by George Bailey.
How does the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) help us work out our relationships with God and with each other at this fraught time in the life of the church? Most of us see this as a straightforward parable for our current context. People are in need and we are called to set to work, bringing our resources to bear. COVID-19 is the robber and those suffering the effects, eg illness, bereavement, isolation, unemployment etc, are the injured man by the roadside; we are called to be the good Samaritans. However, are there other perspectives?
The Crown has been one of my lockdown cultural experiences. Series 4, episode 8 reminds us of Margaret Thatcher’s famous take on the parable, originally from a television interview in 1980: ‘No one would have remembered the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions. He had money as well’. I am not sure it would be a helpful to ignite a debate on Thatcherite economic policy! However, consideration of the balance between the resources of the helpers and the relationship with the person in need is important. The government is trying to deal with the national economic crisis and faces that tension – helping those in need directly, versus building the economy to maintain resources for those who are then in a position to help others. This is not just a tension for the government though – many churches face similar questions over how to cope with diminished income and depleted reserves; will we do less mission?
A broader concern raised by this is that maybe if we only see this parable as a simple moral story, then it leads us to divide the world into those who have enough and those who do not. One more complex response is to focus on the cultural differences between Israelites and Samaritans, and to see the parable as about broadening the concept of who our neighbour is, and making a point about inclusivity and reconciliation… but this runs into difficulties when the text is read carefully. The lawyer and Jesus agree that for the lawyer to ‘inherit eternal life’ he needs to love his neighbour as himself, and the lawyer asks who counts as this neighbour (vv.27-29). However, after the story, Jesus asks a subtly different question, not about the one who needs help, but about the one doing the helping: ‘Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ (v.36). Is the lawyer being asked to seek situations in which he is the hated outsider, able to bravely take risks for others? Or is he being asked to receive help instead of to offer it?
There is a radically different way of reading the parable in the Christian tradition which sees us as the victim by the roadside, and the Good Samaritan as Christ. This was first fully explored in a Homily by Origen, but was also known of even earlier.[i] This is also the way that Charles Wesley used this text in some of his hymns and in a series of poems unpublished in his lifetime. In this interpretation we all are helpless to save ourselves and Christ is the unlikely source of help – a rejected outsider who against expectation rescues and resources recovery. This is a verse from a hymn addressed to Christ:
Thine Eye observ’d my Pain
Thou Good Samaritan!
Spoil’d I lay and bruis’d by Sin,
Gasp’d my faint, expiring Soul,
Wine and Oil thy Love pour’d in,
Clos’d my Wounds, and made me whole.[ii]
In his very helpful book A Nazareth Manifesto, Samuel Wells uses this allegorical interpretation of the parable to illustrate the difference between his concepts of ‘working for’ those in need and ‘being with’ them. He argues that the power dynamics of ‘working for’ can prevent wealthy Christians from accepting that they require rescuing themselves, and that God may enact that rescue through relationship with people who are more usually understood as being in need. Just as Jesus’ parables challenged the self-understanding of Israel’s leaders, so they also overturn our comfortable privilege. Truly ‘being with’ people in need means accepting them as they are, and affirming that Christ is in them… and that you need Christ. Could this be what Jesus means by ‘Go and do likewise’ (v.37)? As Wells paraphrases it:
‘Go, and continue to see the face of Jesus in the despised and rejected of the world. You are not their benefactor. You are not the answer to their prayer. They are the answer to yours.’[iii]
Origen goes further than Wesley and Wells with the allegory and posits a separate role for the church in the parable as the ‘inn’ – in Greek, pandocheion; literally ‘place that receives all’:
‘This Samaritan ‘bears our sins’ and grieves for us. He carries the half-dead man and brings him to the pandochium – that is the Church, which accepts everyone and denies its help to no-one.’[iv]
With these interpretative resources the parable is closer to providing the help we need. Faced with the dilemma of diminished resources and increasing numbers of people in need, the church should not limit its vision to one-directional charity. The parable calls us to re-imagine our relationships as a community, away from divisive dynamics of ‘in and out’ or ‘have and have-not’, and towards a vision of being a people who are all are in need and all support each other. The only one who can fulfil those needs, often working through those whom the world sees only as worthy of receiving help and not giving it, is the Good Samaritan, Jesus Christ.
[i] Patricia A. Duncan, ‘Reading the Parable of the Good Samaritan with Origen’ in Encounter 79.3 (2019), pp23-31
[ii] Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739). p164 – available here. There is also a whole hymn, ‘Woe is me! What tongue can tell’ on this theme from Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739) and also published as no.108 in A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780)
[iii] Samuel Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto: Being with God, (2015: Wiley Blackwell, Oxford), p96
[iv] Joseph T. Lienhard, Origen. Homilies on Luke: Fragments on Luke (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1996), p.140