Friday, December 10, 2010

Who is a Good Samaritan?

One of the teachings in the Bible that I have contemplated increasingly over the past few years is that of the Good Samaritan, as presented in one of the parables of Jesus (Luke 10:25-37).

This is a key teaching but, in part because people have heard it so many times, I think it has to some extent lost its impact, had its meaning obscured and diluted, and been reduced to a children’s story. And, once a child thinks the point of the story is that they need to be nice to their little brother or help their mom around the house, they are probably never going to understand it correctly.

There are, however, two critical points to this parable. One is the importance of being kind to people who are not like oneself. The other is the importance of helping people without the possibility of reward.

Part of the reason people are often confused by the meaning of this parable is likely that they have heard the terms “good” and “Samaritan” used in conjunction with one another so many times that they have subconsciously established a relationship between them. “What is a Samaritan? Well, it must be an especially good sort of person.”

The reason, however, that Jesus used a Samaritan in his parable is that it was an ethnic group that his audience would have found particularly objectionable. To us, the term “Samaritan” is intrinsically meaningless; there a mere 700-or-so members of this group still alive today and, even for those of us who might have known that, their existence almost certainly has no bearing on us one way or the other.

It is just as certain, however, that Jesus never said anything that was meaningless, and if he told that parable today he would therefore have to use a sort of person other than a Samaritan in order for the parable to make sense to his audience. What sort of person would that be?

Well, it might be the type of person for which his particular listeners had the worst or the most ethnic slurs. The one that they told the nastiest jokes about. The ones that they crossed the street to avoid, would have never had as guests in their homes, and would have forbid their children to marry. Today, any particular audience would likely hear the parable of “the good illegal alien.” “The good Arab.” “The good African-American.” Whoever his listeners would be most offended by is who he would insert.

I am probably making it sound as if this teaching would have been very unpopular — and I bet it was! While we revere Jesus and hold him in the highest regard, in his own time many people were really annoyed by him and with what he had to say — to the extent that they were willing to subject him to a mock trial and have him tortured and killed. They did not do that to knowingly fulfill a prophecy, they did it because they hated Jesus and because his words were an affront to them.

Last year, I covered an especially disturbing murder trial. After the defendant was convicted, her defense attorney called about a dozen character witnesses in an attempt to sway the sentence that the jury would impose (and succeeded in this regard). Many of these witnesses characterized the killer as a Good Samaritan, describing the things that person had, apparently selflessly, done to help them. This, however, displays an extreme misunderstanding of the teaching. When you help people that can testify on your behalf in court or serve you in any other way, you are not being a good Samaritan — you are paying the premiums on an insurance policy.

I am certainly not suggesting that helping one’s family members, friends, or neighbors is not a desirable thing. But, if the people you are helping can pay you back in any way, then your actions are meaningless in the context of the parable of the Good Samaritan. To the extent that helping people who can help you in return is a Christian value, it is just as much a Jewish value, a pagan value, a Muslim value, even an atheist value. Jesus and everyone else already knew that Jews helped Jews, Romans helped Romans, gentiles helped gentiles, and no one needed to tell a parable to illustrate that.

So, according to the words of Jesus, there are probably few greater things that one could aspire to be than a “Good Samaritan.” Doing so, however, just might be a lot tougher than you thought.


  1. Ignorant, hateful and uncivil? American's you say? Balderdash? And what... right here at Christmas... oh the horror... the HORROR! You must be watching any prime-time-network-television-programming featuring police-detached -desensitized detective work that is babysitting most of America's children while they are eating rewarmed fastfood that was quite possibly pick up by one of or the other of two the pair of parents picking the kids up from daycare late. Both parents forced to work extra hours because of the brutal economy who don't have time to cook and barely have time to get the kids fed, get homework done, so a meal infront of the TV brainwashed with brutality like the senseless, mindless carnage that you can watch on primetime or the six or ten o'clock news or most video games. And, please don't even get me started about the single parent homes raising children with or without daycare. Its all the same brain-junk food for our children today. A "Good Samaritan" in its ugliest imaginative and nightmarish carnation woud be Mr. Rogers comparatively to the monsters these cesspools of writers come up with to seduce advertising dollars from network to network. Its no wonder that zombie movies are so popular right now between cable and digital tv and anti-depressants and the economy--WELCOME TO AMERICA!

    Even if Jesus had had a way to explain this day and age so colorfully and descriptively and have it recorded in the Bible until present day... I'm reasonably certain that the early churches would have taken the liberty of editing most of it out for our own good... And "Good Samaritan" is about what we would have left. If you can aspire to be a GOOD SAMARITAN you must totally rock!

  2. It's funny but I've been thinking about this biblical story for a bit of time now and to see you post about it seems uncanny. Thanks for putting into words what I have been pondering.

  3. If the Samaritan had really been good he would have ignored the stranger by the side of the road and instead gone to teh government (the King) and forced him to raise taxes on the rich to pay the hospital bill for the guy hurt on the side of the road. But instead he took care of the guy himseld, not letting the government do its job. People like that who are opposed to the government could cause a breakdown of society. His duty as a citizen was to force the Priest and Levite or Pharisee to pay for the strangers care. Also he needed to insure that the Doctors who would care for the strange made at least 10 times what the average worker of the day earned. this way he would create a fair and equitable society.
    We all know that the only reason tht someone could be against full government control of the healthcare system is because they are ultra right wing, racist Neo-nazis. So this Samaritan must have been a racist right wing Neo Nazi to even use his personal beliefs and wealth to help others without looking to the govenment.
    We need to continue to keep people like this from ruining America. How dare they take personal responsibility to help others without involving the government and taking money from the people who have more than they do.