The Figure of Empathy: The Good Samaritan

Théodule-Augustin_Ribot_-_The_Good_Samaritan_-_WGA19393

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”  (Luke 10:25-37)

First to understand this beautiful passage, we must recognize it is a parable. We ascertain this as a hermeneutic judgment upon the text. Indulge me for a second. Understanding the passage on the Good Samaritan literally would not be to fret about whether historically there really was a man who got beaten up, left for dead, passed by a Levite and Priest, and then finally, a man from Samaria rescued him.  Jesus responds to the lawyers’ question, “Who is my neighbor?” with this story. It references real places and it seems plausible. He never says whether it is a parable. Why would we doubt it to be anything but history? Many so-called literalists worry about texts of Scripture like whether the origin stories of Genesis, the story of Jonah, or the drama of Job are historical and if they are not they are worthless. They would feel obliged to see it necessarily this way because they must read it “literally.” But literal reading of Scripture merely means to read the passage they way it – the letters on the page – intend to be read. To read any passage of the Bible literally might mean reading it as poetry, parable, metaphor, or some complex mixture of the above.

This parable reminds us of these often forgotten hermeneutic considerations. We all intuitively recognize that Jesus is not reporting a historical account and if this story did not historically happen, its truth would be no worse off for it. The parable does this without having any historical reality behind its statements. The story is doing something quite beautiful by displaying a set of figures, patterns of action, mentalities and convictions that transcend times and culture. Jesus is here dismantling the arrogance of the lawyer, who “was seeking to justify himself.” The lawyer wanted a way of excusing himself of his obligation to his neighbors, whom he did not want to care for. We all do this in our broken world of sweatshops, oil sands, racial killings, ISIS and drone strikes. We look for ways to say to those who we do not want to feel obliged to  that “You are not my responsibility. You do not deserve my compassion. I don’t have to care about what you think.”

Thus, the lawyer asks “who is my neighbor?” implying that he wants criteria that will absolve him of his responsibility to certain neighbors (like his enemies) and Jesus answers with a story about a generic man from Jerusalem who got robbed (a situation that the lawyer easily could himself in). Because he was near death (which would make him ritually unclean according to strict reading of the Law), a Levite and a priest pass him by. Yet a man, a Samaritan, who by his ethnicity would be an enemy, had compassion. This implicitly forces the lawyer to ask of himself, “If I was in dire need, who would I want to be a neighbor to me?” Jesus forces him by the figures in the parable to say that he would want all people, including his enemies, to be a help him.

Jesus continues and says “Who do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into trouble?” The man is again rhetorically compelled to recognize that a neighborliness is not an object to be identified – “Who is really is my neighbor?” – but a mentality to embody, a posture of compassion towards anyone we cross paths with in this messy world: “A neighbor was the one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise,” which implores the actions of the Samaritan figure to the (non-Samaritan) lawyer, inducing him to think of himself not as the man going from Jerusalem but now as the man going about showing mercy.

Because this is a parable, it transcends its cultural time frame. Because it is the inspired word of God, we know that it does happen in places of need in this world. It is a figure alive before us that we are to live and embody. This parable is real. It is happening now, calling a different world, a different kingdom into our midst. This kingdom transcends the opposed identities that are further the wounds of this world –  rich/poor, male/female, black/white, citizen/immigrant, gay/straight, Christian/Muslim, Western/Eastern, cop/criminal, so on and so forth. This figure obliges God’s chosen ones to be agents of reconciliation and empathy.

This story could be about Muslims lining up to protect Christian churches in Egypt.

It could be about a bigoted cake maker in Indiana who was financially supported by a gay person.

Those stories actually happened.

May we all come to terms with how we can all act like the lawyer.

But may we live the Good Samaritan in compassion and grace.

May we go and do likewise.

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