An Atheist’s Favourite Parable: The Good Samaritan

It may seem strange to think that a faithless woman such as myself has a favourite story from arguably the most influential religious text in our society, but it’s true. I do.

Here’s the quick version, which you’ve probably heard before.

A man is travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he’s attacked by a bunch of robbers. They stripped him, beat him, and left him to die by the side of the road.

As he’s lying there, a priest comes down the road. He sees the man, but ignores him and keeps walking.

Not long after, a Levite (a Jewish man who had a lot of status at the time due to heredity) came along. He too saw the gravely injured man, yet kept walking.

Finally, a Samaritan comes along, but unlike the others, he went to the injured man, bandaged and treated his wounds, before putting the man on his own donkey and bringing him to an inn, where he continued to take care of him. When he left the next day, he gave money to the innkeeper, telling him to look after the injured man, and that any extra costs the innkeeper incurred would be repaid upon the Samaritan’s return.

Now, Jesus tells this story to explain being “neighbourly”, and thus demonstrate the kinds of people who exemplify the way we should treat each other. Once he’s finished, he asks, “Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbour to him who fell among the robbers?”

The response given is obvious: “He who showed mercy on him.”

“Well, duh,” you might well say. But to take the story at face value without understanding its context in the period causes us to lose its most potent meaning.

Let me retell it in a modern context. It’s a little bit longer, so bear with me. (I’ve also added a bit of extra editorial in white that you can read by highlighting the text. I couldn’t help myself.)

A man is walking through a dangerous part of the city at night, when he’s set upon by a gang of muggers. They steal everything he has, strip him, beat him, and leave him the gutter to die. He barely manages to crawl out onto a street where there is a bunch of foot traffic before passing out.

As he’s lying there, a preacher comes down the road. He sees the man, figures it’s all part of the Lord’s plan, and keeps walking.

Then comes a politician. He also sees the injured man. He figures he’s probably going to die, so no point burdening the health system by calling an ambulance. Plus, he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who’d vote for him anyway. He keeps walking too.

Then a rich man comes through in his limousine with tinted windows. He rolls down the window to see what that thing by the side of the road is, then once he’s clocked the injured man, he rolls his window back up and tells his chauffeur to keep driving. As they leave, he mumbles something about “druggies” taking “my tax money” through welfare.

Finally, a Muslim woman sees the injured man. She calls an ambulance and rides with him to the hospital. She waits in the hall to see if he’s going to make it. When he wakes up, she helps him lodge a police report and cancel his cards before she drives him home. Over the next few weeks, she continues to check on him, bringing him food to make sure he’s eating properly, until he’s fully healed.

And so the question remains the same: Who’s example is it that we should follow? Who is our true neighbour?

So, what’s the purpose of changing the identity of the characters, from the priest and the Levite, to the Samaritan?

It’s quite simple: those who walk past the injured man are always the people with the power in the society, often admired and glorified by many. In this world, that would be the rich capitalists, the politicians who make laws that favour the rich capitalists, and the religious right (especially those who can be found preaching the Prosperity Gospel, which is utter bosh).

More importantly, you could change the identity of the Samaritan character to any of a number of disadvantaged groups that are regularly discriminated against: a trans person, a person with a disability, someone in financial difficulty, an Aboriginal Australian… It’s sadly quite a long list, but the point is that it’s not the identity of the person that we should concern ourselves with but the actions.

And that’s why this isn’t just a “do the right thing” story, it has this question of identity that is at its core.

The name “Samaritan” doesn’t mean “a good person” in the way it does to many today. The Samaritans were, and still are, a specific religious and ethnic group within the Israelite races, and in the time of Jesus, the Samaritans and the main Jewish population hated each other. They destroyed and defiled each others temples, which is probably the most severe way I can think of telling someone you’re never going to be friends short of actually killing them. Even once the story is over, the man who asked the question that prompted the telling refuses to name the Samaritan as such, calling him only “he who showed mercy”. Pretty damn telling, that.

And yet, this story focuses not on the background of the Samaritan and whatever preconceptions Jesus’ audience may have had about them, but rather the actions of the individual, proving they matter more than whatever you might think about the person before they perform said actions. It’s this tendency to cling to ideas about what people are or should be rather than looking at evidence of what it is they actually do that is the fuel for racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and every other shitty way of thinking that pervades the way some members of our species think.

The other reason why this story is so important in our modern context is that those who walk past the injured man not only do so in the story, they walk past those in need in the real world every single day. The religious right put their desire to be a bigot before recognising the needs of the LGBTI+ community (and others outside their church) to be seen as human and to be treated with love and respect. The politicians treat the poor with disdain through programs like Robodebt, or refusing to raise the rate of payments that haven’t risen in real terms in over 25 years, and are well below the poverty line. The rich don’t pay their taxes and treat their workers (and the rest of us) like dirt.

I’m not a complete fool; I know there’s nothing we as individuals can do about the rich and the religious right. There is, however, one group that we do have influence over: politicians, especially given so many of them profess to be of the Christian faith.

The fact that this story is still so incredibly clear in the work of our political class clearly demonstrates that a significant number of folks who proclaim to be Christians, most notably the hierarchy, has a long way to go in earning their place in their own eternal life.

So if you see your local Christian-identifying MP at church, or if you feel the impulse to write a letter or give their office a call, ask them: what are they doing, not for the priest and the Levite, but for the Samaritans?

For it isn’t the way we treat our friends that demonstrates our morals and our worthiness.

It’s the way we treat everyone else.