The Parable of the Lousy Samaritan


So in the Gospel account of Luke, Jesus tells a parable (this kind of spiritually loaded word picture), which even if you’re not a particularly religious person you’re probably vaguely familiar with, commonly known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Synopsis: A lone traveler is befallen by bandits and left bloodied and penniless by the side of the road. He is passed over by two religious folks (a Priest and a Levite) who both ignore the wounded man in their midst, but a Samaritan stops, binds up his wounds, gets a room for him, and pays for the man’s recovery needs.

To those not familiar with the scene and the characters Jesus uses or with his audience, the moral of the story might seem like just another feel good, lay-up, megachurch message of “Be kind to others in need.” but it’s far more scandalous and subversive than that.

Jesus, a First Century Jew was speaking to other First Century Jews who treasured the purity of their bloodline and despised the racially blended Samaritans who they believed to be contaminated. That Jesus, a Rabbi would make the Samaritan the hero of the story at all (especially when favorably compared to Jewish religious representations) was a brutal sucker punch to the gut of his listeners and a brazen warning not to over-estimate one’s own righteousness and another’s moral inferiority.

So why is this story still so important two thousand years later?

Because we followers of Jesus still love to identify our Samaritans and to get them in the crosshairs of our righteous outrage. We still bend more toward the othering of people; toward choosing sides and defining our enemies and labeling evil and casting villains—than we do emulating Jesus. It strikes me that we who comprise the Church are still in the business of despising people and looking for scapegoats for the trouble of our times, missing the clear truth that God is fully alive in every person we encounter, as unlikely as it may seem to us. Every “Samaritan” is potentially our teacher. 

Whatever portrait you fashion in your mind for the problems in the world, for the danger to mankind, for the threat to the common good; whatever people group you choose to be the source of the present evil—Jesus is warning that it might actually be you. You may quite fancy yourself the noble hero and really be the villain.

I’m more aware of this truth than ever before as I watch my fellow believers interact with people, especially in America during an election cycle. As Christians confident in our own moral position, we so easily adopt a posture of self-righteousness that rarely takes time to consider the damage we may be doing out there, the suffering we might be conveniently walking past, the inherent arrogance embedded in our religious convictions. We so often assume that the enemy of Humanity must be across the aisle or across town or in another country. We almost never court the possibility it could be in the mirror.

Jesus wasn’t pulling any punches here in the Samaritan’s story and that’s important to remember. His intended audience would have been rightly pissed off. He was not merely a placid, gentle teddy bear who only dispensed sweet words and candy kisses. Sometimes Jesus was a savage lion who ripped religious folks to shreds to expose their hardened hearts and publicly call them to the carpet, challenging them to dig deeper in their expression of faith. (Yeah, Jesus could that mess up.)

I wonder if we who claim Christ can still handle his difficult words. I wonder if we are still willing to listen to him when we don’t get to be the hero. I wonder if we stick with the story when Jesus flips the script.

Christian, what is your posture toward those whose lifestyles or beliefs you disagree with?
How often do you assume your own righteousness when compared to your perception of another’s?
How many times do you use your outer religion to mask your own inner darkness?
Who are you boldly painting as the villain, even while you walk over gutters filled with the blood of the needy?

Of course, nobody wants to be the bad guy, but unfortunately we’re all equally qualified for the position. This is a good reminder as you live and move and write and argue and listen and yell and post and comment today.

Christian, be careful in the certainty of your religion, in the security of your own self-image,  and in the easy contempt you have for strangers—that you don’t become the Lousy Samaritan.

43 thoughts on “The Parable of the Lousy Samaritan

  1. Our modern form? The Sunday Assembly in Portland, OR is a group of atheists that runs a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen.

  2. A Samaritan is Other …someone is is Not Like You….and loving those who are Not Like Us truly reflects being created ‘imago Dei’ / in the image of God, who loves those Not Like Himself

  3. Thank you once again for putting your thoughts so eloquently with such a thought-provoking message. We all need to look in that mirror. Thank you again.

  4. Eloquently stated. My heart has been mulling over the story of the good Samaritan for the past week. You hit the nail on the head with this post, thank you for sharing.

  5. Some years back at a men’s ministry meeting in the United Pentecostal Church, a minister caused a major uproar by telling the story of the Good Samaritan updated with modern people to demonstrate just how much uproar the message about a Samaritan would have caused among the Jews of the first century. His version went something like this:

    There was a certain man who was walking down the street one night in a bad section of town. He didn’t feel particularly safe, but this was the only way to get where he was going. As he walked, some thugs popped out of an alley and mugged him. They took his wallet and his watch and cellphone. They beat him senseless, and left him for dead on the sidewalk.

