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Peter C. PhanFebruary 09, 2023
“The Good Samaritan Tends the Wounds of the Wounded Traveller” (1647), by Balthasar van Cortbemde (Wikimedia Commons)

Like his predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II, Pope Francis often introduces the theme of his writings by way of a spiritual exegesis of an event in the ministry of Jesus or a biblical text. Whereas in his apostolic exhortations “Evangelii Gaudium” and “Querida Amazonia” and his encyclical letter “Laudato Si’,” Francis’ appeals to the Bible are numerous but diffuse, he focuses on specific texts in “Amoris Laetitia” and especially in “Fratelli Tutti.” These are Psalm 129:1-6 in the former and Luke 10:25-37 in the latter, and he presents them as the leitmotifs of his basic teaching on love in the family and social friendship, respectively.

Here I would like to examine the way Pope Francis interprets the parable of the so-called good Samaritan, whom Francis calls “a stranger on the road.” Noting in “Fratelli Tutti” that this parable is “a ray of light” for our contemporary life, which he has described as a place of “dark clouds over a closed world,” Francis presents the Samaritan as the prototype of the fraternity and social friendship that creates the “culture of encounter” and builds bridges of love among all (“Fratelli Tutti,” No. 2).

Pope Francis presents the good Samaritan as the prototype of the fraternity and social friendship that creates the “culture of encounter” and builds bridges of love among all.

The contexts of the parable of the good Samaritan

Luke places his parable of the good Samaritan, which is unique to him, in the context of Jesus’ travel from Galilee to Jerusalem to fulfill the mission that God has entrusted to him. In this “journey narrative” (9:51-19:27), Luke records Jesus’ various miracles and instructions, often in the form of parables. The Gospel speaks on sundry matters concerning Christian life, such as missionary travels, the use of possessions and prayer. One incident during Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem is his encounter with a lawyer who wants to test him with the question about what must be done “to inherit eternal life” (10:25).

The story in Luke 10:25-37 has two parts. The first (10:25-28) contains the lawyer’s question about the way to achieve eternal life, Jesus’ counter-question about the teaching of the Torah on this issue, the lawyer’s answer citing the twin commandments on the love of God and love of neighbor in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, and then Jesus’ acknowledgment of the correctness of the lawyer’s answer. Implicit in this first part is Jesus’ affirmation of the validity of the Torah and its ability to lead to salvation.

The second part (10:29-37) contains the lawyer’s further question about the identity of the neighbor, Jesus’ answer by means of a parable about a traveler from Jerusalem going down to Jericho who is robbed and then cared for by a Samaritan, Jesus’ question to the lawyer about who is the neighbor of the wounded traveler, the lawyer’s answer, and then Jesus’ command to imitate the behavior of the Samaritan. Pope Francis’ commentary on the parable of the good Samaritan places it in the wider context of human relationships as a whole, which he terms “fraternity” and “social friendship.”

Regarding love of the stranger, Francis recalls that in the Hebrew Scripture its basis is said to be the Hebrews’ memory that they themselves were at one time strangers in Egypt.

As a prelude to his comments on the parable, Francis cites God’s question to Cain about the whereabouts of his brother Abel and Cain’s answer: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gn 4:9). Pope Francis argues that God’s very question leaves no room for moral indifference to the sufferings of others but instead “encourages us to create a different culture, in which we resolve our conflicts and care for one another” (“Fratelli Tutti,” No. 57). The pope goes on to cite Job’s affirmation of our certain common rights, derived from our being created by the one God, as the foundation of our fraternity and social friendship (Jb 31:15). To underline this unity, the pope recalls St. Irenaeus’s metaphor of humanity as a melody of different notes in which each person is not perceived separately from the others but instead as part of the whole melody (No. 58).

Pope Francis notes that in early Jewish traditions, the duty to love and care for others was restricted to fellow Jews, but later it was expanded to include all humans, in imitation of God’s compassion for all living beings (No. 59). In the New Testament, Rabbi Hillel’s Talmudic negative formulation of the command “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you” was turned into a positive command: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you” (Mt 7:12). The pope comments: “This command is universal in scope, embracing everyone on the basis of our shared humanity, since the heavenly Father ‘makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good’ (Mt 5:45)” (No. 60).

Regarding love of the stranger, Francis recalls that in the Hebrew Scripture its basis is said to be the Hebrews’ memory that they themselves were at one time strangers in Egypt (Ex 23:9). It is in the context of love for all and not just for members of one’s group, of whatever kind, that the parable of the good Samaritan makes sense, according to Francis: “Love does not care if a brother or sister in need comes from one place or another” (No. 62).

For Pope Francis, a true neighbor must act socially and even politically. Together, neighbors must take “an active part in renewing and supporting our troubled societies.”

