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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Recovering Passion, but it Might Hurt

We are a passionate people. We care deeply about matters we find important, whether it is wanting to see human trafficking end to wanting to see the Oakland Athletics win the world series (Go A’s!). What we mean when we say we are passionate is that we have strong feelings about a subject. We are not a generally apathetic people in that we are unconcerned or uninformed. Whether our concern translates to action is another issue, however.

We have largely lost an older definition of the word passion and I think it would be wise for us to recover it. Passion used to mean suffering and to be passionate about an issue signified one was willing to suffer for it. Too often we see people who are passionate about an issue in that they care deeply about that issue, but they are not passionate in that they do not suffer for that issue. We need people to clearly articulate their strong opinions. At the same time, these opinions cannot take the place of actual sacrifice. This is not to say I think we should develop martyr complexes. In fact, I hope we can avoid seeking martyrdom for the sake of martyrdom.

I am guilty of this problem. I can read lots of articles about a matter I find important and have lengthy and heated debates about said topic. I can even let my concern about that topic dominate my thoughts throughout the day and keep me up at night.

But it stops there. My life doesn’t really change so I actually do something to make a difference in these issues I say I am so passionate about. I may give money to a cause, but not so much that I have to radically rearrange my budget. If it’s a matter that can be affected politically, I might sign a petition, attend a rally, or let my opinion on the matter shape how I vote. I don’t really adjust how I spend my time because though I may volunteer a bit, it is usually when I have an opening in my schedule. I may even write a blog post about the matter. But I haven’t put even my comfort at risk. Some of the only negative costs may be a few awkward dinner conversations or a few Facebook friends block me because they disagree with my opinions.

We need more people to be passionate in the old sense of the term. We need people to move beyond merely being moved emotionally. We need to be moved toward acting for the common good, even at great cost. It is important to be well-educated about these matters. Action without first trying to consider all the consequences can lead to unintended dangers, such as the case of the American evangelical push for transnational adoption leading to a “boom-and-bust market” for adoptable children in developing nations. But let’s not confuse — as I often can — educating ourselves with effecting change. We cannot stop just at education.

I’m trying to change my language and reserve the word passionate to describe things for which I am willing to sacrifice to the point of suffering. If I say I am passionate about a matter but I can’t point to examples of how I have rearranged my life or the costs I was willing to incur so that I work to bring some improvement to that matter, then I doubt that I am truly passionate about it. I simply have strong opinions on that subject.

What would happen if we considered the issues that evoke strong opinions from us and then asked, “How much have I suffered to effect positive change for this?”

The Death Penalty and Gospel in the Form of Food

Recently, Georgia and Texas put to death prisoners Troy Davis and Lawrence Russell Brewer, respectively. The Davis execution made far more headlines due to the protests questioning his murder conviction following witnesses recanting their statements and requests for clemency from high-profile leaders. In the wake of these executions, the internet has been full of opinions concerning the death penalty and the criminal court system. Acts of capital punishment often create opportunities for public ethical reflection. Tobias Winwright calls for the end to capital punishment, rooting his strong argument in Roman Catholic theology. He writes:

Our theological tradition recalls that our Lord Jesus Christ was unjustly and brutally nailed to a cross to die. The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth put the matter this way: “Now that Jesus Christ has been nailed to the cross for the sins of the world, how can we still use the thought of expiation to establish the death penalty?” The Eucharistic celebration calls Catholics to remember all crucified people, including the legacy of lynching, in light of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His Gospel message of forgiveness and love of enemies presents a difficult challenge, especially to those who have lost loved ones at the hands of a murderer. Yet, the Gospel teaches us how to become fully human: love, not hatred and revenge, liberates us. We need to forgive and love both in fidelity to the Gospel and for our own well-being.

In his post, “The State Killed Two Men Last Night (But We Only Cared for Troy Davis),” David R. Henson challenges the inconsistency of being against the death penalty, but crying out only for those whom we believe are innocent. Brewer, whose guilt was never much in question and whose crime born out of white supremacy makes it somehow more unpalatable, received little of the concern that Davis did. For those like myself, who want the abolition of capital punishment altogether, it was hypocritical to spend so much energy on behalf of Davis and not raise our voices on behalf of Brewer.

