Despite the collapse or erasure of Christian references in Europe, contemporary language has retained a certain number of expressions that everyone still understands, at least to some extent. I believe there is no one who doesn’t know (or at least intuit) that “the Good Samaritan” is someone who voluntarily aids someone who needs help, with this additional note: that he agrees to depart from his path, or to leave what he was doing, in order to care for someone unfortunate, when nothing obliges him to do so. It is therefore quite natural that Pope Francis gives the parable of the Good Samaritan a place of honor in his recent encyclical on fraternity and social friendship, Fratelli Tutti.
Here, therefore, is the text from St. Luke’s Gospel that opens the second chapter of the encyclical, a chapter entitled “A stranger on the road”:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:25-37).
First, let’s highlight the principal points of Pope Francis’s commentary. Evoking the priest and the Levite who passed by without stopping for the unfortunate man left for dead by the robbers, he writes: “They were people holding important social positions, yet lacking in real concern for the common good. They could not waste a couple of minutes . . . Only one person stopped . . . and cared for him personally. . . . Above all, he gave him his time.”
Then Pope Francis poses the question: “With whom do you identify? This question, blunt as it is, is direct and incisive. Which of these characters do you resemble?” He underscores “the interior struggle” which forces us to choose “to include or to exclude those lying wounded along the roadside.” The parable thus makes apparent the most significant division between men: “The distinctions between Judean and Samaritan, priest and merchant, fade into insignificance. Now there are only two kinds of persons: those who care for someone who is hurting and those who pass by.”
I’ll go quickly through paragraphs 72-75, devoted to the “characters” of the parable, where it is above all a question of contemporary figures who are judged severely, but without being specifically designated.
In some countries, or certain sectors of them . . . contempt is shown for the poor and their culture, and one looks the other way, as if a development plan imported from without could edge them out. . . . Plunging people into despair closes a perfectly perverse circle: such is the agenda of the invisible dictatorship of hidden interests that have gained mastery over both resources and the possibility of thinking and expressing opinions.
It is difficult to discern what this “invisible dictatorship of hidden interests” is. It is true that the dictatorship is “invisible” and the interests are “hidden.”
In the paragraphs that end the commentary on the parable, Pope Francis invites us “to unite as a family that is stronger than the sum of small individual members,” to “become neighbors to all,” to become capable of “identifying with others without worrying where they were born or came from.” And here are the last lines of the chapter:
Still, there are those who appear to feel encouraged or at least permitted by their faith to support varieties of narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even the mistreatment of those who are different. Faith, and the humanism it contains, must maintain a critical sense in the face of these tendencies, and prompt an immediate response whenever they rear their head. For this reason, it is important that catechesis and preaching speak more directly and clearly about the social meaning of existence, the fraternal dimension of spirituality, our conviction of the inalienable dignity of each person, and our reasons for loving and accepting all our brothers and sisters.
This conclusion leaves us with an equivocation, however, since here the appeal to faith is rather an appeal to the “humanism” that the faith contains. In any case, this final equivocation concludes an exegesis that aims less at examining the Gospel text to see what it says exactly, than at drawing certain elements from the parable that would appear to support a view of the human and social world that is largely independent of the Gospel. Now, we often rightly ask Muslims to “contextualize” the Koran, in order to avoid applying to contemporary circumstances texts elaborated according to modes of thought and expression that have become foreign to us, and whose meaning cannot be grasped without a sustained and searching effort. We, too, would do well to “contextualize” the Gospel—not to reduce it to the circumstances of its redaction, but in order to grasp exactly what it says by taking seriously the way in which it says it. Only in this way can we truly become capable of making judicious use of it. But how to proceed, if one is not a theologian, a philologist, or historian? Well, one can begin by reading the text with a modicum of attention.
A man, no doubt a Jew, who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, was attacked, stripped, beaten, and left half dead by robbers. Aggression, robbery, blows and wounds, near-murder—one will note that the brigands cover all the cases of the penal code, as it were. A priest, then a Levite, see the man and pass by. As we saw, Pope Francis initially described these characters as “people occupying important social functions,” while he later notes that “they were religious.” He sees in their conduct a “strong warning” and “the sign that belief in God and the worship of God are not enough to ensure that we are actually living in a way pleasing to God.”
The conclusion is impeccable, but at no point does the commentator ask about the motives of the two personages. The priest is coming from Jerusalem, where, no doubt, he fulfilled the precepts of the law. He is clean. He therefore cannot defile himself by touching a cadaver, or someone “half dead” who perhaps will be dead shortly. Leviticus is explicit: “And the LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, No one shall make himself unclean for the dead among his people” (21:1). As for the Levite, who either comes from Jerusalem or is going there, he too is bound by the law of purity. Numbers prescribes: “The one who touches a dead body, the cadaver of a man, whoever he is, will be impure for seven days. . . . Whoever touches a dead body, the cadaver of a man who is dead, and who does not deliver himself from his sin, renders the Abode of Yahweh impure; that person will be expelled from Israel. . . . Whoever touches, in open ground, a man pierced by the sword, or a dead man, or human bones, or a sepulchre, will be impure for seven days” (19:11, 13, 16).