The passersby and the abandoned stranger

In his commentary on the parable of the good Samaritan, Pope Francis describes the characters of the story: the robbers, the three passersby and the injured victim. Today, the robbers are not simply evil individuals but include “the dark shadows of neglect and violence in the service of petty interests, gain, and division” (No. 72). The two passersby who ignore the wounded man and move to the other side of the road include religious people, represented in the story by the priest and the Levite, who think they are close to God even when they abandon those who suffer.

The injured victim today is not only the victim of robbery and physical violence but all those who in a globalized society are “helpless because our institutions are neglected and lack resources, or simply serve the interests of a few, without and within” (No. 76).

To fully grasp the revolutionary character of Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, it is necessary to note the background behind the lawyer’s question about who is the “neighbor” whom the Hebrew Scripture commands to love as oneself. The question stems from debates in Jesus’ time about who belongs to the people of Israel, God’s people, and is, therefore, the object of neighborly love.

Jesus’ parable in answer to the lawyer’s question disrupts its theological and legal framework. His counter-question to the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, was the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Lk 10:36) turns the lawyer’s question on its head by telling him not to ask who belongs to God’s people—and who is thus the object of neighborly love—but rather to ask about which conduct is incumbent upon the members of God’s chosen people.

What is more subversive—and offensive to pious Jews—is that Jesus holds up the conduct of a Samaritan as the exemplary model of neighborly love, or (to use Francis’ favorite expressions) “fraternity” and “social friendship,” for Jews. As Francis notes later (No. 82), Samaritans were shunned by Jews, who viewed them as mixed-race, “impure, detestable, dangerous” people who practiced an unorthodox, half-pagan religion. While the Jews held that God chose Mount Zion in Jerusalem as the holy place of orthodox worship, Samaritans believed God chose Mount Gerizim, near Shechem. Pope Francis highlights Jesus’ irony: “Paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers” (No. 74).

Jesus has all manner of reasons to condemn and punish the Samaritans, yet he makes a Samaritan the hero of social friendship.

The Samaritan as a neighbor without borders

Pope Francis does not consider the good Samaritan’s conduct simply a private act of charity. To Jesus’ counter-question about who is the real neighbor to the victim of the robbery, likely a Jew, the lawyer responds: “The one who shows him mercy” (Lk 10:37). Luke does not record Jesus’ answer to the lawyer this time to note the correctness of his answer, as he does in the first part of the story in response to the lawyer’s answer to the question of how to achieve salvation. We simply hear Jesus say, “Go and do likewise.” True belief (orthodoxy) must be translated into true action (orthopraxis).

For Pope Francis, a true neighbor must act socially and even politically. Together, neighbors must take “an active part in renewing and supporting our troubled societies” (No. 77). This action begins with a simple desire: “We need only have a pure and simple desire to be a people, a community, constant and tireless in the effort to include, integrate and lift up the fallen” (No. 77). We may start, Francis says, “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” (No. 77). The Samaritan’s act of neighborly love inspires the innkeeper to act likewise; thus it is expanded farther and farther, creating a ripple effect.

Francis calls this dynamic of neighborly love “the culture of encounter,” of which the Samaritan is the paradigmatic example. In this culture, all become “neighbors without borders.” As Francis writes, “He [Jesus] asks us not to decide who is close enough to be our neighbor, but rather that we ourselves become neighbors to all” (No. 80).

Note that there is a strange twist in the logic of the parable of the good Samaritan. It would be more logical for Jesus to answer the lawyer’s question about who is our neighbor by making a Samaritan the victim of the robbery and a Jew the generous caretaker. In this way, the Jew, who despised and hated the Samaritan, would be taught to be a good neighbor to the Samaritan by practicing fraternity and social friendship with him.

In contrast, Jesus seems to have it all wrong in making the Jew the victim and the Samaritan the generous caretaker. The Samaritan, who is the victim of ethnic and religious discrimination, has all kinds of reasons to neglect the Jew and pass him by, as the priest and the Levite do. Yet he takes good care of him and thus becomes the paradigm of the culture of encounter. The Samaritan “challenges us to put aside all differences and, in the face of suffering, to draw near to others with no questions asked” (No. 81).

Furthermore, Luke makes Jesus’ portrayal of the Samaritan as the model of friendship and hospitality all the more striking by placing the parable in his Gospel shortly after the story of a Samaritan village refusing to welcome Jesus and his disciples (9:51-56). Because of the Samaritans’ hostility and lack of hospitality, the disciples James and John asked Jesus if he wanted them to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them. Jesus turned and rebuked his disciples, says Luke.

Jesus, the erstwhile victim of the hostility of the Samaritans, becomes himself the good Samaritan, the divine embodiment of mercy. He has all manner of reasons to condemn and punish the Samaritans, yet he makes a Samaritan the hero of social friendship. Such is indeed the unexpected marvel of the culture of encounter: It changes the victims of injustice into protectors of their persecutors.

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