    A short way down the street was a mission church, Pentecostal. Service had let out hours earlier, and almost everyone had left the building. One two were left: the Pastor and Assistant Pastor. The Pastor left first, and was walking the one block to his car. As he walked right past the unconscious mugging victim, he shook his head, and muttered about how this neighborhood was filled with nothing but drunks and degenerates. He hurried to his car and went home.

    A short time later, the Assistant Pastor left the building and also began walking to where he’d left his car. And of course, he had to pass by the unconscious man. But seeing him, he actually crossed back over to the other side of the street to avoid him, mentally lamenting all the drunks and addicts on the streets.

    Two doors down from where the man was laying, there was a gay bar. About that time, one of the patrons came out and was walking to his car. He saw the man lying there and immediately ran over to see if he could help. Seeing that the man was unconscious, he ran back to the bar and recruited someone to help him carry the victim. Then he drove him to the nearest emergency room. The unconscious man had no ID, of course, and there was no way to know if he even had any insurance. The man who brought him in could see the reluctance in the faces of the ER staff to treat someone with no ID and possibly no insurance. So he spoke up and said, “I will take full responsibility for the man. I’ll sign whatever you want. Here’s my credit card. Provide whatever treatment he needs. If you need anything else, call me at home. I’ll be back tomorrow to check on him.”

    The idea that even one UPC minister, let alone two, would ignore an unconscious man lying in the street was bad enough. But when it was suggested that a homosexual coming out of a bar would do everything the “Good Samaritan” in this story did was too much. The story caused a great deal of upset and anger and denial. But the man who told the story was all too keenly aware that the reason it upset everyone so much was because they knew there was truth in it. Too many of them knew they themselves might have just walked on by, mistakenly assuming the victim was just a drunk or homeless person. And they knew full well that being a homosexual would not stop another stranger from stopping to help. It was the lack, the failing, in their own Christianity that angered them so much… Well, that coupled with the fact that of all the people in the world the story-teller could have chosen to be the one who provided assistance, he had chosen a member of the group they most despised, looked down on.

    • Thank you, Rev. Happened to me in real life. I’d just started wearing my new artificial leg after a tragic accident and I fell in the precinct in town. On the floor, unable to get up, I watched more than a dozen people walk by. I’m sure I couldn’t have looked drunk, (maybe I did to them), but I wasn’t exactly drooling or anything like that. Eventually a man came from a market stall across the way and offered me a cup of water and helped me up. He thought I’d hurt myself because i was crying, but it was just the fact that so many people didn’t help me and I felt humiliated sitting there in the middle of the mall. The guy who helped me probably wouldn’t remember the event since it happened sixteen years ago, but i will always remember him. Wendy xxx

    • It’s all about so called discrimination among people on Earth! We should not go to Religion or blood line or profession but it is goodness or opposite but it’s all built in your inside? Which is something mysterious?

    • Really nice. I am a gay celibate Christian. I believe in doing what the Bible states. However I can proudly say that I know a number of Gay men who would help. When you are disenfranchised you go to others who are the same. Thus us a brilliant retelling of an old story. Bravo!

    • I love your story! The really scary thing, though, is that it could actually happen…not by anyone’s fault, of course. Those are conclusions we would reach. But it is also a viable story.

  6. The most difficult thing in life for us all is to see ourselves reflected in another person and recognize our own short comings or our goodness.
    This post is another great lesson in truth, thank you John.

  7. A bit of a long post here. I want everyone here to know how much that I love this site. So many insightful humans who seem to prefer love over dogma. So refreshing. Sometimes I am harsh with my words but please believe me when I say I don’t mean to scar anyone….I just get very passionate about certain topics. Thank you John and thank you to those who visit and comment.
    After 45 years of being a “good Christian” I found myself drifting towards Atheism. I eventually became an Atheist and found real peace. So when I make comments keep in mind that I had 12 years of private Christian schooling, Sunday School, Church Musician, Prayer Group, Summer Missionary Studies and on and on and on. I know the deal.

    I once asked a UM Bishop “Which would Jesus have me do? Believe in his existence or believe his words?” He answered “words”. Comments?

