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.

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)

Everything Matters: An Advent Reflection

Each Advent we again reflect on how Jesus came to be with us. This world seems to be an undifferentiated heap of chaos. Truth gives way to base opinion. Reason and morality succumb to power. Any gains of human generosity pale in comparison to the equally human destruction that is tearing Aleppo to shreds. We celebrate technological advances allowing us to move people and goods faster and farther, but these same advances have sped up the harm of our planet and made human trafficking easier. We can choose to ignore the turmoil in order to function, dulling our confusion with the glitz of the season. Or we might stare at the violence so long we lose hope. The search for meaning seems fleeting or delusional. In the midst of this existence, which appears at worst deranged and at best absurd, we celebrate Jesus’s birth.

Jesus did not arrive as a grown man or as a resplendent king at the peak of power. He came as a poor infant, born to parents who lived in a land occupied by an oppressive empire. They would have to escape a violent tyrant and seek refuge in a foreign land. Jesus shared our experience. He ate, slept, learned, celebrated, mourned, matured, worked, rested, prayed, and died. Jesus’s very life affirms our existence.

Christians believe that God will one day make the world anew. On that day everything will be completely right and just. Violence, evil, sin, and death will cease to exist. It is telling that Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem was not that moment in which chaos is destroyed and order fully established. His life, ministry, and resurrection inaugurate this new creation, but it has yet to arrive completely.

What are we to make of Jesus entering into our mess? The simple answer, I believe, is this: everything matters. (Admittedly this belief often feels like a weak conviction, a hope against hope.) All stages of life ultimately matter. Through Jesus, God gives human existence a stamp of approval. Jesus was a zygote, infant, toddler, youth, and adult. His eating, sleeping, learning, celebrating, mourning, maturing, working, resting, praying, and dying all mattered. His incarnation and resurrection affirms that none of what we may see as absurd randomness is truly meaningless.

God embraces our joy, hope, and even pain. The consolation we experience may not reconcile the evil and beauty we see. We may never receive the answers for why we endure terrible loss. But comfort comes to us in the fact of knowing God incarnate came to be with us as an infant, residing with us in our powerlessness. The God of the universe has experienced our confusion. Jesus saw firsthand the heap of chaos comprising our successes and failures, convictions and doubts, hopes and fears, beauty and ugliness. Jesus saw this heap and redeemed it. As Jesus tells his disciples after feeding the five thousand, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” (John 6.12) This Advent and Christmas, may you see God also inviting you to gather up the fragments around you, so that nothing may be lost.

Jesus is here!

God is with us!

Everything matters!

Reading Widely and Deeply

Writing in the New York Times, Emma Roller points out:

The strongest bias in American politics is not a liberal bias or a conservative bias; it is a confirmation bias, or the urge to believe only things that confirm what you already believe to be true. Not only do we tend to seek out and remember information that reaffirms what we already believe, but there is also a “backfire effect,” which sees people doubling down on their beliefs after being presented with evidence that contradicts them.

It  has been well-documented people receive their news and commentary from sources that are more likely to affirm rather than challenge their views. The internet and cable television have allowed people to seek out boutique mediums. We are placing ourselves in ideological silos, making it more difficult to relate to, or even understand, our neighbors who think differently than we do on those topics we’re not supposed to talk about in polite company: politics, religion, social mores. The lack of interaction with different views makes it easier to dehumanize people who hold values foreign to our own. The common ground we share hides behind a thick wall of fog.

An oft-suggested possible solution is for people to intentionally seek out a plurality of views. Digest news from a basket of sources, including those that do not share one’s outlook. Read opinions from people who are on the other side of the aisle. Try to engage the strongest possible version of the argument and don’t spend time knocking down straw men. These are laudable practices and good for us who live in a pluralistic society. Perhaps if we engaged in these acts more we would be able to say of our neighbors, “I think you are a good person who wants what is best for our community, but I disagree that what you want is the best or even good for us.” That would be a significant improvement on the tendency to impugn the character of our neighbors for having religious or political beliefs that are not our own.

I also wonder about how what we read, see, and hear shapes our character. A broad selection of sources can form us in very good ways so that we are more charitable toward our neighbors, have a fuller picture of reality, and are aware of our blind spots. Still, there is room for mining deep those resources who make us into the people we want to become.

I have, at times, intentionally limited my exposure to some commentators, not because they challenged me or caused me cognitive dissonance, but because I saw their works having a deleterious effect on me. I became more snarky, argumentative, angry. I wanted instead to read authors who inspired me toward charity. Our time is unfortunately finite and so we have to make choices. We cannot read everything all the time.

It is good to spend more time with people and writings that help us become who we want to be. I choose to give more attention to authors who encourage me to pursue God’s kingdom, to be more generous and loving, and who invite me to deeper thinking and a more thorough examination of my life. Selfishness and self-aggrandizement come easy to me. Pursuing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God are challenges. I now find myself asking, for example, am I more inclined to horde or give after reading this column? Does spending time with certain people make me more or less likely to help someone stranded on the side of the road?

Reading broadly helps us understand and see the humanity in our neighbors. Let us also read deeply those authors who urge us to become better persons and a better community.

What authors do you appreciate outside your political, religious, and social camp? What authors do you read who push you to become a better person?

The Countercultural Act of Praying for the Government

Recently Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, spoke to a group of Christian conservatives (or was it conservative Christians? that’s for another time). In a video posted to Twitter by Bishop E.W. Jackson, Trump says, “Some of the people are saying, ‘Let’s pray for our leaders.’ And I said, ‘Well, you can pray for your leaders, and I agree with that. Pray for everyone.’ But what you really have to do is you have to pray to get everybody out to vote for one specific person. And we can’t be, again, politically correct and say we pray for all of our leaders, because all of your leaders are selling Christianity down the tubes, selling the evangelicals down the tubes. And it’s a very, very bad thing that’s happening.”

