Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Bad Samaritan

The scandalous quality of Jesus' parables are lost on us.  We've become too accustomed to the stories, domesticating the plot to the point where we no longer wrestle with the subversive intent.

Take, for example, the story of the "Good Samaritan."  Notice, no where in the parable does Jesus call the Samaritan "good."  But, we have labelled the hero "good" because of his compassionate behavior, showing mercy to an enemy.  We know a little about the ethnic hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans.  We delight in the juxtapostioning of the religious elites (they do nothing--so typical, huh?) and the outsider (what a great guy!) as they pass by the victim on the side of the road.  We like the part where the Samaritan is so generous, he not only takes the wounded man to the inn, but pays the inn-keeper for future expenses and promises to return to settle up the bill.  We are inspired to "go and do likewise" by helping stranded motorists, giving hitch-hikers a lift, or perhaps even paying for an evening's stay in a hotel for a homeless man.  The privileged helping the under-privileged.

But, that's not the whole story.

It looks perfectly normal to us--perhaps even extraordinary--when the Samaritan pays for the wounded man to stay in the inn.  We picture a comfortable place (not the Hilton, but at least a Holiday Inn Express?) between Jerusalem and Jericho.  We envision the Samaritan taking care of the man, nursing him back to health, then leaving for a while--only to return to check on his progress and pay the hotel bill.  What a guy.

But, this is exactly where we misread the story.  First, a Samartian bringing a wounded Jewish man into a Jewish town was incredibly risky (a point made by Kenneth Bailey).  Second, there was no "inn" between Jerusalem and Jericho (modern tourist site claims notwithstanding).  The "inn" was probably located on the outskirts of Jericho.  Third, what the story assumes is what we miss.  Hospitality was never purchased; it was earned by honor.  In Jewish culture, a traveler looking for accomodations would simply go to the city gate or the city well and wait for someone to recognize him as an honorable man and take him home (the Old Testament is filled with stories like this).  If you had to pay for a place to stay, it meant you were a low life.  Indeed, "inns" also doubled as houses of "ill repute" (for example, in Jewish literature, Rahab "the harlot" is called an "inn keeper"), which is why inns were often located on the edge of town.  All kinds of riff-raff showed up there.  Roman philsophers condemned these public houses as moral degradation.  "If you don't have enough honor to stay in our fair town, move on!"  This Samartian wasn't "good" by any standard.  He was a bad man.  Fourth, why did the Samaritan leave?  More than likely he feared for his life--he was in hostile territory.  And, finally, what was a Samaritan doing on the Jericho road anyway?  He was probably a merchant, a travelling man who ignored traditions to make a buck.  You know the kind--will set aside family loyalities and religious devotion at the drop of a hat if there's money to be made.

This was no "Good Samaritan."  This was a bad man, who for some unexplained reason, took pity on a complete stranger and relied upon socially unacceptable practices to save a man's life.

7 comments:

Ian said...

I didn't know all that about the inns and whatnot. But help me wrestle, here: The language Jesus uses to describe the manner in which the Samaritan took care of this poor victim is so warm!
"he had compassion"
"bound up his wounds"
"set him on his own animal"
"took care of him"
Surely this is where we get the "Good" part of The Good Samaritan. So with the context you provided - that inns were typically brothels, that this Samaritan had no business being on that road - it starts to sound like the question Jesus asks about who's really doing God's will (the son who is very agreeable but doesn't do anything or the son who fights it at every step but follows through).
So ok. Sounds like Jesus is telling us again that there are gonna be a lot of surprises in Heaven, but should we not also be taking away what we have traditionally - namely, that we've gotta be going after the people we've been conditioned to hate? The hard people?

Rodney Reeves said...

Ian,

No doubt, the Samaritan did "good." But, he wasn't a "good" person, esp. from a first-century Jewish perspective. That's the part I think we miss. We expect "good" people (by our categories) to do "good" things, e.g., the privileged helping the underprivileged or "church" people helping "lost" people. But, do we even know how to make sense of "bad" people (again, by our categories) doing "good" things--esp. if they use socially unacceptable means to do good?

Laura Edwards said...

I really disliked your rendition of the "Good Samaritan" parable, which is what it is, a parable. It is irresponsible that you are calling someone "bad" whom Jesus said in His story had done good deeds. Jesus did not call him good, but praised his actions. You take a tremendous amount of license in your interpretation by calling him a "bad" man. Do you really think that he would have been taken in by an honorable person by waiting in the town square? What would people think about a Samaritan (outside of Samaria) with a half dead Jewish man on his donkey? Onlookers might assume the worst..."he beat up that guy and he might do the same to me." Is he bad for making provision for him and "leaving him" to continue his trip? You assume that he was a greedy businessman who for some unknown reason, and uncharacteristically happened to do good on this occasion. Perhaps he had shown kindness to other Jews in his dealings, and was now being shunned by his hometown people, and had to travel to provide for his family. Have you ever been on the way to the airport for a trip and seen someone in need? Did you, or would you stop to help this person, and delay your trip, maybe by a few days? What about the Levite and Priest? What were they doing on the road, and how about the victim? Why were they away from home? Your assumptions cast a shadow on the true meaning of the parable that Jesus taught; love your neighbor as yourself. You should stick to the text rather than misinterpret this as "The Greedy Samaritan Businesman.'

Ian said...

Rodney, thanks for making me think. Again.
So would you say the point of the parable is more about causing us to think about our categories than anything else?

Rodney Reeves said...

Ian,

Exactly. Notice who asks the question, "Who is my neighbor"? A person who has kept the law (by Jewish categories, a "good" person). So, Jesus is deconstructed his categories of goodness.

Laura,

I think you're missing my point. Is it possible for someone who was considered "bad" by society standards to do "good"? Also, how do you make sense of what Jesus said later in Luke's gospel (11:13--which I think is another way of saying what the parable is teaching)?

Laura Edwards said...

Sorry, this is Mike (my wife & I share this email address). Sure, lots of bad people are able to give good gifts. Mafia members shower their families with gifts all the time. I just didn't like your fabrication of details that weren't there.

Rodney Reeves said...

Laura/Mike,

Embedded in every parable are the social and cultural assumptions of Jesus' world--very different from a 21st century American world. Therefore, it doesn't surprise me that you see my approach (which is fairly common among NT scholars) to reading the parable as filled with "fabrications."