In considering the disparity of attention between the Davis and Brewer executions, we must wrestle with this truth: that even for those of us who believe all capital punishment is wrong, it is a lot easier to get behind the cause of someone whom we believe is innocent — or whose case we believe contains reasonable doubt — than it is to defend the life of someone whom we believe is guilty. (Granted, there were those who opposed Davis’ conviction, but who maintained the necessity of capital punishment and they would not be expected to protest the execution of someone like Brewer.) To be against the death penalty is to defend the lives of people who have committed some of the most heinous acts imaginable. When I read the account of Brewer’s murder of James Byrd, Jr., my immediate reaction demanded blood. What Brewer did was evil and it demands to be named so. It also takes discipline to say that despite the evil he committed, Brewer was still a human being, still created in God’s image, still an object of God’s affection, still someone for whom Christ died to redeem, and thus still someone whose life had value. It takes grace to see people who commit evil crimes such as these as lovable — grace that I cannot muster on my own.

Yesterday, All Things Considered aired an interview with Brian Price, who has volunteered to pay for, cook, and deliver last meals to Texas inmates before their executions. In response to Brewer’s outrageous last meal request, which he never ate — the request included, “two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions, a triple patty bacon cheeseburger, a cheese, beef and veggie omelet, a bowl of fried okra, one pound of barbecued meat with a half loaf of white bread, three fajitas, a Meat Lover’s pizza, one pint of Bluebell Ice Cream, a slab of peanut butter fudge, and three root beers” — Texas state senator John Whitmire led an effort to eliminate the tradition of granting last meal requests on the grounds that the inmates being executed did not give their victims the consideration of a last meal. Price, who was a prisoner and worked as a prison cook responds with a story of his friend who cleaned up in the death chamber after the executions.

[H]e said, Brian…it doesn’t bother me to go in there and wipe the bloody gurney off. And he said none of that bothers me.

He said, well, when I go in that witness chamber and I have to wipe off the handprints, the smeared lipstick and makeup, the tears mixed with all that on that glass where that man’s family watched him being executed, he said, that’s what bothers me. What if that was your son on that gurney and you’re on the other side of the glass watching him be put to death like an animal, how would you feel then?

Would you have gone out and got him a Meat Lover’s pizza if you could? Of course, you would’ve. So as a civilized society and a Christian nation, which I still claim – and a Christian state as the state of Texas – why not, let’s show that softer, more compassionate side?

Texas has so far declined Price’s offer.

The juxtaposition between Whitmire’s and Price’s reactions is fascinating. I can empathize with Whitmire’s position. When someone has done something as evil and inhumane as Brewer did, when he refused to show any ounce of human kindness to Byrd, it is very tempting to say that Brewer has relinquished any claims to humane treatment. Granting him a lavish last meal — though Price doubts that Brewer received all that food — does feel like further injustice when we consider how he treated Byrd in the last few hours of Byrd’s life.

But it is Price’s reaction that rings of the good news of Jesus Christ. In the interview, Price makes no claim as to whether he believes Brewer was guilty or innocent. He merely claims that as someone’s son, as a human being, Brewer is still a valid object of compassion. Perhaps even more importantly, Brewer appeals to the civilized nature of society and Christian values as reasons to offer compassion. It is not that Brewer’s murder of Byrd warranted compassion — quite the contrary — but that as civilized people, and especially as Christians, we have the agency and responsibility to offer compassion regardless of the situation.

Whitmire’s position to deny last meals gives us the sense that we are in control because we believe we can dole out punishment and withhold compassion as we want. It is a position that likes to say actions have consequences. That is a false sense of agency, however, because ultimately we are allowing Brewer’s actions to determine our reactions. Just because Brewer committed an unspeakable, uncivilized, and ungracious act does not mean that we have to treat him without grace. In fact, I would argue that our agency and civilized nature are best displayed by responding in a gracious manner to evil events. True agency is shown when we treat those who hurt us or who commit evil with dignity and grace. Price’s position, as difficult as it may be to hold, sounds much more like the gospel for it is precisely when we were at our most unlovable that Jesus searched us out to reconcile us to God (see: Romans 5.6-10).