I finished watching Netflix’ saga Daredevil recently. And while some folks have mentioned that Netflix actually soft-pedaled Daredevil/Matt Murdock’s Catholicism a bit, the series still spent plenty of time exploring some spiritual themes. My friend J.R. Forasteros over at NorvilleRogers.com did a pretty fantastic job walking us through some of Daredevil’s spiritual themes, and as tempting as it is to plagiarize his fine work, I’ll just suggest you read it yourself. But I did want to touch on something that struck me in the very last episode: Evildoer Wilson Fisk’s (Vincent D’Onofrio) bringing up the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Fisk is the show’s troubled, terrible soul—a crime lord who serves as Daredevil’s spiritual evil twin. Like Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), he lost his father and he’s haunted by guilt over his death. Like Matt, he’s prone to violence. Like Matt, he sees himself as the savior of Hell’s Kitchen. And even though he admits he’s not a religious man, Fisk once saw himself as the city’s Good Samaritan. Alas, it didn’t turn out that way—as Fisk well knows as he’s being taken to prison.
“Funny, isn’t it, how even the best of men can be deceived by their true nature,” Fisk muses. “I’m not the Samaritan. I’m not the priest, or the Levite. I am the ill intent who set upon the traveler on a road that he should not have beenon.”
I am the ill intent. Just remembering how he said that line gives me shivers.
The shadow of the Good Samaritan parable covers the entire series, really. And while Matt obviously serves as the story’s real Samaritan, his role is not always so clear. At times, he wavers dangerously close to being an agent of ill intent himself. And often he feels more like the victimized traveler, overwhelmed by the city’s fearsome bandits.
He’s most obviously the traveler in Daredevil’s extraordinary episode 9, “Speak of the Devil.” In the episode, Matt is nearly torn apart by Nobu, a ninja dressed in red, and then brutalized some more by an ill-intentioned Fisk. It’s interesting that Matt—who pretty much decided in the episode that he was going to kill Fisk if he could—began traveling down a darker road, a road he should not have been on.
(Warning: We’re about to get seriously geeky.)
In Jesus’ original parable, the traveler is traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho. The Bible says “down”, because even though Jericho is north of Jerusalem, it’s downhill all the way—literally and, perhaps in a sense, spiritually (Jerusalem being the holy city of David and all). And according to some historians, the most perilous part of the journey was a stretch of iffy road that, in Arabic, was known as the Ascent of Blood—or in Greek the Ascent of the Red. There, bandits would wait for unwary travelers and pounce on them.
Foggy Nelson, Matt’s best friend, finds Matt half dead in his apartment. He gets Claire Temple to patch Matt up. But Foggy, ashamed and betrayed by his partner’s law-bending ways, nearly deserts Matt after saving his life.
It’s interesting, this split: In Foggy, we see a guy wholly dedicated to the law—just as the Priest and the Pharisee in the original parable were. And he’s horrified that his legal partner would use means outside the law to seek justice—just as Jews were pretty appalled at Samaria’s age-old rejection of Jewish law, as well. Remember, Samaria was once Northern Israel; Samaritans and Jews were “legal partners” themselves back in the day. And when Samaria consistently rejected God and God’s law for some small-g gods, Judea was justifiably horrified.
But just as Jesus said that Samaritans aren’t necessarily just law-breakers, so we know that Matt is more than just a no-good man-in-a-mask. And it’s right around here that Matt most clearly transitions into the story’s Good Samaritan. Foggy, and most of the rest of Hell’s Kitchen, judges Matt based on who they’ve heard him to be: A no-good law breaker. But those who’ve been helped by him—saved by him—know better.
Another interesting little tidbit I just learned: While Samaritans were shunned, and Jews of Jesus’ day often went well out of their way to avoid their home region of Samaria, the word Samaria carries with it an older meaning: Scholars say the word stems from the word shamar, which means to “keep” or to “guard.” It’s a strangely appropriate word to be connected to our ever-vigilant man in red.
I don’t think that the spiritual lesson should be that it’s OK to beat up people as long as they’re bad. Matt and his priest will, I’m sure, be talking more about that prickly issue in the seasons to come. But I do think that Daredevil underlines what Jesus originally taught in the Good Samaritan: We shouldn’t need a law to tell us to help people. We shouldn’t need to be ordered to come to someone’s aid. Maybe we shouldn’t moonlight as masked vigilantes. But being Good Samaritans? Yeah, that’s something we should all try to do.
At the end of the parable, Jesus asks the man whom he told it to who was the best neighbor to the traveler—the one who did the right thing.
“The one who showed him mercy,” the man said.
Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”