Today’s passage is Luke 10:25-42:
25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.35 And the next day he took out two denarii[a] and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
It’s a popular parable, but we’re missing half the point.
Few of Jesus’ teachings have permeated mainstream culture like this story. The hero, now dubbed the Good Samaritan, lends his title to charities, hospitals, and even the laws that protect well-intentioned strangers from liability for aid gone wrong. Virtually everybody knows the gist of the story:
There is a man in desperate need of help. The religious leaders pass by, too busy to dirty their hands and help. Then a Samaritan (whom the Israelites would have looked down on) ignores his own agenda and the ethnic tensions that could have held him back. He helps the man in beautiful self-sacrificing fashion.
The story shows us that love knows no boundaries. It shows that we ought to be willing to give up our own plans to help anyone in need. For Christians who hear the words of the Savior and non-Christians who hear a wonderful moral fable, the message is clear—we must be like the Good Samaritan. We must care for the injured and love the stranger. It’s a powerful truth and a tremendous call inherent in Jesus’s command to “go and do likewise.” But if we only see ourselves as the prospective Good Samaritans, we have read too hastily.
The question that prompts this parable is crucial to its meaning. A lawyer comes to Jesus with some questions, but the lawyer is clearly missing the real point in the details (surprise, surprise . . . insert your best lawyer joke here). Jesus deflects the lawyer’s first question right back at him. The lawyer already knew the answer. In that wonderful lawyerly way, he asks for a limiting principle on love-thy-neighbor. He asks for a limit on the obligation of selflessness. Perhaps it’s a genuine inquiry and not a loaded question, but Jesus’s answer is far from expected. Let’s look closer at the basic form of this question and its response:
Lawyer: Who is my neighbor?
Jesus: A man was beaten. A Samaritan helped. Who was his neighbor?
Lawyer: The Samaritan.
The implication is clear. If my neighbor is the Samaritan, then I am . . . the beaten man. Jesus first invites the listeners, not to see themselves as the Samaritan, but to see themselves beaten, in a ditch, half-dead, hopeless, and with nothing to offer anyone who walks by. Only at the end of the story does he invite the listener to be the Good Samaritan as well.
St. Augustine and countless thinkers in the centuries since have seen Jesus in this story as the archetypal Good Samaritan coming to a world of beaten people in the ditch. Jesus spends his ministry healing and helping those who reject him. He is the Great Samaritan. But even Jesus sees both sides of the coin. By the end of Luke’s gospel he will understand the experience of being beaten and forsaken as well.
That’s the point of the story. Being a neighbor (neighboring? neighborliness? neighborhood?) is a reciprocal relationship. It goes both ways. It requires generosity but also humility, sacrifice but also patience, bending down but also reaching up. We ought not always seek to be the knight in shining armor. A never-ending vigil for the poor hopeless people who desperately need us makes only half of a good neighbor. We should also look in longsuffering yet hopeful expectation for those who bring the echoes of Christ’s love into our lives. More often than not they won’t be the Levites we expect.
Austin Steelman is a third year student at Harvard Law School.