We all know the parable of the Good Samaritan: the story of the foreigner willing to go out of his way to save a stranger. It is a favorite story of particularly leftist Christians, who like to use it as a bludgeon against conservative insularity and preference for the family and the nation over strangers.
The actual meaning of the story, however, is not at all how it is interpreted in popular culture. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that this false interpretation belies the worship of an un-Christian, and more political kind of God.
In the theological chapter of their excellent book Cuckservative, Vox Day and Red Eagle observed that many churches seem to have veered from Christianity proper. Classical theology is being replaced with a kind of philosophy of social justice, cloaked in Christian language. Vox and Red called this “Churchianity,” or “Good Samaritanism,” as the doctrine of Christianity to these Christians appears to have become the simplified ideal of the Good Samaritan for them.
The two authors explain:
The Good Samaritan did help the man. But he helped him by giving the man some of his own money, not by using the king’s soldiers to take money away from other people, taking a cut himself, and giving the rest to the man. He put the man up in an inn; he did not move the man into his house, provide him with room and board, then permit the man to send for his wife, his children, his parents, and his cousins, and let them move in and live off the largesse of the other people in his neighborhood while raping their children, stealing their cars, and trashing their yards.
The truth is that even Vox Day and Red Eagle’s healthy injection of sanity actually doesn’t quite cover the depth of the misunderstanding of the parable. The meaning of the story of the Good Samaritan is generally assumed to be that we are obligated to help neighbors in need, and that everyone is our neighbor.
A closer reading of the text makes it clear that both of these assumptions are dubious; the first being contextual, and the latter outright false. The relevant passage is Luke 10:25-37, which begins with the question that prompts the parable:
25 And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
26 He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?
27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
28 And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.
29 But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
A running theme throughout the New Testament is the dishonesty and untrustworthiness of the Sadducees and the Pharisees. There is not merely the theme of deceptiveness and malicious words, but also dishonesty of intention — of spirit. Their pursuit is salvation by living according to the words of the law, rather than in the spirit from which the law was derived. Their worldview is one in which their will is free to undermine the intention of the law, so long as they follow the codes to the letter. The problem is that ambiguity in the words of the code — which poses no trouble to the adherent who understands the spirit of the law — leaves the literalist in danger of falling outside of his concrete security. Those who defend a higher moral ideal upon which the law is justified — beginning with Antigone from Sophocles — are an existential mortal danger to such literalists, and that made Jesus the target of both forms of dishonesty, of intention and word.
Many people are familiar with this same kind of Socratic, questioning sophistry earlier in the book of Matthew, on the question of taxation. When asked if it was legal to pay tribute to Caesar, Jesus famously pointed out that the coins had Caesar’s likeness and therefore belonged to Caesar, before saying that they should “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Such an answer brilliantly dodged the trap that they had attempted to put him in, between Roman authority on one hand, and legitimacy in the eyes of the Jews on the others: if he told the Jews that they should not pay taxes, he would have become a criminal, yet if he had told them directly that they should, he would have been going against the Jewish Zealot position that the poll tax constituted a kind of slavery under Roman rule.
Notice how Jesus refuses to simply give a concrete rule, but tacitly puts the burden of judgment on his audience.
Many accounts describe the Pharisees as attempting to trick Jesus in some way: how they might “entangle him in talk,” in Matthew; how they could “catch him in his words” in Mark; in Luke, they are described not as scholars, but as spies “which should feign themselves just men, that they might take hold of his words, that so they might deliver him unto the power and authority of the governor.”
Returning to the text, it is clearly this same sort of person confronting Jesus with the question about legal definitions. He is “a certain lawyer,” “tempting” Jesus, and attempting to “justify himself.”
Now pay attention to the emphasis in the opening of Jesus’ response:
30 And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
From what perspective is this story being led? Jesus is already presenting the lawyer with a character in whose place he is to imagine himself. Notice that the Samaritan has not yet been introduced.
33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,
34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
The Samaritan is truly an extraordinary and generous character. Was Jesus advocating that everyone behave as the Samaritan did? Fundamentally, that is entirely beside the point. The object of the story has not shifted; Jesus is speaking to the lawyer, explaining the proper understanding of one’s neighbor through the eyes of the beaten man, not the Samaritan.
This limitation of who is, and is not, a “neighbor” is something which the lawyer himself articulates.
36 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?
37 And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.
Of three possible candidates, only one was considered a neighbor.
