The Good Samaritan

The Good Samaritan June 16, 2024

Today is the Fifth Sunday after Easter in the lectionary, including a number of familiar stories and texts. Here is the section for this Sunday from my new book that I am putting the finishing touches on this summer before delivering the final version to the publisher in August. Enjoy!

The Ordinary Time 5 Year C gospel from Luke is one of Jesus’ most beloved parables. Is there any parable more familiar than the story of the Good Samaritan? And is there any parable whose message is more difficult to live out? Jesus uses the story to illustrate mercy, the second virtue in the prophet Micah’s directive to “do justice, love kindness/mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” Jesus agrees with the man who concludes that the true neighbor in the story was “the one who showed mercy.” But consider the Good Samaritan story with the last of Micah’s virtues in view: Humility.

On its face, humility is not a popular virtue; indeed, self-effacement, being a doormat, deference to others—all popular synonyms for humility—seem more like vices than a virtue. Humility is not included in Aristotle’s famous list of virtues, and philosophers for millennia have struggled with humility, often ignoring it or altogether denying that it is a virtue. It certainly doesn’t fit comfortably with the dominant American notions of independence, individuality, competition, and aggressive achievement. And yet one can scarcely read a page of the Psalms or the New Testament without encountering calls for humility. So what exactly is being called for?

In the Good Samaritan story, the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan all see the man beaten, robbed, and left for dead in the ditch. And yet their manner of seeing is very different. The story says that in the case of both the priest and the Levite, “when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.” The most common scholarly explanation for their behavior is that both the priest and Levite assumed that the man was dead and did not want to violate the many prohibitions in the Torah against those who handled holy things for a living touching anything dead. In other words, the priest and the Levite saw the injured man through the lenses of their societal roles and commitments. They saw the injured man with the eyes of the self.

“But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.” Travelling on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, the Samaritan was in enemy territory—Samaritans and Jews had nothing to do with each other. They were “Others” to each other. The man in the ditch was almost certainly the sort of person that the Samaritan had been taught to hate. The Samaritan is on a journey, undoubtedly in a hurry, with miles to go before he sleeps—why does he stop? What does he see that the priest and the Levite did not see?

As simple as it sounds, the Samaritan stopped because he saw the injured man unfiltered. As we saw earlier, Simone Weil calls this ability to see unfiltered “attention,” and suggests that it is at the heart of true human connection. Another word for this ability to see unfiltered, to attentively look at what is in front of me unencumbered by my usual filters and agendas, is humility. And it is at the heart of true faith.

This is why defining ourselves morally in terms of positions taken on hot button issues is far more attractive than actually attempting to live a life guided by what the texts and principles of one’s faith actually demand. As Simone Weil says, true attentiveness—true humility—is a miracle. Human beings are not naturally wired in this way. Iris Murdoch writes that

We live in a dream, we’re wrapped up in a dark veil, we think we’re omnipotent magicians, we don’t believe anything exists except ourselves. Our attachments tend to be selfish and strong, and the transformation of our lives from selfishness to unselfishness is sometimes hard even to conceive of.

This is what makes the Good Samaritan miraculous—he is able to truly see what is front of him and respond directly without a moment’s concern for anything other than what this man needs.

Iris Murdoch defines love as “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” Love and humility, in other words, go hand in hand. Love and humility energize the apprehension of something else, something particular, as existing outside us. In our daily lives we are continually confronting something other than ourselves. We all not only can but must deal with the resistant otherness of other people, other things, history, the natural world, and this involves a perpetual effort. But at the heart of the Christian faith, illustrated by the parable of the Good Samaritan, is the promise that the possibility of transformative love and humility is in each of us, ready to be introduced into the world if we will only look away from ourselves toward what is directly in front of us.

For reflection: The Good Samaritan story is Jesus’ response to the question “Who is my neighbor?” Why do you think Jesus chose a hated outsider to embody the answer to this question?

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