Broadening our understanding of the Parable of the Good Samaritan

The coronavirus pandemic has brought indescribable hardship to people around the world. It does not recognise class, gender, race, religion, borders.

Oct 17, 2020

By Anil Netto
The coronavirus pandemic has brought indescribable hardship to people around the world. It does not recognise class, gender, race, religion, borders. It seemingly strikes at will and moves silently from person to person. In many places, hospitals and government resources have been stretched to breaking point.

If the coronavirus does not recognise barriers and spreads rapidly around the world, then our response to it has to be up to the challenge. We cannot fight this pandemic in isolation. It calls for a coordinated, cross-border response, cutting through all the barriers that divide us on a social, political and historical basis.

The Bishop of Rome’s new encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti (Brothers and Sisters All) talks about a new bond of “fraternity and social friendship” – which would be just want we need to confront the pandemic.

Today, we take a look at Chapter Two of the letter, a meditation on the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

It is easy to look at the parable as a lesson in helping those in dire need, especially those around us. But the Bishop of Rome delves deeper, for there are layered subtexts in the parable.

He expands the understanding of the parable from the requirement to help one’s immediate neighbours (by locality) to the global need for human solidarity in response to cries of desperation.

God, Francis points out, encourages us to create a different culture, in which we resolve our conflicts and care for one another.

The ancient commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself” was usually understood as referring to one’s fellow citizens.

Mind you, such a worldview persists to this day in Malaysia. That is why policymakers – and many other people – seem indifferent to the  plight of migrants and refugees. It is as if they don’t count.

But for Francis, the “boundaries gradually expanded” in the understanding of the parable. God’s compassion is for all living beings. “In the oldest texts of the Bible, we find a reason why our hearts should expand to embrace the foreigner. It derives from the enduring memory of the Jewish people that they themselves had once lived as foreigners in Egypt:

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33-34).

Francis then moves on to the early Christian communities, where Christians were expected to welcome fellow Christians, “even though they are strangers to you” (3 Jn 5).

This, he says, shows that love does not care where a brother or sister in need comes from. For “love shatters the chains that keep us isolated and separate; in their place, it builds bridges. Love enables us to create one great family, where all of us can feel at home.”

So we are called to build a new social bond that cuts across borders and to “direct society to the pursuit of the common good.” We can rebuild society if we can identify with the vulnerability of others. And we must “reject the creation of a society of exclusion, and act instead as neighbours, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good.”

We cannot be indifferent to suffering. Instead, we should emerge from our comfortable isolation and be changed by our contact with human suffering. Sooner or or later, we will come across someone who is suffering – and God knows, there are so many like that in our world.

The decisions we make – whether to include or exclude certain people – will determine whether our response and our projects are just and inclusive. We cannot look the other way or just walk by like the passers-by in the parable. Among them were a priest and a Levite, religious people, devoted to the worship of God. “It shows that belief in God and the worship of God are not enough to ensure that we are actually living in a way pleasing to God. A believer may be untrue to everything that his faith demands of him, and yet think he is close to God and better than others.”

Paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers, Francis points out.

As a community, we must be “constant and tireless in the effort to include, integrate and lift up the fallen”. Where to begin? “From below and, case by case, act at the most concrete and local levels, and then expand to the farthest reaches of our countries and our world, with the same care and concern that the Samaritan showed for each of the wounded man’s injuries”.

Any difficulties should be seen as opportuni ties for growth and not be used as excuses for resignation. And we should not expect any recognition or gratitude, Francis adds.

These “neighbours” need not be from our social group. Many of the Jews at the time despised the Samaritans. Jesus, however, made a point of always crossing cultural and historical barriers in reaching out to people.

The inhabitants of Samaria were considered ethnically mixed. They worshipped in a different way, using what looked like pagan rites. And so those in neighbouring lands viewed them as “impure, detestable, dangerous”.

The parable of the Good Samaritan may be seen as a pointed barb at racist attitudes towards foreigners. The roles are reversed. The one helping is a Samaritan and the one in need is a Judean.

This should remind us that the people in need may change over time. If we despise migrants, refugees or foreigners, what happens if climate change strikes close to home and we ourselves have to flee to other lands for refuge? How would we like to be treated?

Francis reflects inwards: “I sometimes wonder why, in light of this, it took so long for the Church unequivocally to condemn slavery and various forms of violence.”

Today, he says, with our developed spirituality and theology, we have no excuses. Yet, there are some who still think their faith allows them to practise “varieties of narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even the mistreatment of those who are different”.

Our faith, our humanism, must be ready to respond to such tendencies wherever they arise, Francis says. Our catechesis and preaching must speak more directly about “the fraternal dimension of spirituality, our conviction of the inalienable dignity of each person, and our reasons for loving and accepting all our brothers and sisters”.

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