There is a rich biblical tradition of praying for governmental leaders. We see it in both the Old and New Testaments. In my book The Politics of Praise, readers pray through Psalms 72 and 146. Psalm 72 is a prayer for the king at what seems to be his coronation. It gives us a picture of what kind of leadership God blesses.

Along with devotional readings on the two psalms, I also wrote a few essays designed to help people enter the world of these amazing prayer poems. I offer you the essay on Psalm 72. I invite you to read the essay, and more importantly, prayerfully read Psalm 72. I hope you will see why and how we are called to pray for all our governmental leaders, which is not something we do, as Trump claims, for the sake of political correctness. Praying for our leaders is in fact a radical act to bring our leaders in line with God’s political agenda of justice and mercy.


The Countercultural  Act of Praying for the Government

In the debate a week before the presidential election in 1980, Ronald Reagan posed the now-famous question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”[i] Ever since that debate nearly every challenger to an incumbent leader or an incumbent party has asked this question in one form or another. Republican and Democratic candidates alike ask it every election cycle. Many people use this question as their main lens through which they assess how well an elected official does her job. This question perfectly fits our self-centered culture. In the United States we are consumed with self-realization, self-help, self-actualization, rational self-interest, self-assertion, and being self-made.[ii] We think all institutions—like our government, economy, schools, and even churches—exist to help us discover and make the best versions of ourselves.

Reagan’s question is powerful in its simplicity and clarity. It cuts to the core of many of our values and concerns. It is not, however, a Christian question. If we follow the prayer of Psalm 72, we see that we are to assess the quality of a leader’s job by how she uses her power to help marginalized people. Therefore the question we are to ask is not, “Am I better off than I was four years ago?” but, “Is my neighbor, especially my poor and needy neighbor, better off than he was four years ago?” Jesus Christ calls us as his followers to focus not our own interests, but on the interests of others, particularly the interests of the most vulnerable in our society.[iii] This is a countercultural move and the ability to focus on the needs of others before our own does not magically appear in us. We have to pray God would shape us into generous and compassionate people. Psalm 72 is a prayer that does exactly that.

The author of Psalm 72 calls us to engage in another countercultural act: praying for our leaders. We have a national pastime of complaining about our government and its officials. We argue about them around dinner tables, at work, and in all forms of media. Political punditry is a giant industry in the United States and those who sling the most mud receive the majority of our attention. These voices demand we support or oppose our leaders, depending on whether those leaders align with the pundit’s positions. We rarely hear calls for us to pray to God for our leaders. Perhaps at the inauguration of a president or at the beginning of a legislative term we might stop and offer a pro forma prayer, but sustained, considered prayer for our government officials is not a discipline that many of us readily practice.

The psalmist calls the people of God to pray for Yahweh’s blessing on our governmental leaders. This prayer will probably cause discomfort. Depending on the leader in power, we may not want to pray, “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (72.8). We can quickly think of political leaders throughout history we are glad God did not bless with long reigns. Thankfully, the psalmist does not say the blessings for the leaders are merited simply because they are in charge. In fact, he implies Yahweh blesses those leaders who pursue God’s agenda of peace and justice.[iv]

To the extent a leader pursues God’s political agenda of helping the marginalized, we pray for Yahweh to bless her. We know a governmental leader who stands for what God values, who uses her authority to end oppression and violence, is refreshing to all people, “like rain that falls on the mown grass” (72.6). If an official does not prioritize the poor and needy, we use Psalm 72 as an indictment against her leadership. We hold up this psalm as an example of what godly political leadership should look like. When a leader prioritizes her own career advancement above the good of the community, vilifies the poor and needy, unfairly privileges the rich and powerful (or even the middle class), feeds our self-centered natures, or worse, engages in oppression and violence, we use Psalm 72 as a guide to pray for her repentance.

We should pause for a moment before wading into these psalms. Readers will note the psalmists do not address many of the specific political debates we face today. We receive no instruction on whether we should adopt the liberal vision of a larger government or the conservative vision of a smaller government. The psalmists do not say how much a government should manipulate financial markets. They do not mention whether more power should rest at the local or the federal levels. The silence on these matters means they are open for Christians to debate in good faith and in doing so we have an opportunity to set an example for our society on how to discuss and disagree civilly. But as we debate the shape and size of government, as we consider what laws we should have, as candidates propose their agendas, Psalm 72 gives us a lens through which we evaluate all these matters.

The values the psalmist describes should frame the discussion. God calls all of us to make the case that our political positions will best give deliverance to the needy. If a member of Congress believes businesses should run without much government interference, we who pray Psalm 72 will demand he show how free enterprise can better help the marginalized. If a city council member believes corporations need to be more closely regulated, we readers of the Psalms will demand he show how such regulation can better help the dispossessed. If we are shaped by this psalm, we will ask, “Who primarily benefits from this proposed law? Will this law help people suffering under oppression? What size and shape of government best helps poor people?” As we listen to politicians, we will require they show how their agendas will help our most vulnerable neighbors.

The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146 is available in paperback and the Kindle format at Amazon.com.


[i] Reagan’s expanded on the question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago?” “October 28, 1980 Debate Transcript,” accessed December 21, 2014, http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=october-28-1980-debate-transcript.

[ii] See Eugene Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is, for a wonderful treatment showing how praying the psalms takes our focus away from the self and places it back on God.

[iii] See: Philippians 2.4.

[iv] As we pray these psalms we also become aware of the differences between our context and the political contexts when these prayers were written. Psalm 72 in particular raises questions of how we pray for political leaders when the Church is not tied to any particular nation.