Another Way to Read the Good Samaritan Story
Even if you didn’t grow up in the Christian tradition, chances are high that you’ve heard the story of the Good Samaritan. It’s a parable told by Jesus when a religious expert asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life and whom is his neighbor.
The parable breaks down like this: a man is robbed by some thieves and left for dead by the side of the road. Both a priest and a Levite — another kind of religious person — see the man and walk on by as if they don’t notice the man. A third man from Samaria walks by and takes pity on the injured man and basically does everything within his ability to ensure this man is brought back to health.
The story primarily gets interpreted by modern readers in the contexts of the religious leader’s questions to Jesus. I’m writing this post because my two year old just learned it in Sunday school today, so we’ve even boiled it down to essential roots teachable to young children. In my daughter’s learning, they learned the takeaway from this story is to “Be Kind.” There’s nothing at all wrong or incorrect about this interpretation. Nobody’s going to argue that being nice to others is a bad thing.
I personally find Jesus’ parables to be extremely fascinating because of how clever they are. If you’re not familiar with parables, they’re basically metaphorical stories told by Jesus to answer various moral / theological / philosophical questions. In this context, Jesus could have flat out answer the man’s questions directly, but he instead chooses his “go to” of a parabolic story.
The parables are extremely clever because a) narrative stories are much easier to remember than generic teachings, and b) it enables Jesus to package multiple teachings in a single swoop. It’s almost like a shorthand way at getting a lot of points across in a very easy-to-remember kind of way. We can stay surface level enough to teach young children things, or we can really get into the meat of it and draw out new understandings we’ve never considered before.
So, let’s do just that with the Good Samaritan story here.
I find it curious that Jesus had the third kind man being a Samaritan — or person from Samaria. If Jesus wanted to stick to a lighter interpretation of “Be Kind” like my daughter learned, there was no real reason that third person couldn’t have been anybody. Jesus could have easily turned the third person into “a regular Jewish fellow” without at all affecting the “Be Kind” interpretation.
Why is that detail so important? Well, without going into too much detail, Samaritans were not looked at very kindly. Many in Jesus’s posse would have considered the people of Samaria to be a deplorable and despicable kind of people. So in this story, Jesus subverts expectations of what a Samaritan is by making a Samaritan our hero of the day. I find it wo that once Jesus wraps the story and asks the religious expert which person was the neighborly one, the expert replies, “The one who had mercy on him.” He can’t even bring himself to say “the Samaritan”!
One of the best ways to read a parable differently is by reading it from the perspective of somebody else in the story. When it comes to the Good Samaritan story, we obviously interpret things from the perspective of the Good Samaritan. After all, we don’t call it “The Parable of the Man Beaten and Left for Dead.” (Doesn’t roll off the tongue well.)
But just as it is helpful to view things from the older brother’s perspective in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, let’s look through the eyes of the injured man in this Parable of the Good Samaritan.
In modern day terms, let’s say you’re mugged in a city and left for dead in a random back alleyway. As you lie there writhing in pain, you see your church pastor and think “Yes, here is somebody who will help me!” But he’s on his phone pretending you’re not there and walks right on by. Likewise, you see an elder from your church also walk by, and you know he sees you… but he also keeps on walking.
A third person walks by, and lo and behold, it’s Donald Trump! You don’t expect somebody as pompous and prickly as el presidente to take notice, but not only does he see you, but he helps you! He calls up an ambulance, tells him to put your bills on his tab, and for the fun of it, says you can stay in Trump Tower as long as you need until you’re up on your feet again.
If you’re this injured person, you’re probably baffled and stunned, angry and glad. Baffled and angry because the people who you thought would help — the pastor and elder — left you to rot in that alley, and stunned that the person you thought would NEVER help — Donald Trump — showed you more kindness than you ever thought was possible from a human being, let alone the fact that this is Trump we’re talking about.
So the question in my mind is… how are we missing out on life in unexpected places?
I used the example of Donald Trump since he is generally despised by the public, but I’m thinking more broadly in the spiritual realm. Every faith tradition has this proclivity toward thinking they have all the answers and writing everybody else off as lunatics. I come from a Christian tradition, and I can definitely verify how true this is in the Christian church. I have distinct memories of taking a “Religions 101" class at my home church in junior high, and the basic spin of the class was proving to us students why every other religion was wrong.
Even within the walls of the church, I see way too much division. Just this last week, Kanye West released his new “Gospel” album, Jesus Is King. The most telling lyrics come from the song on that album Hands On. It goes like this:
What have you been hearing from the Christians?
They’ll be the first ones to judge me.
Make it feel like nobody loves me.
Make it feel alone in the dark.
And you never see the light.
The album just came out two days ago as I write this, so I’ve personally not heard the church’s general reaction to this album. But knowing how they feel generally speaking about folks as controversial as Kanye West, I highly doubt they’re going to be selling this album in Christian bookstores.
It’s clear via my other blog posts that I’ve been exploring spirituality through all sorts of other avenues as of late. It’s so interesting now coming back to my “home” faith tradition and reading how much the teachings of Jesus in particular resonate with the universality of life. If we believe Jesus to be whom He proclaimed to be, then I think He was smart enough to realize what he was doing with parables like this one.
Anyway, I hope you found this post to be enlightening. I personally love re-reading familiar stories like this one and seeing new light by turning the gem over and over again. We’ll see you in the next post.