A reflection on what actually makes the parable of the Samaritan so shocking
This post was originally published in Meg Giordano's blog. Read more of her work here.
The parable of the Samaritan in the gospel of Luke famously challenges its audience (both at the time and throughout the ages following) in terms of showing goodness and mercy to people unlike us – i.e., what it means to ‘love our neighbor.’ Perhaps the thing most remarkable about this parable is how it ran counter to the social and religious intuitions of the good people of the day. Not really so much the moral intuitions – I think most would have agreed that to show kindness to a suffering individual is a good thing. But it was a surprise to them to think of such moral goodness in terms of people who they generally thought of, at best, as outside of or irrelevant to their moral context. At worst, of course, they thought of them with hostility.
There are all kinds of modern applications of Christ’s message in this parable: showing mercy, kindness, respect, etc. to people whose beliefs and life choices are appreciably different from our own, etc. This is all well and good, and we should continue to be formed by this challenge.
It seems to me, however, that such a reading skips over an important part of the challenge – Christ’s shocking message wasn’t only that we do good to those that are profoundly different from us, but that we receive good from them. This is an entirely different problem contained within the question ‘who is my neighbor?’ so famously asked.
What I have in mind is how often in my life devotional teaching seems to assume that my life is meaningfully ‘akin’ to, for example, Abraham (or any other biblical figure) – such that his thoughts, emotions, actions, and view of the world can serve as a relevant and helpful conversation partner for my own journey through the world as a person of faith. This, contrasted with the corollary assumption, also often present in such teaching, that people in my own contexts who are not of the same faith as me (including those of no faith) are deeply ‘alien’ to me – such that their thoughts about the world, events, and human life should be viewed as unreliable narratives at a fundamental level, i.e., what some call ‘a worldview level.’ They simply see the world through a different lens, so it is said. As opposed to our good friend Abraham, who presumably used a lens very similar to the one I use.
This is troubling to me. I do understand and appreciate the importance of ‘core beliefs.’ However, I think we err when we assume that people who are our nearest actual neighbors in life – e.g., coworkers, fellow residents, or at the very least folks living in the same times as us – but do not hold the same beliefs should be somehow categorized as unreliable witnesses to truth about our shared contexts. How on earth can Abraham serve as a source of meaningful insight for me, from his world of nearly four millennia ago, but not a non-Christian who is perceptive, experienced, or wise about certain things in our world? Why is the one gap superable and the other not?
For some strange reason, I think we read Christ’s parable of the Samaritan in an inverted fashion: as if it challenges us to think carefully about who we are willing to do good to, and who we are not willing to do good to – i.e., as if the message is to be careful to think of ‘others’ as our neighbors insofar as they are in need of our mercy, help, etc. That is of course part of it, but it is not the remarkable part. I think we need to remind ourselves that Christ’s story was shocking insofar as it depicted the ‘different other’ as a source of the good, the true, the beautiful, the generous. That was the shock. That we can often find ourselves the blessed receivers of good from people who we categorize as ‘others.’
I don’t think we think about this often enough, or its implications. I think we need to be shocked just a bit more by the goodness, perception, even wisdom of the people who share our world with us. Abraham is nice and all, but he’s not actually my neighbor.
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