Active Neighbors: Reflections on the Good Samaritan
Another way students try to gain a teacher's approval is by asking what they regard as a nuanced, subtle question in class, which, they hope will reveal their intellectual depth. I wonder why the lawyer felt a need to justify himself to Jesus. And I wonder what answer he was hoping for to his question "Who is my neighbor?" A list of categories of people he needed to try to love as he loved himself, the shorter the better? Is the lawyer a human being like the rest of us who wants to know the bare minimum the syllabus requires to pass the course?
If it is true that the kingdom of God shows up where we least expect it, and I believe that it is, then maybe we meet it first in the gap between our knowing what God requires of us with regard to our fellow human beings and our willingness to do it. Maybe our fear that we are falling short is an entry point for the kingdom of God in our lives. The lawyer, thanks to Jesus' interpretation of Torah, is confirmed in what he was afraid was true. That is, that entering into the kingdom of God and inheriting eternal life means a wholehearted, single-minded devotion to God that overflows from our hearts, minds, souls, and strength in practical, loving deeds done on behalf of our fellow human beings. This is an assignment that no syllabus can contain, that is not done to impress a teacher but to express the love of God.
Parables scholar Luise Schottroff, in her interpretation of this parable, connects the lawyer's question with the question asked by various groups of people responding to John the Baptist's preaching in Luke 3:10, 12, 14: "What should we do?" She believes that concrete, action-oriented question is the fundamental question answered by the study of Torah. That study "is not aimed at timeless ethical doctrine but at the concrete situation of those who ask, What is the action God expects, here and now?" She believes that this parable belongs within "the rich Jewish tradition of active compassion as an expression of love for God. Love for God and doing justice go together" (Schotroff, 133).
Other parables that feature this same emphasis include the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, another parable unique to Luke (16:19-26) and the parable of the Judgment, from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew.
There are several things the parable of the Good Samaritan doesn't tell us. It doesn't tell us that the man in the ditch was a Jew. It doesn't tell us why the priest and the Levite did not stop to help him. Some scholars have theorized that their ritual purity regulations prohibited them from contact with a corpse. Did they assume he was dead, or did they get close enough to see that he was still alive, but still decide not to help? We don't know. The parable doesn't tell us why the Samaritan was moved with pity. It does spend quite a bit of energy specifying the concrete actions he took to help the injured man.
The emphasis in this parable is not on helping us determine whom we are to view as our neighbor and to whom we are to show love. Its focus is on the kind of people we are to be, active neighbors, as we live on the lookout for those in need of help. The parable says, of all three observers of the man in the ditch, that they "saw him." The first two engage in a twofold action. They "see him" and then, in response to that sighting, they "pass by on the other side." The response of the third person was threefold. He "saw him," he was "moved with pity," and then he then took concrete action to express his compassion and assist the injured man. This parable is not a general lesson in loving humanity or loving one's enemies. It is a specific scenario in which a teaching about active compassion, shared by the Hebrew Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus, becomes a deed (Schotroff, 134).
The sequence of seeing, having compassion, and acting is a common one in the gospels. In Luke's gospel when Jesus "saw" the woman weeping at the death of her only son, he "had compassion for her" and brought her son to life (Lk. 7:13). When the father "saw" the prodigal son "still afar off... he had compassion on him" and ran and embraced him (Lk. 15:20). Matthew and Mark repeatedly tell us that Jesus himself, when he "saw" the crowds, had compassion on them and healed, fed, and taught them (Mt. 9:36, 14:14, 15:32; Mk. 6:34, 8:02). In the parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, what makes some blessed is the fact that, though they didn't realize it, in seeing the poor and helping them, they saw and helped Jesus. By contrast, what makes others cursed is that they never really did see Jesus suffering and in need because they never saw the poor.
A final thing the parable doesn't tell us is whether the lawyer did as Jesus told him to, "Go and do likewise" (10:37). As contemporary people, characterized by the same combination of sincerity and shallowness as the first century lawyer, the outcome of the parable is now up to us.
Alyce M. McKenzie, The Parables for Today, Westminster John Knox Press, 2007, 51-55.
Luise Schottroff, The Parables of Jesus, Fortress Press, 2006.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.