The Good Infidel

The Good Infidel November 12, 2003

Allen Brill has already noted this article from The Guardian by the Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser, an Anglican vicar. (With a name like "Giles Fraser," you pretty much have to become an Anglican vicar.)

Fraser takes issue with the way charities like Samaritan's Purse spin Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan.

Don't dismiss this as an intramural, parochial squabble affecting only Christians. Samaritan's Purse is run by Franklin Graham, who, as Fraser points out, was "chosen by George Bush to deliver the prayers at his presidential inauguration."

In his address at that same ceremony, the new president invoked the parable of the Good Samaritan as part of his description of what it means to be a "compassionate conservative," and of his intended agenda for the next four years:

And I can pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.

Fraser believes — as I do — that both Graham and Bush are misinterpreting this parable, and that their exegetical problems are producing real, and sometimes disastrous, consequences:

Jesus is asked: "Who is my neighbour?" The moral of the story he tells in response — at least the one most people remember from Sunday school — is that it is the man who is beaten up and left for dead that Jesus points to as our neighbour. Conclusion: we must help those in need.

But that's not the story at all. A man is mugged in the Wadi Qelt between Jerusalem and Jericho. Whereas the religious pass by and do nothing, it is the Samaritan who offers care. Those listening to the story would have despised Samaritans. The words "good" and "Samaritan" just didn't go together. Indeed, theirs would have been the General Boykin reaction: that Samaritans worshipped the idol of a false god. Therefore, in casting the Samaritan as the only passer-by with compassion, Jesus is making an all-out assault on the prejudices of his listeners.

If the story was just about helping the needy, whoever they are, it would have been sufficient to cast the Samaritan as the victim and a Jewish layperson as the person who helped. Crucially, however, the hated Samaritan is held up as the moral exemplar. Conclusion: we must overcome religious bigotry.

The story of the good Samaritan, in the hands of Franklin Graham, is conscripted as propaganda for the superiority of Christian compassion to the brutal indifference of other religions — almost the opposite of the purpose of the story.

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  • John S Costello

    I think this comment on (mis)interpreting the parables is very enlightening. I’ve often felt that both the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son get very superficial treament nowadays; the G.S. for the reasons above, and the P.S. because I think the story is actually more about the jealous other brother than it is about the prodigal son.

  • Tim Hall

    I suppose it’s an improvement on Margaret Thatcher claiming the parable justified capitalist values, in order that the Samaritan had enough money to help.

  • none

    Actually, although I’m fascinated to more closely examine the story of the elder brother Prodigal Son, the main “plot” itself is almost the entirety of our Christian lives in a nutshell: Lost, found. Left, came back. Guilty, forgiven.

  • Barry

    Sorry, I posted the one above and forgot to fill in my name, etc.

  • Qoheleth

    I heard a wonderful sermon on the Prodigal Son some time ago. The essence of the message was that sometimes life casts us in the role of the prodigal son, sometimes in the role of the older brother, and sometimes in the role of the father, and there is something to be learned from all three. (Which is not to deny Barry’s point: in our relationship with God, certainly we are the prodigal sons and he is the father. But in our relationships with other people, we can at different times fill any one of the three roles.)

  • rebecca blood

    the hated Samaritan being held up as the moral exemplar in this parable might point to the idea that acts are more important than faith.
    I guess I interpret it as meaning that the trappings of faith aren’t enough, and that one’s character is revealed through one’s actions, not through one’s professed beliefs, which is closer to your interpretation.