Lately I have been seeing reflections on the parable of Jesus we call the Good Samaritan which is found in Luke 10:30-37, and I suggest starting at verse 25 and so including the question of the embarrassed critic, “And who is my neighbor?” I consider it important to realize that the real force of that question is, “Who is NOT my neighbor?” Where can I draw the line when it comes to loving my neighbor as I love myself, caring for my neighbor as I care for myself and my own (family, friends, etc.)? Whom may I righteously exclude?
Jesus responds to the question by presenting the least likely and least desirable person in the role of the true (faithful) neighbor. Who is the Samaritan? He is the person most righteously despised as an enemy of God and of God’s people. He is the one whom piety, purity, prejudice, and long-festering resentment agree is NOT the neighbor, not one to be loved or cared for. He is the extreme other – not merely a stranger or outsider but a disgusting, contemptible enemy. He is the sub-human thing that need not be treated humanely, the one it is right to hate. So, rather than giving a Jew (the good guy to Jesus’ audience) the role of true neighbor who reaches across the deep divide of prejudice to help even a wretched Samaritan in distress, Jesus gives that good neighbor role to the hated Samaritan.
If we then include the exhortation as part of the parable or, at least, of the pericope of the parable (the passage to be interpreted as a unit), “Go and do likewise” does not tell me merely to be a good neighbor to people in distress when the opportunity presents itself but tells me, also and more strongly, to reach across the divides of prejudice and righteous contempt to the very people I least want to be my neighbors.
Historically, Jesus’ parable was effectively neutralized by the misinterpretations thrust upon it by allegorization. Misunderstanding and therefore misinterpreting the parable as an allegory became firmly established in church history by Augustine of Hippo. Allegorization is inappropriate for this parable because trying to force it into being an allegory does not fit with the parable itself but does render it harmless. Allegory has a way of telling us only what we already know. In Augustine’s misrepresentation of the parable, the Samaritan is Christ, the inn is the church, etc. So, as allegory the former parable is forced to present a situation that could not have made any sense whatsoever to Jesus’ original hearers (the church did not yet exist, and they did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah or Christ), does not answer the question of who is (not) my neighbor, and does not challenge our prejudices. Rather, as (illegitimate) allegory, the parable speaks only confirmation to certitude, not Christ’s challenge to self-righteousness and prejudice.
Now, the question is for me. Who is my Samaritan – that is, the person (or dehumanized type of person) I do not care to see as my neighbor? That question makes me uncomfortable. It challenges, not my recognized sin, but my goodness – not my shame but my pride. As a friend of mine back in seminary used to put it, Jesus has stopped preaching and started meddling.