I have been meaning to write this post for some time. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of Christ’s best known teachings - even outside of Christianity. And for good reason: it is eternally relevant, timeless, memorable, and above all, truly radical in its meaning.
In this post, I want to look at that radical meaning, and why you don’t generally hear about this from the pulpit. (Particularly from white, Evangelical preachers - and that isn’t an accident.) Let me be the first to say that I am not a seminary-trained academic. I also do not believe that there is one “obvious, infallible, clear” meaning or interpretation of scripture. I wrote about that earlier this year. I am not claiming that I know the one true meaning of the parable, or that this is the only interpretation. But I do think that one can learn a lot from the context of the passage. I also believe that we need to take the words of Christ seriously, and not gloss over them because they make us uncomfortable.
Let’s start with the text itself. I’m using the NIV here, but feel free to read it in other translations for comparison.
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘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.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, I was told that the meaning of this parable was that we need to love our neighbor, and that our neighbor includes those who are outside our “tribe” - people different than us. Now, this is a perfectly fine meaning. It is a great meaning in many ways.
In fact, if American [white, Evangelical] Christians actually took that meaning seriously, it would be nothing short of revolutionary. If they actually believed that they owed a Christian duty of love and care for the suffering and vulnerable in our world - whether or not those people share their race, nationality, socioeconomic status, religion, or theology - well, the world would be a vastly better place. But that would, of course, require that American Evangelicals rethink their political commitments to the candidates, parties, and policies of cruelty and indifference. So sure, the meaning that I was taught is a good one, and we would all do well to take it to heart.
That said, the meaning given is incomplete, and fails to include the truly radical ideas that Christ is teaching in this parable.
Here’s a hint:
Why is this parable “The Good Samaritan” rather than “The Good Jew”?
Think about that for a minute. And let’s take a look at the context, which is vital to understanding the meaning.
Parable of the Good Samaritan by Balthasar van Courtbemde (1647)
What is the framing story behind this parable? In many parables, the authors of the Gospels simply state that he sat down to teach, or he told a parable, or something similar.
This one is different.
It starts with a specific person asking as specific question. Both are important.
The person is an “expert in the law,” or a “lawyer” as some translations put it. We aren’t talking about a lawyer like me. That profession as we know it didn’t really come into being until centuries later. Rather, this man was a scholar - an expert in the Torah. He was presumably familiar with every nook and cranny of the commandments - and all the loopholes that the religious leaders had exploited as they oppressed their fellow humans.
This guy wasn’t a true seeker, honestly wanting to know, either. He, like many “questioners” in the Gospels, was looking to argue - and prove Christ wrong. You can see this by his response to Christ’s answer - he wanted to “justify himself.” Christ refused to let him off the hook.
What was the question?
At this point, we Christians should all be riveted to the text: the founder of our faith is about to respond to what is perhaps the central question.
“What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
This is important, yes? We talk a lot about salvation, and we have elaborate theological structures - and arguments - over the theology of salvation and eternal life. But for some reason or another, the structure seems rather to be missing something: it doesn’t match what Christ actually said. But let’s actually look at this closely - and take it seriously.
Christ’s response surely should be meaningful to us as we look at what sorts of behaviors are correlated with eternal life.
When we read this parable, therefore, we need to look at it as being first and foremost about eternal life. Who attains it. And why. Who doesn’t attain it, and why not.
First, there is a question. Christ loved to answer questions with questions. In this case, the legal expert was asked what the law said. This appears to be a softball question, but Christ is really just setting a trap.
The legal expert answers well...at first. He quotes back what Christ said on multiple occasions was the summation of the Law and the Prophets.
Love God. Love Your Neighbor.
Christ agrees: do these and you will live. You will have eternal life.
It seems that the legal expert wasn’t satisfied with this answer. I suspect it was for the same reason that many I know are uncomfortable when someone (like me perhaps) calls them on actions or advocacy which seems rather opposite to loving one’s neighbor. So he responds like many I know:
Who is my neighbor?
Ah, this is the crux of the matter, isn’t it? The lawyer, always looking for loopholes. This is still very much happening. I’m not going to dignify them with links, but a number of reasonably prominent Evangelicals, writing in mainstream publications, have made the argument that when Christ talks about “the least of these,” He wasn’t talking about people outside the tribe. He was only talking about Christians. He was only talking about people from your own country, not foreigners. He didn’t mean you actually had duty to care for the poor - just to evangelize them, because they are poor because they aren’t “christian” enough. Just wow. This obviously completely ignores whole other areas of Christ’s teaching - including the parable we are discussing. Like the legal expert of the Gospel of Luke, they are still trying to weasel out of Christ’s commands - because they require an actual change of heart away from a religion of cruelty to one of compassion.
