“Othering” and the parable of the Good Samaritan

The Good Samaritan, Vincent van Gogh

This morning, I was hanging out on Twitter, catching up on some of the blog posts I missed while I was editing last night.  Sarah Bessey, in her always lovely voice, wrote this about her weariness with reactivity.  She put words to something I’ve been feeling lately as well.  So I’m embarking on a journey of sorts.  I’m still going to continue to respond to things I read, but I also want to return to talking about faith and Scripture and living more fully as followers of Christ.  Because of my own experiences with weaponized Scripture, it’s taken me some time to come back to reading the Bible with the love I once had for the text.  I’m not a Biblical scholar or a seminarian; the extent of my “training” is a handful of undergraduate Bible classes and multiple readings of Scripture, so take that as you will.  If you’re willing, though, come with me as I explore some of this.  I’d love to hear your thoughtsregardless of your training (and whether or not you’re a Christian; one doesn’t have to believe to appreciate the discussion).  I’m not sure if I will make these posts a regular thing–I don’t like to commit that far in advance.  But I’d like to, so we’ll see how this one goes.

Today, I want to start with a parable.  I love the parables of Jesus; I don’t particularly love the culture that has grown up around them or the way I think a lot of Christians mishandle them.  The parable of the Good Samaritan isn’t my favorite (that goes to the parable of the Lost Son), but it’s near the top.  I suppose for a long time I used it as inspiration for getting involved in service.  Like any good evangelical, I was taught to see this story in terms of my role.  I learned to identify as the Samaritan, my goal to help instead of passing by.  Don’t be like the priests and teachers of the law!  They don’t help people!  They leave them bleeding in the street!

With many years’ distance from my first reading of the text, I now think that’s a backwards way of reading the text.

So let’s look at what Jesus says:

An expert in the Law of Moses stood up and asked Jesus a question to see what he would say. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to have eternal life?”

Jesus answered, “What is written in the Scriptures? How do you understand them?”

The man replied, “The Scriptures say, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.’ They also say, ‘Love your neighbors as much as you love yourself.’”

Jesus said, “You have given the right answer. If you do this, you will have eternal life.”

But the man wanted to show that he knew what he was talking about. So he asked Jesus, “Who are my neighbors?”

Jesus replied:

“As a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, robbers attacked him and grabbed everything he had. They beat him up and ran off, leaving him half dead.

“A priest happened to be going down the same road. But when he saw the man, he walked by on the other side. Later a temple helper came to the same place. But when he saw the man who had been beaten up, he also went by on the other side.

“A man from Samaria then came traveling along that road. When he saw the man, he felt sorry for him and went over to him. He treated his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put him on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next morning he gave the innkeeper two silver coins and said, ‘Please take care of the man. If you spend more than this on him, I will pay you when I return.’

Then Jesus asked, “Which one of these three people was a real neighbor to the man who was beaten up by robbers?”

The teacher answered, “The one who showed pity.”

Jesus said, “Go and do the same!” [Luke 10:25-37, CEV]

Now, in fairness, Jesus did tell the expert in the law to behave as the Samaritan did.  But there’s something really subtle in there that, for me at least, went unnoticed.  Did you catch it?

The hero of this story is the Samaritan.

That’s an important distinction, and here’s why:  Samaritans were the “others” of Jesus’ time.   Instead of having the Samaritan being the one beaten on the side of the road and making the hero a teacher of the Law laying his prejudices aside in order to assist a hated Samaritan, Jesus flipped it around.  He cast the Samaritan in the role of rescuer.  (I have to wonder if he’d have told the story the other way if he’d been speaking to a crowd of Samaritans.)

I have a list of words and phrases I never want to hear again, most of which are Christian and/or feminist buzz words.  Near the top of the list is the phrase, “Love the other.”  It never appears in the Bible that way–in fact, I’m not even sure the concept appears in the Bible.  For those who have not been exposed to evangelical culture, it means that we’re supposed to show love and compassion for people who are “not like us.”  I’ve heard it used most often in regard to non-Christians, people in Africa, and LGBT people.  The idea seems to be that if we just love people enough, if we just show mercy on those heathens, they will miraculously become what we want them to be: White, straight Christians (or at least as similar to white, straight Christians as possible).

It’s sickening.

We have a tendency to “other” people–to make assumptions about them, to pity them, to desire them to “come to Jesus” to be healed of their “otherness.”  What a terrible way to view people!  It places an emphasis on what we think is flawed about someone who doesn’t look or act or live the way we expect or believe they should.  Jesus turns the whole thing upside down by casting the Samaritan in the role of hero.  Put in more modern terms, it’s not the fine, upstanding, morally superior Christians who rush in to show mercy to anyone we consider “other.”  It’s those very “others” who come to our aid when we need it.

So what does this mean for us?  Obviously it’s not acceptable to continue believing that if we “love the other” we’re doing the right thing.  Putting people in the category of “other” only serves to alienate.  That leaves us with two possibilities, both of which are healthier readings of the text.

First, we absolutely need to do as the Samaritan did–if someone is in immediate need, and we can help, then we should.  That includes considering common courtesy without needing a cookie for being a decent human being.  So you held the door for a person in a wheelchair.  So what?  Nice people do that.  No one is going to congratulate you for not being a jerk and letting it slam in her face.  It also might include some things that could stretch us but that we need to do without using it as a way to prove we aren’t “othering” people.  For example, what if you had the opportunity to take in a homeless youth whose parents asked her to leave when she came out?  Would you?  And would you do it because she needs a roof over her head and hot meals, or would you do it because you think you’re building Heavenly Cred or because you’re going to convince her she’s a sinner in need of grace?

Second, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of the victim in the parable.  We need to stop thinking of ourselves as rescuers of all the Not-Like-Us people of the world.  We are not the Statue of Liberty, beacons welcoming all the tragic souls and inviting them in–so long as they kinda try to act like us.  What if the tables were turned?  What if we needed help?  Because that’s what happens in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Someone considered “other” is the very person on whom the beaten man can depend.

Ultimately, it’s not about who is the Hero and who is the Distressed.  It’s about valuing the humanity and dignity of every person.  In order to fully actualize that, we need to stop dividing ourselves into “normal” and “other” categories.  There is no such thing in the eyes of God, and there’s no place for it among us.


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