If these two characters did not give aid to the unfortunate one, it was simply because, as a priest or a Levite, they were bound by the law of purity. This law is odious or unintelligible to us, but we need to know what we are doing here: Are we reading the Gospel in order to understand the text, or for some other purpose? The priest and the Levite are not heartless “important people.” Quite the contrary: They scrupulously respect the Law and they love God with a love that is inseparable from obedience to his Law.
As for the Samaritan himself, Pope Francis is amazingly indifferent to what the Gospel actually says about him, and he prefers to sketch a novel:
Only one person stopped, approached the man and cared for him personally, even spending his own money to provide for his needs. He also gave him something that in our frenetic world we cling to tightly: he gave him his time. Certainly, he had his own plans for that day, his own needs, commitments and desires. Yet he was able to put all that aside when confronted with someone in need. Without even knowing the injured man, he saw him as deserving of his time and attention.
Now, here is what we actually read in the Gospel, which I again cite:
“But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’”
Aren’t there things to be said about the narrative as written? The Samaritan is certainly generous. Not only does he give an adequate sum to the innkeeper, but he promises that he will reimburse him for what he must additionally spend on the wounded man. (Contrary to what Pope Francis suggests, the Samaritan does not give much of his time, nor does he change much in his plans. After all, he leaves the wounded man and returns to his affairs. On the other hand, he leaves much for the innkeeper to do.) Above all, he manifests a complete confidence in the innkeeper who, for his part, seems to have an equal confidence in him. The innkeeper doesn’t seem worried about the date of the “return” of the Samaritan who, for his part, doesn’t specify when it will be. We should note that he doesn’t even say that he will return “soon.”
Let’s summarize: The Samaritan approaches, he sees, he takes pity, he binds the wounds, he treats them with salutary unguents, he picks up the wounded man and places him on his own horse, he takes him to a place of repose and healing, where he entrusts him to a man who will take care of him until the return—at an indeterminate time—of the Samaritan, a return that this man will await with confidence. While Pope Francis recounts a story that he wishes to be motivating for the men of today, Luke’s Gospel introduces the Kingdom. Luke's Samaritan does not resemble today’s “Good Samaritan.” There is an amplitude to his deeds, a liberty in his conduct, a competence in his care for all wounds, an authority to his word, and an ability to make promises worthy of belief, that are not those of a mere human being. The Church Fathers were right: The Samaritan is none other than Jesus himself. Is that really surprising? Don’t we have here to do with the Word of God? God speaks of God. The parable doesn’t invite us to “identify[. . .] with others without worrying where they were born or came from,” but to enter into a “Christian discipleship” that has no other end than Christ.
Pope Francis quite rightly observes that Jesus, after having presented the parable, and addressing the lawyer who had asked him “and who is my neighbor?,” “completely transforms the question: He asks us not to decide who is close enough to be our neighbour, but rather that we ourselves become neighbours to all.” The parable thus teaches us, first, that we have neither the charity, nor the strength, nor the reparative virtue, nor the patience, nor the hope, nor the faith, to be like the Samaritan. At the same time, it instructs us that we must make ourselves neighbors of one another and that we cannot do so if we only count on our own forces, that is, if we content ourselves with being “humanists” or “humanitarians.”
Merely human compassion—fellow-feeling—is a passion or a sentiment that, as such, is not capable of being morally qualified. Left to itself, compassion for the victim easily changes into compassion for the torturer. From a sentiment, however, compassion can become a virtue, if it is guided by the cardinal virtues of courage, justice, and prudence. Without this guidance, however, it does more harm than good. Who could tally those murdered in the twentieth century in the name of compassion for “the poor” or for “workers”?
The Samaritan is none other than Jesus Christ. There is no Christianity outside of Jesus Christ. Christians, and no doubt many non-Christians, expect the Church to teach about Jesus Christ.
 The phrase translated as “was seized by pity” is found in Luke 7:13 to describe the sentiments of Jesus before the widow who had lost her only son, and in 15:20 to describe those of the father who, perceiving from afar his returning lost son, “was seized with pity.” »One could add that Jesus was himself called a “Samaritan”: “The Jews answered him: ‘Don’t we have reason to say that you are a Samaritan and possessed?’”» The parable of the good Samaritan would thus be the supremely ironic response to that accusation.
Pierre Manent was director of studies at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, until his retirement in 2014.
This essay was translated from the French by Paul Seaton. It is published in translation with the permission of the editors of the French quarterly Commentaire.
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