All our lives, we’ve “known” what the parable of the Good Samaritan means: followers of Jesus are called to help our neighbors. All our neighbors. We are to observe the Samaritan, then “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
Of course we should help our neighbors, and without discrimination. But our familiar way of understanding the Samaritan has its problems. It overlooks basic elements of the famous parable and carries spiritual dangers.
Several aspects of the parable should point us away from putting ourselves in the Samaritan’s place. First, the parable occurs in a larger passage, Luke 10:25-37. The scene presents an interchange between Jesus and a lawyer, presumably someone especially well-trained in the law of Israel, perhaps even a professional scribe. The conversation is hostile. The lawyer does not seek wisdom from Jesus. Instead, Luke tells us, he wants to “test” or “examine” Jesus: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Second, Jesus perceives what kind of conversation he’s in. He does not answer the lawyer’s question but turns the question back on the lawyer: “You know the law. What do you think?” When the lawyer replies that we are to love God with our whole selves and our neighbor as ourselves, Jesus affirms his answer. Things should be fine now.
But things are not fine. Jesus has just embarrassed the lawyer by exposing his insincerity. His question was hostile. “Seeking to justify himself,” we’re told, the lawyer can’t leave things alone. He seeks to save face: “So who is my neighbor?”
Remember that Jesus did not answer the lawyer’s first question. He won’t answer the second either. Instead, Jesus tells a story in which “a certain man” – could be any one of us – falls victim and lies in dire need of help. Neither a priest nor a Levite stops to help, but a Samaritan does. Scholars debate how much animosity we should read into the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. It might not matter. The point is, the help came not from a Jew but from a potential adversary with questionable worship practices. The “certain man” – could be any one of us – needed help, and it came from a (clutches pearls) Samaritan.
Jesus springs the trap, again rejecting the lawyer’s question. Jesus tosses a second question to the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (10:36). Jesus has reversed the terms of the conversation. The lawyer thought of a neighbor as someone who needed help. Jesus tells a story about a neighbor who does the helping. Grudgingly, the lawyer acknowledges defeat: the neighbor is the one who showed mercy. Now Jesus closes the conversation: “Go and do likewise.”
Our standard take on the Samaritan is dangerous because it puts us in the lawyer’s seat, the seat of assumed privilege. Like the lawyer, we also ask: “Who is my neighbor?” We mean well, but our question assumes that we’re always the ones who can help, and we know what kind of help to give. If we’re honest, we’ll confess that asking to whom we’re obligated helps reflects an assumption of social superiority.
Notice how Jesus’ response to the lawyer rejects that assumption. It puts Jesus’ hearers in the position of the man who needed help. “A certain man” was headed down the road, attacked by bandits, and left to die. If we could see ourselves as that “certain man,” we’d be glad for any neighbor we could get.
These days lots of us white people are wanting to help. The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, followed by protests in the streets and ensuring political turmoil, has pricked our consciences and moved us to action. I can’t speak for you, but the weight of our racial history and of my privilege weighs heavily on me. I want to know what I can do.
Unguided, an urgent desire to help can lead us out of line. Last week Chad Sanders, who is black, wrote “I Don’t Need Love Texts from My White Friends: I Need Them to Fight Anti-Blackness.” Having sent four such text messages to friends last week, and not knowing for sure how my friends felt about it, I felt the sting.
At a recent protest here in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, my family and I noticed something odd. Certain white people boldly confronted the police, taking vocal and up-front roles. I’m sure they meant well, but I wonder if those white people had asked their black and brown neighbors how they might best support the protests, whether their provocative behavior endangered other protesters, and how much their behavior was calling attention to themselves rather than to the cause.
The message comes from all corners: when it comes to race, those of us who are white help best by showing up, listening, and doing what we’re asked. Showing up means more than simply checking in at events. It means entering into relationships of accountability, eating and playing together, building the kinds of friendships where someone will tell us the truth about ourselves when it’s called for. More than anything else, our society needs authentic solidarity, not just transactional participation.
Dan Jurman is executive director of the Office of Advocacy and Reform in Pennsylvania and a doctoral student at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Dan’s research shows the churches want to help poor people, but we do it transactionally. We ask them to come to our buildings and our charities where they receive food, clothing, or other kinds of support. What really builds the bridge out of poverty, Dan argues, are long-term relationships, the kinds congregations build when they help resettle refugees. We’re less effective when we imagine ourselves helping other people rather than building accountable relationships.
Should Christians help people who are hurting? Of course. But the Good Samaritan parable is designed to prevent us from imagining ourselves as the heroes of the story. If we can flip the script, acknowledging that we need neighbors rather than discerning whom to bless with our kindness, we’ll be far more prepared to “Go and do likewise.”
Greg Carey is Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Seminary. His publications include numerous studies on the Book of Revelation and ancient apocalyptic literature, rhetorical analysis of the New Testament, and investigations of early Christian self-definition.
Greg serves as co-chair of the Rhetoric and the New Testament Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, and he has appeared in documentaries on the BBC, Discovery Channel, and National Geographic Channel, and most recently the 2011 BBC One documentary, "The Story of Jesus."
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