“Who is My Neighbor?”

Vox Day and Red Eagle observed, in the theological chapter of their excellent book Cuckservativehow many churches seem to have veered from Christianity proper. Classical theology is being replaced with a kind of philosophy of social justice, cloaked in Christian language. Vox and Red called this “Churchianity,” or “Good Samaritanism,” as the doctrine of Christianity to these Christians appears to have become the simplified ideal of the Good Samaritan for them.

The truth is that even Vox Day and Red Eagle’s healthy injection of sanity actually doesn’t quite cover the depth of the misunderstanding of the parable. Culturally, the meaning of the story of the Good Samaritan is that we are obligated to help those in need, and that everyone is our neighbor. I will walk through the entire passage, which is Luke 10:25-37, in stages, in order to demonstrate that both of these assumptions are false:

25 And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
26 He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?
27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
28 And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.
29 But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?

Already, it is clear that the questioner is not being sincere, but is attempting to test Jesus. They attempted this same kind of Socratic, questioning sophistry later, on the question of taxation, to which Jesus famously pointed out that the coins had Caesar’s likeness and therefore belonged to Caesar, before saying that they should “Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Such an answer brilliantly dodged the trap that they had attempted to put him in, between Roman authority on one hand, and legitimacy in the eyes of the Jews on the others: if he told the Jews that they should not pay taxes, he would have become a criminal, yet if he had told them directly that they should, he would have been going against the Jewish Zealot position that the poll tax constituted a kind of slavery under Roman rule.

All three accounts describe the pharisees as attempting to trick him in some way: how they might “entangle him in talk,” in Matthew; how they could “catch him in his words” in Mark; in Luke, they are described not as scholars, but as spies “which should feign themselves just men, that they might take hold of his words, that so they might deliver him unto the power and authority of the governor.”

These are the same sorts of people confronting Jesus with the question about legal definitions. Remember, loving your neighbor is not just a spiritual injunction, but a cultural law. Against such questions, we should already be preparing ourselves for a layered and nuanced answer.

30 And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

From what perspective is this story being led? The Samaritan has not yet been introduced, and yet Jesus is already presenting the lawyer with a character in whose place he is to imagine himself by analogy.

It should be amusing that Jesus casts the two callous travelers as a priest and a Levite (one of the tribes from which priests are trained).

33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,
34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.

Truly going the extra mile with assistance. Was Jesus advocating that everyone behave as the Samaritan did though? To answer this question, we can look to Jesus’ own example. When confronted with a woman in need, Jesus initially told his followers that “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When the woman herself asked him for help, Jesus curtly said “It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.”

Ultimately, of course, Jesus had mercy, and helped her. But does this say that the Canaanite woman is his neighbor? Or does it merely describe something about our nature as humans? Our legal scholar provides Jesus with the answer

36 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?
37 And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.

The critical question is about the last sentence. Is it to be read as a literal injunction? Or is it a tongue in cheek response to uncharitable, mendacious tricksters? If we are to take this sharp response literally, it would mean that the scholar’s answer to his own question — that only the Samaritan is the beaten man’s neighbor — was wrong. But Jesus’s response was an affirmative, however tacit.

It is easy to assume that since the Samaritan was the only one doing something in the tale, the phrase “go thou and do likewise” would of course refer to the Samaritan’s actions. But the question was not about how one ought to act. Remember, we are still to imagine ourselves as the beaten man. “Go thou and do likewise” makes far more sense when understood to mean, essentially, go and live by the laws agreed upon, with the understanding that perhaps two out of three people are not your neighbor, even if they are of your tribe or ethnicity.

In light of Matthew 15, and of Jesus’s teachings and the Bible as a whole, a literal and binding interpretation of “go, and do thou likewise,” in which everyone is your neighbor, appears to be logically impossible, theologically contradictory, legally unhelpful, politically stupid, and contextually nonsensical.

It would make Jesus a strange kind of man, out of tune with the emotive nature of natural conversations, and at odds with his deep emotional nature as displayed by his righteous wrath in the temple, and his deep despair at Gethsemane.

The parable of the Good Samaritan does not say that everyone is your neighbor, and that we must emulate the Good Samaritan (though it certainly doesn’t argue that we shouldn’t). It says that some people are naturally kind, and that those who treat you extraordinarily well are your neighbors. It says that those who leave you broken on the side of the road are not your neighbors.

And it says that if you’re trying to trick people up in legal and theological word traps, you’re probably a lying hypocrite that needs to get your priorities straightened out, and maybe to give those who are saving the world a little bit more charity.

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