A Misanthropic Reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan

In the comment thread under my post against global thinking, winstonscrooge and I have been going back and forth about the parable of the Good Samaritan. WS advances what I call the philanthropic reading of that famous story; I advance what I here call the misanthropic reading. Along with the vast majority of modern Christians, WS believes that the story of the Good Samaritan enjoins us to identify with the Good Samaritan and succor the battered strangers that we find bleeding in the ditches of this world. I on the other hand attend to the actual words of the story and see that the protagonist of the story is the Jew in the ditch, and so conclude that its moral lesson is to be found by identifying with him.

As you all well know, the question that prompts Jesus to tell this parable is “who is my neighbor,” and the natural reading of the story is that my neighbor is the one who does good to me. Only a very unnatural reading of the story gives us the answer, my neighbor is the one who needs me to do good to him.

You will notice, for instance, that the Samaritan does not wrestle with the question of whether he should aid the Jew in the ditch or pass by on the other side. He just does it because he is a good man. The Jew in the ditch is the one who is in a moral dilemma because he is wrestling with the question whether he should recognize that this dirty dog of a Samaritan is a good man, or should go on saying that the two humbugs, the priest and the Levite, are the good men in this world.

Remember, the protagonist in a story is the one who is changed by the story. Everyone else is just a supporting role, a stock figure. The Good Samaritan does not change. He does not begin the story full of hatred for the Jews, and end the story dripping with the milk of human kindness. For all we can tell, this man was born dripping with the milk of human kindness. But the parable of the Good Samaritan is not about the Good Samaritan.

It is about the Jew in the ditch.

He begins the story thinking that Samaritans are dirty dogs, and that priests and Levites are good men. But his unfortunate experience on the road to Jericho calls this prejudice into question and brings the Jew in the ditch to a moral crisis. After receiving the fruits of the Samaritan’s goodness, will he continue to praise and honor the barren trees that are the priest and the Levite?

Now this, I believe, is a moral lesson that needed to be made, and that still needs to be made, because we humans are far more niggardly with praise and gratitude than we are with compassion. If my worst enemy choked on a ham sandwich, I would administer the Heimlich maneuver and call an ambulance; but if he wrote a praiseworthy book, I would find reason to dislike it, and certainly would not nominate it for an award.

This is why I call my reading of the story of the Good Samaritan a misanthropic reading. It is a reading that sees Jesus going directly to the black heart of humanity, to the heart that actually enjoys wallowing in pity, but that hate, hate, hates to feel gratitude and admiration.

It is no wonder that this is so. Pity is an agreeable emotion because (a) it is agreeable to reflect that I am not the man bleeding in the ditch, (b) it is agreeable to feel that beneficence is within my power, and (c) it is agreeable to be praised by all humanity as a Good Samaritan. Gratitude and admiration are disagreeable emotions because (a) it is disagreeable to admit personal inferiority, (b) it is disagreeable to admit dependence, and (c) it is disagreeable to admit that I have unjustly despised good men.

This last point about despising good men may require some elaboration. Jesus addressed this parable to the Jews, a people who have never hesitated to take their own side in an argument. They were, in other words, strongly inclined to think that most if not all good men were Jews, and that gentiles were a pack of dirty dogs. What Jesus tells them in the parable of the Good Samaritan is that this is a grossly unjust prejudice, and that there are among the gentiles men with a moral stature that towers above Jewish humbugs like the priest and the Levite.

The Jews found this assertion so disagreeable that they killed Jesus.

It wasn’t the only reason, but it was certainly one of them. They killed Jesus because he hurt their pride, and this is the pride with which the Jew in the ditch must wrestle when he suffers the humiliation of Samaritan philanthropy.

* * * * *

When you look at the world today, do you observe a paucity of charity or a paucity of gratitude for that charity?  Are you more likely to find the body of a dead vagrant in the street, or to hear complaints from vagrants and their advocates about the quantity and quality of the food, clothing, accommodations and medical treatment they have been given? Are you more likely to find illiterate waifs wandering the streets because no one will pay their tuition in school, or to hear complaints from those waifs and their advocates about the schools they has been given?

These questions answer themselves, and the answers to these questions take us to the black heart that Jesus is exposing in the parable of the Good Samaritan—the black heart that humans in their pride immediately concealed with philanthropic flapdoodle about how fine we are when we help our brothers out of a ditch.

