Monday, July 12, 2010

Do You Understand the Good Samaritan?

The parable of the good Samaritan is quite possibly the most well known of all Jesus' parables, the only other likely to challenge it in notoriety being of course the parable of the prodigal son.  So ubiquitous is this parable that the phrase "good Samaritan" has come to stand on its own as universally recognized part of the English language.

It came as a great surprise to me, then, when upon listening to the parable during this past Sunday's Liturgy I realized that I did not actually understand the parable!  Of course, as I walked into the church to prepare for Mass I certainly thought I understood it - even recognizing that in all of the Scriptures there are depths of meaning in it that I have yet to reap.  It seems like a rather straightforward parable, doesn't it?  Having been told that he must love his neighbor, a lawyer asks Jesus whom his neighbor is, which the Lord answers with His tale of the good Samaritan teaching that our neighbors whom we should love are the poor, the suffering, the needy, and by extension, everybody.

There's only one problem: the wounded, dying man isn't the neighbor in this parable: the Samaritan is.

It was this thought that occurred to me as I listened to the Gospel being read and which at first led me to some degree of confusion.  Jesus concludes the parable by getting His questioner to recognize that it was the Samaritan who was the neighbor of the dying, penniless man on the side of the road.  I had always understood Jesus' message to be that the dying man who was in need of help was the neighbor, people like whom we as His disciples were called to love.  From the conversations I have had with others, this seems to be how most folks interpret this Gospel at first hearing.

The realization that the Samaritan is identified as the neighbor the lawyer asked about leads to a variety of new questions.  Most significantly, it seems as though Jesus is teaching that our neighbors - those we are called to love - are those who do good to us, those who help us and show mercy to us.  The message of the parable is, after all, that the priest and Levite (whose indifference Jesus juxtaposes with the Samaritan's compassionate help) are not neighbors.  Should then we only love as ourselves those who do good to us, and not those who do not?  Following upon this, what do we make of Jesus' instruction to the lawyer to "go and do likewise?"  In fact, it is by considering this instruction that we can come to understand the greater depth of what Jesus is in fact teaching here.

First, we need to consider what exactly Jesus was telling this lawyer to do.  The instruction comes in response to the man's statement that the neighbor was "the one who showed mercy," that is, the Samaritan.  Christ then says that he must imitate the Samaritan.  Here we find an important aspect to this parable that has been lost to history: Jews and Samaritans at this time held bitter hatred for one another, similar - if not even in greater measure - to the hatred that currently exists between Jews and Muslims.  So strong was it that this man could not even utter the answer "the Samaritan," but had rather to convolutely admit that the neighbor was "the one who showed mercy" That this Jewish man would be asked to imitate a Samaritan would have been both shocking to him and a very difficult pill to swallow.

In fact, this hatred is at the very heart of the lawyer's question.  Christ's teaching to "love thy neighbor as thyself" was actually not a new teaching.  It was found in the book of Leviticus, which in the 18th verse of the 19th chapter commands that "Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself."  The understanding of this existed was that one's fellow Jew was one's neighbor.  That the man asked who his neighbor was "to justify himself" indicates that he asked Jesus this so that the Lord might affirm him in his practice.  Jesus offers the parable so as to help the man see that all people - even a Samaritan - should be loved.  Rather than simply saying as much and being swiftly rejected, He presents the story of the compassionate Samaritan so as to appeal to this man's sense of decency and compassion.  

On this note, it's secondly important to consider that Christ actually changes the lawyer's question around on him.  He had asked who he should love, and while Christ in a roundabout way gives him the hard answer that he should love all people - even Samaritans - His more direct answer teaches who it is that loves.  The man wanted to know who his neighbor was, but Christ taught him that it is more important that he himself should be a neighbor.  The Greek text of Jesus' question actually carries the sense of "who became the neighbor" of the dying man? This lawyer - and all of us - are called to become neighbors to those around us, whether they love us or not.

Yes, then we are called to love all people, not only those who do good to us as did the Samaritan to the victim on the road.  My initial confusion emphasizes the very purpose of Jesus' parable and His decision to answer the lawyer in the way He did.  I, like the lawyer, should be less concerned with who to love than simply with loving.  We need not worry who our neighbors are, but rather, we should worry about how to be neighbors.

Sometimes, our focus is misdirected so that we do not even ask the right question.  Christ, in His Wisdom, often chooses not to answer our misplaced questions but rather to give us the answer to the questions that we should be asking!

No comments: