behalf. Most importantly, look for ways to be with refugee families in our area. Get to know those families and the others who stand in solidarity with them. Say yes to their inherent worth and our shared humanity.

The work will be hard and we will need friends who can encourage us. Most importantly we need to know the people who will be most affected by Trump’s policies. Knowing these folks will inspire us when the work exhausts us. It will be infinitely harder to give up or retreat to abstract argument when we can place names and faces to people who need us to stand on the margins with them, who need us to say yes to the image of God they bear.

When we commit to positive work in community with those on our society’s margins, our “No” to Trump’s policies will be born out of our “Yes” to our neighbors and the work the Holy Spirit is doing.

(I have one final note that is not entirely related to this post. While my posts have focused on calling our elected officials to uphold God’s political values, I want to make clear I do not expect our government leaders to establish God’s kingdom. I believe God’s political agenda, which welcomes to the center those on the margins as well as cares for creation [see: Psalm 146], is a common good. My opposition to Trump as president has not been because his theology isn’t sufficient—that is, I’m not looking from him the same thing I would look from a pastor. I did not want Trump to be president because I thought his policies and rhetoric would not be in the interest of the common good. Further, though I do not think the United States is the “city on the hill,” I do want to see its flourishing as a force of justice in the world. To that end, I did not support Trump’s candidacy because I had concerns his policies and temperament would do real harm to our republic.)

What Makes You Angry? The Trump Presidency: Who Will We Become, Part 5

In a short series of posts leading to Donald Trump’s inauguration, I want to ask the question of Christians who opposed his candidacy: Who will we become as we resist President Trump’s policies that contradict what we believe are God’s political values?

I once spoke with a Catholic nun who helped run a chapter of community organizers in Los Angeles. I wasn’t familiar with that sort of work as this was years before the most famous community organizer in history, Barack Obama, ran for president. As the sister shared what her group did and I spoke about the needs in my community, she looked at me and said, “What makes you angry? Because in this work you need a certain amount of anger to keep at it.”

That question has stuck with me for over ten years. My posts in this series have so far focused on commitments and practices that will help us not let our anger boil over so that we dehumanize our neighbors. For this post I want to turn to the right expressions of anger.

Anger is a natural reaction to a perceived injustice. Anger is not bad in and of itself. What we do when angry, however, can be constructive or sinful. Gentleness and anger are not mutually exclusive. We can still treat others kindly as we let our anger motivate us to work for justice. Let us remember, the biblical authors speak of God as being slow to anger, but God’s anger does come. We see constructive anger in the prophets. Jesus shows his anger several times in the Gospels, including when he drives the money changers out of the Temple. The Apostle Paul expresses his anger in his epistles, often when some Christians put unnecessary roadblocks between other Christians and God.

For followers of Christ, we have a two-fold challenge when it comes to anger. First, we have to ensure that we are angry at the right things. Oppression, injustice, and lies are all worthwhile things to become angry about. Second, we have to express our anger in ways that build up and effect positive change. To be sure, we need the destruction and deconstruction of bad systems before we can build something good, but our goal must always be to establish a more just society.

If Donald Trump governs anything like he promised in his campaign, we will have plenty to be angry about: actions and policies that hurt the widow, orphan, and stranger, as well as demagogic speech. The anger we feel might just be the Holy Spirit speaking to us, motivating us to constructive action. We have to turn to Scripture and our faith communities to help us discern whether our anger is born of God or not. Godly anger needs a healthy outlet for without one our anger can turn to cynicism and resentment. As the Twelve Steps remind us, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Organizing, petitioning elected officials, and especially standing in solidarity with people Trump’s policies will hurt are good expressions of our anger. Merely complaining among like-minded folks or posting on social media—including engaging in debates that generate more heat than light—are not to be confused with real action.

So, what makes you angry?

Speaking the Truth in Love, The Trump Presidency: Who Will We Become, Part 4

In a short series of posts leading to Donald Trump’s inauguration, I want to ask the question of Christians who opposed his candidacy: Who will we become as we resist President Trump’s policies that contradict what we believe are God’s political values?

In the previous post I wondered if it was possible for us to allow our current vitriolic political environment—an environment Donald Trump seems keen on helping thrive—actually teach us to become kinder, gentler, and more gracious. I quoted from Fr. Gregory Boyle, who said, “The answer to every question is compassion to begin with.” I wanted to emphasize the Christian commitments of charity toward our neighbors, love of enemies, and kindness in our speech. Now I want to turn to the Apostle Paul’s great exhortation to the Ephesian church to speak the truth in love. (Eph 4.15)

I’ve heard plenty of preachers say Paul juxtaposes truth and love. I think this misses the point. Truth and love are not opposites. Rather the truth may be spoken in ways that are loving, hateful, indifferent, etc. We have to commit to practicing compassion in our speech.

There is a temptation to take off the rough edges of truth and see that as an act of love. Often this means not telling the whole truth or any of the truth at all. Let us be clear. There is nothing loving about such an action. That is in fact deception. Our goal is not to avoid offending people. The fact is the truth is often offensive. People usually need to work through their offense in order to accept the truth. I know this was the case for me as I first learned about racial reconciliation. I took offense to claims that I, as a white male, disproportionately benefit from our racialized society. Friends were able to help me process my feelings of being slighted and see the truth that I do in fact carry privileges not extended to people of different ethnicities. The truth hurt, but living in the truth is better than living in a lie. Jesus reminds us there is great freedom found in truth. (Jn 8.32) I have found freedom accepting the truth of my privilege and I am free to use that privilege for the sake of others.

Speaking the truth in love demands we commit to knowing the truth. Many social and psychological factors work to prevent us from knowing and acting on the truth. The obvious culprits of partisan spin machines and the now popular scoundrel of “fake news” fill our minds with outright lies, half truths, and paltering. Often these sources confirm our biases. We like resources that tell us what want to hear and we want to avoid cognitive dissonance. We don’t want our convictions or beliefs challenged.

Knowing the truth thus requires humility. Christ-followers must take the words of those in power with a grain of salt. However, we will also exercise a healthy skepticism toward voices who say things with which we agree. Those of us who opposed Trump in part because of his propensity to lie must not assume everything he says is false. He has and will tell the truth. When he does we must acknowledge it.

Those who speak in love appreciate where their audience is and understand the same argument won’t work for all people. We cannot expect the same response from someone who is ignorant of the problems mass incarceration as from someone who has worked for prison reform for years. We know how hard we can push at a given moment. The great truth-tellers of the Bible, i.e., the prophets, did not mince words and were even willing to engage in rather harsh speech. But they used this language to wake up their audience and it was always an act of love—love for the God they worshiped, love for the people being oppressed, and love for the oppressors whose actions they condemned.

In his sermon, “Loving Your Enemies,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “To our most bitter opponents we say…’One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.'” This commitment to win over even our opponents as we seek justice is a wonderful picture of speaking the truth in love.