45 thoughts on “A Misanthropic Reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan

  1. Pingback: A Misanthropic Reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan | Reaction Times

  2. Now that you explain it, this really is the natural reading of the parable. The more common reading never could make sense of the question which ends the parable, which was not who is the Samaritan’s neighbor but who is the Jew’s neighbor. This mismatch always made me uncomfortable and should have been a clue that the standard reading is wrong. Thank you!

    • Glad to be of service. Part of the problem comes from the fact that later Christians named the parable the Parable of the Good Samaritan, when they should have called it the Parable of the Conflicted Jew in a Ditch. The rest of the problem comes from liberal Christians retconing the Faith as a first draft of the Communist Manifesto.

      • Glad you liked it. I remember my astonishment when I first saw what the parable really meant. It went from something sickly and sentimental to something trenchant and astringent.

    • The first person I saw make this observation was Dr. Charlton some years ago, and I was a little shocked and embarrassed at having accepted the illogical reading for as long as I had.

  3. Dr. Garrett Hardin also noted the discrepancy between what the text of the Parable of the Good Samaritan actually states and the near universal reading of it. I am not sure which of his books I read this in, although I think it might have been “The Ostrich Factor”. His use of the observation was quite different from yours, as is to be expected since he was a neo-Malthusian evolutionary biologist/ecologist and eugenicist who supported euthanasia, to the point of practicing it on himself, birth control and abortion. Whereas you have taken the fact that “the Samaritan” is the answer to “who is my neighbour” and not “the man in the ditch” as the common interpretation would actually require as pointing in the direction of giving people the credit due them because of their meritorious behaviour even if it means going against your prejudices, Hardin took it in the direction of rebutting the Parable’s use to preach a moral requirement of universal benevolence. This was of great importance to him for most of his writings were devoted to arguing that overpopulation was a Third World problem that ought not to be treated as a global problem, that foreign aid and liberal immigration only made the problem worse, and that the Western countries should look after their own and practice “lifeboat ethics.” Personally, I think that he was largely right about all of the latter, even though I find his views on birth control, sterilization, abortion, and euthanasia to be repugnant, but I think you are on to something as to the real point of the Parable.

    • When I was an undergraduate, the professors told us to read Hardin as an oracle. When I was in graduate school, they told us to read him as an evil ignoramus. After I read Tragedy of the Commons for the first time, I went back to my dorm, looked at the “lounge,” and immediately knew what Hardin was no fool. Lifeboat Ethics was stronger meat, and harder to swallow, but it made more sense after life taught me the importance of proper feedback in a system.

      Something I should have added in the post is that the conventional reading supposes that Jesus was a very inept storyteller. He was talking to Jews, who thought Samaritans were dirty dogs, so the lesson of universal benevolence would have been far better made by a open-minded Jew pulling a bleeding Samaritan out of the ditch. When telling a didactic story such as this, one wants the listener to identify with the moral agent, and this requires that the moral agent be as much like the listener as possible. When we tell a didactic story to a child, the moral agent is normally a child. Jesus was not an inept storyteller, so the moral agent in this story is the Jew, not the Samaritan.

  4. Catena aurea seems to give a different focus, neither Mr. Smith’s, nor Winston’s. The would is sin, and the help is even more spiritual than material.
    The Jew wounded by sin is Adam, or any descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The priest and the Levite is the Law of Moses (the Missal of the Traditional Mass accompanies the Gospel Reading with 2 Cor 3, 4-9, which says that letter kills, whereas the spirit brings life). The Samaritan is Christ himself. Jerusalem is Eden for Adam and Heaven for Jesus, a both descent to the fallen world, Jericho (the Fathers point to the connection of Jericho with the Moon). Oil and wine have sacramental meaning, the wounded man is placed on the beast of the Samaritan, which means his Body, the one Incarnated. The inn is the Church, the innkeeper is an apostle, a bishop. The meaning of two pence (denarii) is given a different symbolic meaning by each Father.
    Verse 37 has a different meaning. Cyril of Alexandria summarizes: For vain is the dignity of the Priesthood, and the knowledge of the Law, unless they are confirmed by good works. Chrysostom says: As if He said, If thou seest any one oppressed, say not, Surely he is wicked; but be he Gentile or Jew and need help, dispute not, he has a claim to thy assistance, into whatever evil he has fallen. Here, the question is: what is evil. I would say much more sin than material poverty.
    Augustine: From which it follows, that even he who must in his turn shew us this duty, is our neighbour. For the name of neighbour has relation to something else, nor can any one be a neighbour, save to a neighbour; but that no one is excluded to whom the office of mercy is to be denied, is plain to all; as our Lord says, Do good to them that hate you. (Matt. 5:44.) Hence it is clear, that in this command by which we are bid to love our neighbour, the holy angels are included, by whom such great offices of mercy are bestowed upon us. Therefore our Lord Himself wished also to be called our neighbour, representing Himself to have assisted the half dead man who lay in the way.
    Given what the Church teaches in general, we must not act like the priest and the Levite, once we encounter a person in need (spiritual, more than material). But we should not walk strange paths, making ourselves the saviors of the needy. We should not avoid our neighbors, our proximi with respect to our estate: our family, our friends, colleagues, in order to pose as saints and saviors by inventing people who need our help. That would be utter hypocrisy.

