Saving the Samaritan

The namesake of my wife’s parish is the Good Samaritan.  So I have been more alert to that great figure in the teaching of Jesus than I might be otherwise.  Of course, the Samaritan has a proverbial and cross-cultural hold on our minds — so he commands a bit of attention all on his own.  Along the way, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Samaritan could use some saving.

What is striking to me is how little the parable is actually understood.

  • It is not about what we should do.
  • It’s about who does what should be done.
  • And more specifically, it’s about the unexpected sanctity of one who — by definition — most Jews assumed lacked a capacity for the things of God.

It’s strange, then, to discover that so many focus on what he does and then ask themselves, who are my needy neighbors or how can I act like a Good Samaritan?  But, then again, perhaps that isn’t really all that strange.  The scribe questioning Jesus wanted to know who the neighbor was — wanted to pin it down and quantify his obligation.  So, it isn’t really all that surprising that we do the same thing.

It’s strange, too, to discover that for many the parable is about the victim. It isn’t that either.  But there are things that ought to be said about him as well.

  • He is not the everyman of people in need.
  • There is no roadmap here to caring effectively for people, while avoiding the errors of codependency, for example.
  • He is not the addict, the alcoholic, the compulsive gambler, the abusive husband, or the convicted felon.

He is the victim of random violence and he is unclean by religious standards.  So, he sets the stage for the behavior of the Samaritan — who values mercy over observance of the Law and is, therefore, the unexpected agent of God’s reign.

And that’s the point.  The Samaritan isn’t a do-gooder, a codependent deeply drawn to anyone in distress, a legalist who is afraid he will fail to do the right thing, or a social activist.  He is an agent of God’s reign who responds to the priority that God gives to the exercise of mercy.

The potent combination of inner priority and the exercise of mercy is worth contemplating.

I often get the impression that at least some people believe that an emphasis on the spiritual life will rob the church of its ability to reach out to others.  It can, I suppose.  And there are certain brands of spirituality that are more likely to feed a narcissistic quietism than others.

But when Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he declined to answer and, instead, describes one whose inward orientation made him the reliable agent of God’s work.  The Samaritan exhibits the kind of spirituality that grounds a life of active mercy.

His spirituality isn’t a dead end.  It isn’t about his feelings or his eternal fortunes.  It’s about a spirituality shaped by the conviction that the times have changed and the time for mercy is now.

That kind of spirituality won’t rob the church of energy for engagement with the needs of the world.  It will ground that energy.

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