In my previous post I wrote about a New Testament passage in which Paul’s god displays breathtakingly diabolical inventiveness in addition to his usual jealous cruelty. I noted that skeptics make a sport of cataloging the Bible’s many atrocities and warped moral teachings.
But is it fair to dismiss the entire thing as worthless? Wouldn’t that demonstrate the same knee-jerk prejudice that many of the faithful show towards critics of religion?
Good ideas are where you find them, and recognizing one isn’t an endorsement of everything that surrounds it.
We’ve all heard of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31). It is the Bible’s most profound moral statement, an idea that has appeared in numerous cultures and was stated both by religious and secular thinkers long before the time of the Jesus. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a working out of this ethic. It is a deeply radical story, one of the best teaching tales I know of from the ancient world.
The Good Samaritan is a is a story within a story. The framing story is that an expert in Jewish law asks Jesus what he needs to do to have eternal life. When Jesus asks him what is written in the law, the man replies, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Jesus agrees. And then the man asks the question that sets up the parable. Here it is in the New International Version (Luke 10:29-37):
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[a] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
- Luke 10:35 A denarius was the usual daily wage of a day laborer (see Matt. 20:2).
Today, a “Samaritan” is a metaphorical name for someone who does a good deed for a stranger. In its original context it had an entirely different meaning. The Jews and Samaritans hated each other. Never mind why. It was the usual story of two groups accusing the other of betraying the true faith. It’s another chapter in the long human story of in-group/out-group, us vs. them. To a Jew, the priest and the Levite were “us”; the Samaritan was “them.”
To understand how offensive this story would have been to its original audience, imagine telling the Parable of the Good Protestant to Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Parable of the Good Israeli in the West Bank or Gaza (or anywhere in the Muslim world, for that matter), the Parable of the Good Gay Man in a Baptist church, the Parable of a the Good Evangelical at an atheist convention, the Parable of the Good Creationist among evolutionary biologists. (We secularists shouldn’t think we’re immune from the prejudices we condemn in religious people.)
I’m not saying that group differences are never legitimate. Biologists, for example, could celebrate the humane behavior of the good creationist without deciding that we should therefore teach creationism in the science classroom. But if all you see is the group division, if all you see is an enemy… then you really, really need to hear this parable just as much as its original audience did.
The story is deeply subversive of the group divisions we create among ourselves. What matters isn’t the group, but the behavior. Notice that Jesus doesn’t even answer the original question. He turns it around—not who is my neighbor (a question that seeks a definition, a category), but who behaved in a neighborly way to the man in need? Who recognized him not as a member of a category, but as a fellow human being?
Would that the rest of the Bible taught this ethic, which is based entirely in empathy and compassion, and which has no necessary connection to the supernatural or fear of divine punishment. Whatever your religious viewpoint, this is a story we can use.