Next comes the part that I think makes this story truly radical.
Why is it “The Good Samaritan” and not “The Good Jew”?
Christ could easily have picked any category for any of his characters. He might have told a story with all Jews. He could have told one with no ethnicity mentioned. He could have made the robbery victim a Samaritan, and the hero an ordinary Jew. All these could have made the same basic point - if the sole point was “love your neighbor - even those not like you.”
Why did Christ choose to make the hero a Samaritan?
Well, to understand that requires an understanding of who the Samaritans were. Way back in the history of Israel, the nation split in two, with the Northern Kingdom taking the name of “Israel,” and the Southern Kingdom that of “Judah.” Because of the political reasons for the split, it wasn’t desirable that all the northerners would have had to travel to the south to offer sacrifices in Jerusalem. So the religious ritual was changed. For those in the Southern Kingdom, this was rank heresy, a violation of the clear command of the Torah. Thus, at that time, there was a religious split. Later there would be a racial split as well. The Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians. When they were permitted to return, they came along with a number of non-Jewish people, and they intermarried. In contrast, when the Southern Kingdom exiles returned, they kept themselves apart, and those intermarriages were broken up. (See Ezra and Nehemiah) Furthermore, as we humans tend to do, the Jews considered the Samaritans to be devoid of sexual morality. (Let’s just say that the story of the woman at the well didn’t just happen to contain a woman with a sexual past - it played directly to the stereotype - which is why Christ’s response to her was so radical.)
So, there were specific tensions at play. To “true” Jews - such as the legal expert - Samaritans were heretics, race traitors, promiscuous, untouchable, and beyond the pale. To find a modern analogue, I think I would go with “gay, liberal, brown-skinned.” The people who the conservative religious establishment is most certain will not attain eternal life.
So we know the hero is a Samaritan - the untouchable heretic and race traitor. Who are the other characters?
What we know about him is his journey. He was going from Jerusalem to Jericho. That’s about it. Was he a Jew? Maybe. Was he a Samaritan? Could be. Was he a Gentile? Entirely possible. This too, I believe, is intentional. As the one character who doesn’t have a group identity, he is first, foremost, and crucially this: he is in need of help! His neediness is the part that matters. Again, when modern Pharisees try to claim that we owe no duty of care to those outside our tribe, they are ignoring the point of this parable.
Hey, it’s a religious leader! If anyone should be close to God, surely it would be him, right? He spends his life ministering in the temple. And he comes by “by chance.” Again, a small detail which has meaning. The opportunity to attain eternal life happens to the priest in a random way. In his everyday life, he sees a needy person. Not when he had his robes on and was doing his religious stuff. The victim didn’t show up a church looking for help. This was an everyday occurrence, and, like all of us, the priest finds himself faced with a decision. And so do we, whether it is a question of direct aid as in the parable, or in the way we vote to govern our nation. The priest, we may well assume, had all his theological ducks in a row - just like the lawyer. He of all people would assume he was on the track to immortality.
The second guy to see the victim is a Levite. Levites were of a particular tribe, and they were given religious, social, and political responsibilities. Some Levites were priests too - but many more were involved in the running of society. They were the political class, the ruling class, so to speak. And again, this was a chance meeting, and a choice. And a chance to attain eternal life. The Levite, like the priest, was one who we may presume had the “right” theology, and fully expected immortality.
Again, here is the one person in this story who the lawyer would assume to be the last person who might possibly attain eternal life. He was a freaking heretic. A race traitor. Presumed to be sleeping around. The enemy of the “true” Jews. In every possible way, untouchable.
Most of us know the story. The Priest and the Levite go their own way. The Samaritan takes the Victim to a hotel, sees that his wounds are bandaged, and makes sure he lives through the night. Then, the Samaritan pays the charges, gives the innkeeper some extra to cover the recovery period - and essentially writes a blank check for future costs. And note, unlike the priest and Levite, who just happen along, the Samaritan is on a trip - he has places to be. And yet, he takes the time to make sure the victim is okay before he resumes his travels.
See, that isn’t just doing the minimum. That is taking true moral responsibility for the wellbeing of others. And yes, there is a cost.