    I find as an Atheist that I lead my life in a “good” manner, helping all those that I can and trying not to hurt people. I did the same as a Christian but my motivation was God. Now I find my motivation is human kind. I fall into a number of categories and labels that many “christians” shun and actively harm. Let me tell you a story….I teach and have a scholarship program for students from impoverished families. I earn less than the poverty level but I’m so happy with my work. A family of Missionaries from Nigeria has 3 kids with me. The family is extremely Fundamentalist and I always respect my parents and their beliefs. The Father condemned “people” like me as “demons from Hell” while in the pulpit one Sunday morning. He lost about a third of his small congregation…the more intelligent, educated and so therefore wealthy. The collection plate was rather bare and continues to be. The Mother lost her job at Pepsi when she said she couldn’t work with “those people” because they were damned. I continued to teach the kids for free for several months and 3 years later I still teach them gratis. Then I learned that they were going hungry. I begged and gathered 35 bags of groceries and $500 in grocery store gift cards. (I am a good beggar.) Several months later their situation wasn’t much better and I found out from the youngest that Santa would not be there this year. Again I contacted those people that I knew could give. Santa brought shoes, clothes, a computer, board games and yummies. I want to add that I gave all of these things through an anonymous third party. No one knew that it was me. So here I am “one of those demons from Hell””. I have laughed so many times over this.

    How would my love have been different if I were a “Christian”?
    All of your responses are appreciated.

    • The Spirit of the creator lives in all of us. Maybe you don’t believe that anymore, but your behavior shouts that it is true!

    • Thanks for sharing Kit9. I am with you, and while I don’t consider myself an atheist, I also don’t understand the mythological need to focus so much on God. It isn’t God who needs us, it’s WE who need us. Humans are the driving force of everything. We can argue the source of this drive (Love/God/whatever) but nonetheless, the world is as WE make it. It moves in the direction of OUR collective conscious efforts. And this blog is part of that positive effort, changing the shape of the world in such a beautiful way with every discussion.

      I don’t know that I am “qualified” to answer your question, as I no longer consider myself a Christian either. But I would say your love is NO different. The idea that following Jesus somehow makes a person’s acts of love more real, pure, or divine is a big fat ego inflating lie. Of course they will try to temper it with words of humility and undeservingness. But if anything, your love is more authentic because it comes directly from your own free will, not needing to prove your Jesusness or have it be defined it in some special way.

  8. The Good Samaritian, the tax collector, the woman at the well, the woman with the two coins, the women who first saw Jesus after His resurrection, the prodigal son. Etc, etc.

    It was no mistake that Jesus used people of the such as examples. There is a common thread that joins every one of these parables. We tend to focus on the actions in the story, but it’s the people who are the true parable.

    Jesus challenged the status quo set by the church. He still does that today.

  9. I like that you say things that I think. I hope you have a wide audience.

    I have attached a letter I sent to some of the people I work with because I am considered the liberal and, we joke about it but just joking felt cowardly so I shared my thoughts. ( I did not get many comments either for or against.)

    Joanne Phillips

    On Thu, Mar 10, 2016 at 8:45 AM, john pavlovitz wrote:

    > johndpav posted: “So in the Gospel account of Luke, Jesus tells a parable > (this kind of spiritually loaded word picture), which even if you’re not a > particularly religious person you’re probably vaguely familiar with, > commonly known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. ” >

  10. I love the parable of the good Samaritan. There’s just so much there.

    I once did a modern rewrite of the parable, setting it outside Selma, Alabama in about 1955. The “Samaritan” was the son of a white woman and a black man, representing the interbreeding of Jews and Gentiles that the Jews found so offensive.

    If I were to rewrite it (which I may have to do – I can’t find the original), this being pre-Kennedy I would also make him Roman Catholic. That would add the corrupted religion component, which was another component of the Jewish hatred for the Samaritans.

  11. So many interesting and insightful replies and experiences in the comments.
    John’s teaching here takes me right back to my introduction, in seminary, to the philosophy of Martin Buber. I remember being profoundly affected by his book about relationship: I – Thou. The parable of the Good Samaritan to me is an illustration of the right relationship between human beings. Each is a relationship to our creator. We need to teach the underlying relationship of Jesus to God that he was trying to re-teach his disciples and followers. The kingdom of God in among you, within you. WE ARE THE KINGDOM OF GOD ON EARTH.

  12. I, too, am a closet atheist.

    This post, and John’s previous post on Christian labels, really speak to me. Incidentally, I like reading John’s posts because I find them, and often the comments, quite thoughtful.

    The reason I am a closet atheist is because some religious people find my lack of belief offensive. (And if you don’t think we live in a religious culture, try being an atheist for a day.)

    All of this is to say that the parable of the Good Samaritan is one of my favorites. I love the sentiment that you can be outside a faith tradition and still do good works.

    I like e.e.cumming’s retelling of the parable from the perspective of a person stopping to pick up a man who had fallen among thieves:

    Brushing from whom the stiffened puke
    i put him all into my arms
    and staggered banged with terror through
    a million billion trillion stars.

  13. Fun story… Two weeks ago, I was at a coffee shop on Sunday morning. When I left, I found that I had left a light on in the car and my battery was dead. I waited about 15 minutes for someone else to come out of the coffee shop, and this couple was actually parked right next to me. So I waited until the man helped his wife into the passenger seat of the car, and then told him I was stuck, but I had jumper cables and I asked if he could give me a jump.

