Going with Your Gut: A Reflection on the Parable of the Good Samaritan

By Mathewson, Laurel Rae | Sojourners Magazine, February 2008 | Go to article overview

Going with Your Gut: A Reflection on the Parable of the Good Samaritan


Mathewson, Laurel Rae, Sojourners Magazine


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I OFTEN "MISCUE" IN BEADING THE STORY OF THE GOOD SAMARITAN (Luke 10:25-37). Here's how: I sometimes place the Samaritan in the role of the one who was beaten by robbers and later cared for a stranger. Because Samaritans were hated as "mixed race" people (part Gentile, part Jew) and heretics in the eyes of the Jewish community, the central message I've absorbed remains the same. Everyone is your neighbor. You should help them even if it's dangerous, and even if they're your enemy.

Jesus could have made most of the usual points associated with his parable equally well if the Samaritan was the victim. Imagine this: The lawyer says "who is my neighbor?" and Jesus replies. "A Samaritan is walking on the road to Jericho. He's beaten and left half-dead on the side of the road. A Levite and a priest pass by and don't do anything. But then a Jewish lawyer, just like you, is moved with pity and helps the guy out. Tell me, who was a neighbor to the man?"

The lawyer who asked the question would still be in a rhetorical trap: It's obvious that the person who helped the Samaritan acted in love--taking risks and putting himself in danger to help the stranger on the side of the road. It's also obvious that Jesus is scandalously claiming that we should love those whom we hate, despise, and are our culturally defined enemies, the ones we definitely don't think of as our neighbors.

So why didn't Jesus tell the story in this more straightforward manner? If he was merely trying to make the point that those we consider our enemies are really our neighbors--that in fact everyone is a neighbor to be loved as we love ourselves, no matter how inconvenient the timing of the need--then making the Samaritan the victim works just as well.

But Jesus didn't. And I trust that he was a lot wiser about both his society and human nature than my miscuing brain.

WHAT DOES THE STORY gain when the Samaritan is the helper? For starters, the point about accepting love from unlikely, uninvited sources is hammered home: We must be willing to accept help and mercy from those we'd least like to have minister to us. Although that point could have been made if the Samaritan had been the victim (I doubt he'd really want to be saved by a Jewish lawyer given the choice), it is more emphatic and memorable because Jesus asks the lawyer to imagine someone who might be the lawyer himself in need and suffering. Because the lawyer first empathizes with the one who's robbed, it's more obvious to him that the unlikely, despised candidate acts as a neighbor--that our neighbor is the one who is kind to us, regardless of ethnicity, religion, politics, or past personal history.

As Walter Brueggemann writes, "this may be much more difficult than finding the inner strength and grace to stop and give aid and comfort to our enemy. To comprehend our utter inability to help ourselves, swallow our pride, and permit those we dislike or detest to save us is to come to the point of calling them friends. It is the crossing of an enormous barrier on this each, certainly one of the most unspannable for human nature." Jesus reveals this tough lesson by first having the lawyer empathize with the one in need.

Empathy--this ability to imagine, feel, and identify with the pain of another--is key to the Good Samaritan story. Empathy is likely what inclined the Samaritan to stop. He would have known what it was like to be ignored, to be hated as a mixed-race person. He knew that if he were mugged, no one would stop. He could identify with the victim. In this way the story is more true as Jesus tells it--it might have been simply inconceivable that a Jewish lawyer would have stopped for a mugged Samaritan.

I love the way Walter Wink sums this up: He describes a Princeton sociological study in which seminarians were read the parable of the Good Samaritan and then asked to go across the street, one at a time, to preach or teach on the passage. …

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