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.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.