    To my surprise, this man in the suit told me he was running late for church. He said “I’m really sorry, normally I would help.” Then he walked back into the coffee shop to throw something away, apologized again, and left. Seriously, I couldn’t even make this up if I tried.

    In hindsight, I’m pretty sure I could have gone back into the coffee shop and asked any of the tattooed and pierced “Samaritans” working at the coffee shop for a jump, and any number of them would have helped. I was so frustrated at this point though, so I just walked 3.5 miles home and came back for the car later.

    I think what really frustrated me is that I’m not someone that goes to church very often, and I’m even thought of as anti-social to some extent because I keep to myself, don’t talk a lot, and usually have on dirty work clothes and a scruffy beard. But I will always help people when they need help, especially if they come and ask me for it. Meanwhile, the crew this dude hangs out with at church probably looks down at me.

    • Excellent example Dean. I had a similar situation except it was at work. My battery was dead and one of the well-dressed bosses came out, who I knew and considered a friend, and he said NO, so the next guy was a scruffy worker and he agreed heartily – and I didn’t even know him.

  14. Pingback: The Parable of the Lousy Samaritan – My Mind Snaps

  15. It would be so wonderful if we could all embrace these words from Ed Browning, 24th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. “In this church there will be no outcasts.”

  16. The Saga of the Seeker (This is a different Good Samaritan Story, enjoy oh Christian Thinkers!)
    By Robert Winkler Burke
    Book #4 of In That Day Teachings
    Redacted from “The Searchers” movie from John Ford and John Wayne

    He wasn’t tall, he wasn’t short,
    But you’d be wrong to underestimate him,
    He would look for her and then rescue her,
    And find what there was bad or great in him.

    With his white and black paint, grey rifle,
    Six gun and reddish-brown colored hat,
    He made a great circle southwest to southwest,
    All points on the uncivilized map.

    At trail-side inn,
    At logging camp,
    He’d ask for her:
    Deborah the tramp.

    I found her first!
    Said a drunk preacher named Joe,
    I taught her the word,
    Everything a person should know!

    Not every’tang, you fool!
    Said a traveling salesman,
    I taught ‘er prosperity,
    It fixes all wot ails man!

    Shut up, you two unejucated, feral ijiots!
    Said an obnoxious barkeep,
    I taught her to fear end-times and everything,
    I made her frightfully weep!

    A miner said, We gave virtue employ!
    And put her in a flowery room,
    We mined ‘er searcher-friendly gentlemen,
    Whose love was in gospel bloom!

    Where is she now?
    The seeker urgently asked,
    Injuns took her,
    They said, they got away fast.

    So the seeker rode long,
    The seeker rode hard,
    He remembered their tales,
    But still was off guard.

    Surprised, he found her,
    In Indian Scar’s tent,
    Her clothes torn up,
    Her very spirit rent.

    What have you done to her?
    The seeker asked Scar,
    The same you all want,
    I, Scar, did help her!

    I taught her my mystic,
    Red man jabberwocky,
    She can tell the future,
    Now she’s proud and cocky!

    She’s so full of fear,
    And pride and nonsense,
    Now she speaks, said Scar,
    With all confidence!

    You are as mad as the others,
    Said the seeker,
    I challenge you to a fight!
    You can’t keep her.

    Scar said, When I cut you,
    With my blade, you’ll be like me!
    Half-right, half-wrong, messed up,
    Conflicted: Half-brilliant, half-crazy!

    The seeker said, I’ve been already cut,
    But with a different sword,
    It cut away the evil roots in my gut,
    It was the Bible, God’s word.

    I use that same sword, said old Scar,
    In all my fights!
    I use it for evil and I go far,
    By all my rights!

    They fought in the sand,
    They fought in the mud,
    They rolled over logs,
    That place got disturbed.

    Finally, from out of the dust,
    And sweaty fight-grime,
    The seeker arose limping,
    Scar had up and died.

    He swallowed his own words,
    I’m alive, the enemy’s dead,
    Let’s go home now, Debbie,
    Was what the seeker said.

    The seeker brought her home,
    To her good family,
    The seeker wouldn’t take pay,
    He said it’d be greed.

    He said poor Deborah,
    Was hurt by her helpers,
    Who used her themselves,
    As a stone, they steppers.

    The seeker was a true hero,
    Who did good for good’s sake,
    The scoundrels hurt Deborah,
    By taking all they could take.

    But the lechers of the world even now still brag,
    And prey on the world’s lost tramps,
    The wolves lord their power on all who’ll listen,
    Saying there is but one, not two camps.

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