Given the complexity of the grammar of the story, nestled as it is within a conversation like clauses in a garden-path sentence, it is easy to understand why many people misinterpret the final sentence. The Samaritan is the last actor described in the story, and so an injunction to act sounds like an injunction to emulate the Samaritan. But this is clearly not the case: if we were to take this Samaritan obligation universally and treat everyone as our neighbor, it would mean that the lawyer’s answer to his own question — that only the Samaritan is the beaten man’s neighbor — was wrong. Yet Jesus’s response was a clear affirmation.
The question was not about how one ought to act, but how we are to relate to other people. The analogue is not the Samaritan, but the beaten man. “Go thou and do likewise” means that we are to go and live by the laws agreed upon, with the understanding that perhaps two out of three people are not your neighbor, even if they are of your tribe or ethnicity. Being a neighbor, in other words, is about one’s actions and relationship, not mere proximity or nation.
The universalist may then ask, “How is the Christian expected to treat those who are not his neighbor?” To answer this question, we can look to Jesus’ own example in Matthew 15. When confronted with a woman in need, Jesus initially told his followers that “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When the woman herself asked him for help, Jesus curtly said “It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.”
Ultimately, of course, Jesus had mercy, and helped her, but his behavior is still vastly beneath the saintly standard of the Samaritan. The encounter with the Canaanite woman does not establish her as his neighbor: quite the contrary. Many people are not our neighbor, even if we decide to behave with kindness and generosity towards them because we have spare crumbs and our own people are well fed.
With all of this in mind, a literalist, universalist interpretation of “go, and do thou likewise,” in which everyone is your neighbor — the culturally accepted interpretation among most Christians — is not merely logically impossible, politically stupid, and culturally subversive: it entirely neglects the context of the story, and is simply bad theology.
The universalist interpretation also makes Jesus out as a strange kind of autist, out of tune with the emotive cues and nature of natural conversations, and at odds with his own emotional nature displayed elsewhere in the Bible, such as his righteous wrath in the temple, and his deep despair at Gethsemane. The lawyer is clearly trying to trick him, and provided a clear delineation of neighbor and non-neighbor in his answer to Jesus’ final question. Our contextual interpretation reads Jesus’ response as a tongue-in-cheek quip, answering the question while refusing to give a clear and obvious rule to a dishonest man obsessed with rules. It reads Jesus’ acceptance of the lawyer’s answer as a logical and coherent response. The universalist reading, by comparison, reads Jesus as either unable to see or unwilling to acknowledge the lawyer’s motives, which he freely and sometimes viciously observes to other Pharisees and scholars in other instances. It would also make his injunction to “go and do thou likewise” a contradictory one, both affirming the lawyer’s answer, yet commanding him to act as though everyone, and not merely those who are neighbors to us, are our neighbors.
The parable of the Good Samaritan does not say that everyone is your neighbor, or that we must emulate the Good Samaritan. The Christian thing to do is not to hug the world, but to take care of your own family first, and be generous if you have extra. Most people enjoy being generous and showing hospitality, and that is expected of Christians (in fact, it is expected of virtually all people within their own culture). But this parable is clearly not about hospitality and generosity; it is about who you are supposed to love much as yourself. If the Samaritan is the standard for this kind of neighbor —
essentially arguing that we only need love as our self those who randomly save us from death — then we would have few neighbors indeed.
I think in the character of Jesus’ spiritual approach to the law, we need not be that literal. Jesus is attempting to convey a concept, not a legalistic standard, and there are many people we ought to love as deeply as ourselves, even if they never get the opportunity to save our lives in the magnanimous fashion of the Samaritan: our parents, our spouse, our children, and some of our closest friends, for example.
But perhaps the greatest point is that living as a Christian isn’t about following the letter of the law (though the letter is an excellent guide for those who have not studied the origins of the law extensively). Rather, it is about living in emulation of a creator God, the God of the living, and not of the dead. Acting in a manner that is destructive to your own people and to yourself — like trying to love everyone — but which follows the strict letter of the rules as you read them, and makes you feel morally righteous, is the embodiment of the Jewish legalism Jesus was opposing, and is in no way a Christian virtue. Christians are called to live through the holy spirit, and that includes hating evil along with loving your neighbor. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, love is a facile and platitudinous concept without hatred.
The parable of the Good Samaritan does not break down barriers of tribe and nation but solidifies them along new borders, ones delineated by nature and spirit, rather than by the letter. This is an understanding that is entirely compatible with the politics of the New Right, and one that may put certain progressive ideals at odds with genuine Christian theology. But evaluating the motives of these Christians is beyond the scope of this essay. I leave it to the reader to ponder which God is being served through which interpretations, and which fruits we might look to in order to determine the true prophets from the false ones.