The Good Samaritan: how politics transformed the meaning of a biblical story

The former Archbishop reviews The Political Samaritan: How Power Hijacked a Parable by Nick Spencer.

But, as most regular readers of the Bible are aware, relations between Jews and Samaritans at the time when the story of the Good Samaritan was first told were as poisonous as those between Serbs and Bosnians in the 1990s.

Any story with a Samaritan as a positive character would have been offensive; this one is made still more so by its very structure.

.. the natural expectation would be that the hero of the story would be an ordinary Israelite, a salt-of-the-earth person just like the average listener to the story. Instead of which it turns out to be a racially and religiously obnoxious figure.

.. one of the many points of the tale is not that “we” should be kind to “them”, but that we, the insiders, the elect, the normal, should be ready to recognise that we are likely to have to depend in important ways on the apparently alien and threatening stranger.

.. It’s about ethnic prejudice; or religious conflict; or the conflict between law-keeping and spontaneous ethical behaviour; or about the transcending of Israel’s historic significance as uniquely the people of God; or the need for ethical creativity; or the imperative to stop asking who is the neighbour to whom you have a duty and start behaving as a neighbour to anyone and everyone you encounter.
.. what Jesus’s story does is to refuse to offer any simple criteria for generalising about where love stops (just as elsewhere he refuses to offer criteria for when it’s all right to stop trying to forgive or to be reconciled).
.. the religious professionals in the story would have had sound reasons for avoiding not only practical risks but also ceremonial pollution if the injured man had proved to be dead
.. to recognise that we are repeatedly humbled by learning what love looks like from profoundly unlikely sources.
.. as the context of the parable becomes less well known, it is co-opted in various ways that make it just a bit banal. Calling someone a Good Samaritan becomes, says Spencer, “a pithier way of saying “people who make significant efforts to help those they don’t know”.
..  unforgettably – by Margaret Thatcher addressing the Church of Scotland on the importance of the wealth creation that enabled the Samaritan to have resources to help the less fortunate.
..  what looks like an easily available trope is actually a good deal more dangerous, liable to turn from a useful stick with which to beat your rhetorical enemies into a splinter that sticks in your own flesh; very much the way in which Jesus’s parables regularly work.
.. civic coherence and ethical clarity in a culture, even a publicly agnostic culture, continue to draw on the language and (in the broad sense) myth of older identities, and on the experience of communities for whom these words and narratives are still alive.