Again, I don’t think Christ threw this in for chuckles. He is making a point: loving your neighbor as yourself means going beyond the limits of basic human decency to actually take moral responsibility for the wellbeing of those who hurt and are in need of help. Honestly, if we could just get white Evangelical Christians in America to rise to the level of basic human decency toward those outside their tribe, that would be a phenomenal improvement. Imagine if all of us actually live out this parable - and went above and beyond.
Christ asks another question.
Again, this is an amazing way to respond. The legal expert asked who his neighbor was. Christ flipped this - and asked the right question.
Who was the good neighbor?
See, the lawyer wanted to parse the “who.” Who was he obligated to help? Could he find exceptions? Surely not “those” people, right?
Christ instead turns it around. The “who” doesn’t really matter: it is about OUR behavior toward others. Are WE acting like good neighbors or not? Are we treating people, regardless of who they are, in a way that fulfils “love your neighbor as yourself”? Or not.
Even the lawyer has to admit: the answer here is that the Samaritan (whose name he won’t even say) is the hero - the one who attains eternal life.
Go and do likewise.
The radical meaning.
Here is why this is radical. Let’s look at those key points:
1. This is about eternal life and how one attains it.
2. The hero is the person who has “bad” theology, and is outside of the religious establishment.
3. Those within the religious establishment utterly fail - their “correct” theology doesn’t save them.
4. The issue is whether we act as a good neighbor, not the identity of those in need.
It is impossible to escape the conclusion:
It isn’t about having “correct” theology. It’s about whether we are truly loving our neighbors - and that means everyone, not just those in our tribe. Go and do likewise, and you will attain eternal life.
We forget that the reason that Christ was so offensive to the religious establishment wasn’t primarily that he stole the attention they believed they deserved.
Christ was offensive because he told the religious establishment that their whole theological edifice was a steaming pile of schist. (Pardon my geology.)
They weren’t just misguided - they were evil. They were hurting people, while feeling self-righteous about it. That’s why Christ said that the prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the Kingdom - and the Pharisees weren’t. That’s why he said that those who turned their back on the poor, the sick, the immigrants, and the imprisoned would be told “Depart, I never knew you.”
And this is why you don’t hear the true meaning preached – particularly in white Evangelical churches.
Because if the true, radical meaning were actually preached, it would indict the religious and political establishment in our nation. The cruelty and hate would be laid bare. If people were actually told that having their theology all right wasn’t particularly important - but that they are digging their own graves when they vote to exclude immigrants fleeing violence and poverty - people would freak out. (Hey, as it is, I have made some people in my life furious when I do that sort of thing. They want to preserve their image of themselves as good people - while inflicting serious harm on others.)
It’s about compassion - not theological correctness.
This suggests that if our churches and religious leaders really cared about bringing people into the Kingdom of God - and eternal life - they would be doing things much differently.
First, the last thing we need are more “Theology 101” classes. Or, heaven forbid, yet another statement or lecture on
“biblical” sexuality and gender.
What we really need is “Loving Your Neighbor 101,” or as I would put it, “Remedial Human Decency.”
Because right now, white Evangelicals are failing to rise to the basic level of human decency that others in our society have. Just one case in point, only ¼ of white Evangelicals think we have a duty to take in refugees. No other group takes this position - and it isn’t even close. On pretty much any racial issue, white Evangelicals are the most likely to take the racist and cruel position. I recommend spending some time with William Saletan’s recent article, in which he links extensively to polling and research on the political positions of white Evangelicals. Saletan isn’t religious, but he can clearly see that these self proclaimed “christians” are in fact standing for the opposite of the teachings of their faith.
And it’s worse than that! American white “christians” are actively trying to stop the rest of us from helping the needy. They want to build giant walls to keep refugees out. They want to punish places like my native California for refusing to make ethnic cleansing of immigrants a law enforcement priority. They came within a couple votes of stripping healthcare from the working poor, children, and the disabled. When those outside the bubble think of Christianity, they don’t think “hey, those people are helping those in need.” It is the exact opposite.
Fixing THIS is what American Christianity needs to be doing right now. At least if they truly are interested in eternal life.
When we talk about young people leaving the church - and they sure are - I think we have to look at this factor. When people of my age and younger look at the American white Church, we don’t see compassion. AT ALL. We see White Supremacy. We see Social Darwinism. We see a determination to cling to privilege no matter how many people get hurt.
To quote one of the prophets of our time:
I love Jesus. But fuck that shit.