This Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 10:25-37) might be Jesus’ best-known story. How many times have you heard the phrase, “Good Samaritan”? Even non-Christians know the term suggests someone who is kind, generous, or brave. But few of us fully understand – much less live up to – the demands of Jesus’ teaching. Here are 10 things we too often miss in this story:
- This is no ordinary story: A lawyer asks Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” There is no question more important for a Jewish person to ask. This story is not just one among others; it stands with Matthew 25:31-46 as essential for salvation. As Jesus makes clear in this story, when it comes to eternal life, what matters isn’t what one knows or believes, but what one does or fails to do.
- Love God by loving your neighbor: The lawyer answers his own question: the way to eternal life is loving God and our neighbors (Luke 10:27). Or, another way of saying this is: we love God by loving our neighbors. Dorothy Day puts a finer point on this: “You love God as much as the one you love the least.” Jesus responds to the lawyer, “Do this and you will live” (Lk 10:28). It’s not enough to know this; you have to do it.
- Who is my neighbor? is the wrong question: The lawyer pushes further. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” a question that we might take for granted. But this is a limit-seeking question. It aims to identify the non-neighbor, the one beyond my moral obligation. In other words, the lawyer wants to know: who are the ones I’m not expected to love like I love God? Jesus takes this question and turns it on its head. He does this in two ways: first, by using a Samaritan in the story (see #6) and second, by changing the question around: “Who was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” (Lk 10:36). The lawyer views neighbor as an object, the recipient of duty. Jesus views neighbor as a proactively loving subject. Who is my neighbor? is the wrong question to ask. Instead, we should ask: What kind of neighbor am I? or To whom am I a neighbor?
- Move from judgment to compassion: Jesus tells the story of a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, the only parable with a specific geographic location. Why? Because the road to Jericho was notoriously unsafe. It descended from the heights of Jerusalem via switchback curves, ideal for ambush. In other words, Jesus’ audience had no sympathy for the man who was beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead. He was a fool to travel the road alone; he got what was coming to him. Jesus tells the story banking on his audience’s contempt for the robbers’ victim, seeking to replace that judgment with compassion.
- Confront the sin of indifference: Jesus says a priest and Levite see the robbers’ victim but “pass by on the opposite side” of the road. In other words, they create more distance between themselves and the man left for dead. These religious leaders were charged with loving their neighbor (Leviticus 19:18, which the lawyer cites in Luke 10:27) but fail. Maybe they were running late, thinking about their to-do list, or more concerned about remaining pure for their ritual tasks. Whatever the case, nothing should come before showing concern for someone left for dead. Pope Francis cites the priest and Levite as examples of the “globalization of indifference.” Whenever we think “that’s not my problem” or “they don’t belong to me,” we’re acting more like the priest and Levite than the Samaritan.
- “Good Samaritan” makes no sense: We know this story so well that once we hear the word “Samaritan,” we know the hero arrives on the scene. But for Jesus’ audience, a Samaritan was the most despised outcast they could imagine. It’s hard to come up with a contemporary analogy, but a modern-day Samaritan would have to be the kind of person who would make your stomach turn and your skin crawl. This is the last person on earth you would imagine Jesus to endorse.
- These kinds of actions matter: The Samaritan’s actions receive more detailed description than anyone else in the gospels, aside from Jesus. Why? Because Jesus is describing what it means to be a neighbor: to act with courage (going into the ditch, where the Samaritan could’ve been ambushed), compassion (this is what moves the Samaritan to offer assistance – a visceral reaction to another who is suffering), generosity (the oil and wine to heal his wounds and the payment for his recovery at the inn), and boundary-breaking solidarity (enlisting others in his care, showing that we’re in this together, even though the Samaritan would’ve been received with suspicion if not hostility at the inn).
- Do what you can, where you are: The Samaritan wasn’t out looking for people to help. And he doesn’t quit his job or abandon his family in order to make the road to Jericho safe for other travelers. He saw someone in need, went out of his way and into the ditch to ease his suffering, and went on his way. This isn’t a story about a superhero; it’s a story about doing what you can – no more and no less. Everyone can and should be like the Samaritan.
- Mercy is who God is and what God wants: When Jesus turns the question around, asking the lawyer, “Who was neighbor to the robber’s victim?” the lawyer is so embarrassed that he can’t bring himself to say “Samaritan.” So instead, the lawyer responds, “The one who treated him with mercy” (Luke 10:37). This reflects a central theme in Scripture: mercy is who God is (Exodus 34:6) and what God wants (Luke 6:36). Put differently: our piety or holiness is measured by our mercifulness.
- Do likewise: Jesus ends the story by saying, “Go and do likewise.” He doesn’t say, “Go and do exactly the same thing” or “go and do this once in a while.” Too many people think that being a “Good Samaritan” means volunteering, doing random acts of kindness, or helping strangers in an emergency. This is not why Jesus tells this story (especially not a story framed by inheriting eternal life). Rather, Jesus teaches his followers to apply the Samaritan’s courage, compassion, generosity, and boundary-breaking solidarity in their everyday life. What would the world be like if we thought the state of our soul were determined by our consistent emulation of the Samaritan?
With this story, Jesus issues a radical challenge to his followers: there are no non-neighbors. There is no one you can write off as “other” or “outsider” or “outcast.” We have to shatter the illusion that keeps us from seeing that we belong to each other. As Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ reminds us, “There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ – only ‘us.’”
This is a tall order. Especially in a time of hyperpartisanship where winning is seen as more important than a shared commitment to the common good. Political polarization reinforces an “us versus them” tribalism that has nine in ten Americans saying the nation is more divided now than at any point in their lifetime. In a 2018 poll, roughly half of Democrats described Republicans as ignorant (54%) and spiteful (44%) while a similar proportion of Republicans described Democrats as ignorant (49%) and spiteful (54%). 61% of Democrats labeled Republicans racist, sexist, or bigoted while 31% of Republicans applied these terms to Democrats. Perhaps most concerning of all, more than twenty percent of Republicans (23%) and Democrats (21%) called members of the other party “evil.” Only four percent of both parties think the other side is fair and even fewer describe them as thoughtful or kind. We have normalized the demonization of people on the other side of the party aisle, making it harder to recognize that we belong to each other, rely on each other, and will ultimately be judged by how we treat each other.
Social fragmentation and fragility continues: by sex, gender, and sexual orientation; by class and creed; by ethnicity and race; by nationality and legal status; by age and ability, etc. A few examples: Christians are more than twice as likely as non-Christians to blame the poor for their financial struggles, a judgment that creates distance from them. Half of Catholics say the U.S. does not have a responsibility to welcome refugees (despite Pope Francis’ global “Share the Journey” campaign). Only 31% of Republicans say that migrants from Central America should be able to seek asylum in the U.S. (which is a legal right) and 62% of Republicans approve the way that migrants are being treated at the border, even though conditions are so gruesome that 24 people have died in the custody of immigration officials. Manufactured fear ascribes disease, crime, and violence to migrants without basis in fact. It is used to justify cruelty in separating families, indefinitely detaining children in cages, and threatening deportation raids that inflict terror and trauma on countless people seeking the same things we want: peace and security.
Dehumanizing rhetoric and shrinking understandings of what we owe each other contribute to what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture.” We disregard those we see as different, as other, as not belonging to us. But the example of the Samaritan resists throwaway culture; instead of discarding others in need, he draws near them. The Samaritan replaces judgment with compassion, fear with courage, self-interest with generosity, and separation with solidarity.
What keeps us from going out of our way and into the ditch, to care for those who have been beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead? What keeps us from speaking up for the poor and marginalized, being their advocate and ally? What keeps us from drawing near those we consider “other” or outside our network of belonging?
If we call ourselves Christians, then we have to evaluate the depth of our commitment to “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Not just once in a while or in an emergency, but wherever we are, however we can – no more and no less. Because how we treat others (including those we might dislike or even despise) is how we treat God.