    • These elaborate gnostic readings can be fun, but they seem to me the very opposite of who Jesus was as a man. His “hard sayings” were “hard” because they ran contrary to the conventional wisdom. They were not obscure or “hard” to understand. He opposed obscurantism and mumbo-jumbo, seeing it as the “sheep’s clothing” of wolves and hypocrites.

      I think you make a good point about the spiritual exercise that an act of charity affords us, but submit that this can be applied to my reading of the parable. The spiritual exercise comes when we have the humility to receive charity with gratitude. This is hard. Much harder than writing a check to the soup kitchen.

  5. I do not think the “elaborate gnostic readings” contradict your point. The Fathers were focused on seeing Jesus the Word Incarnate, the Savior saving the wounded Man, or wounded humanity. Of course, the lawyer could not see that. When Jesus speaks of Himself as God, it may be subtle, as in this parable, it may be puzzling, as when he frequently speaks to the Apostles alone, and it may be an open blasphemy. A large part of John’s Gospel is “elaborate gnostic” theological text. A gnostic reading is any reading that ignores or forgets the divinity of Jesus. Currently the most popular gnostic reading is the universalist mumbo-jumbo. Be nice to strangers, have a dog instead of a family, press “Like” for everything your acquintances post on Facebook. But the manosphere, or alt-right, neo-reactionary readings of tough guy Jesus without His divinity are also gnostic, despite being more bound to the reality of this world.
    That said, while never ignoring Our Lord’s divinity, one may be focused on Jesus the Man (and a tough manly man indeed) and the question of our duties with respect to this particular parable. With that respect, I agree with you view. It is hard to receive charity with gratitude. It is also hard to act charitably knowing that you will probably receive ingratitude.

  6. Really liked this article, and learned something from it. You wrote in reply to Bonald that,

    Part of the problem comes from the fact that later Christians named the parable the Parable of the Good Samaritan, when they should have called it the Parable of the Conflicted Jew in a Ditch.

    It’s a great point, and one I intend to make every time, from here on out, some philanthropic sneak or other decides he needs to pummel me with the story of the Good Samaritan. That typical (future) conversation will, in my imagination, go something like this:

    PS: “I think you need to read the Parable of the Good Samaritan.”

    Me (confused look on my face): “You mean the Parable of the Conflicted Jew in a Ditch?”

    PS: “No; I mean the one about the good Samaritan; the one where he helps the stranger in the ditch; the one in which Jesus is explaining that everyone is my neighbor.”

    Me: “Yeah that one. I’m familiar with it. It’s the Parable of the Conflicted Jew in a Ditch; you just think it’s the Parable by that other name. But tell ya what, I’ll go read it again if you promise to go read A Misanthropic Reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, by Professor JMSmith at The Orthosphere. Here is the link…”

      • A Jew of 30 A.D. would certainly have been conflicted if circumstances were urging him to admit that a Samaritan is a better man than a priest or a Levite? There would be no reason for Jesus to specify that the Jew in his parable had a prejudice that was ubiquitous among Jews at that time. Update the story and make the Jew a white Cracker in 1870s Georgia. He’s laying in the ditch and a Baptist minister and U.S. Senator (both white) pass by on the other side, but he is at last saved and succored by a Good Negro. Now tell this story to another white Cracker. Would you be telling him to act like the Good Negro, or would you be telling him because you hope to make him question his racial prejudices that whites are good and Negros bad?

      • But that’s not the point of the story as Jesus tells it. Which one is the neighbor? The Samaritan who shows mercy. Go and do likewise. Do what? You say be grateful because that’s what the Jew should have thought given the circumstances? Clearly (without making mental leaps so as to shoehorn in a modernist agenda) that can’t be the correct interpretation.

  7. Outstanding post. I have translated it for my family to read it. But I have a question: “Who is the neighbor? The one that does good to me?”

    I agree that your interpretation is the right one, but I don’t see how this relates to the definition of neighbor, which was the point of the parable .

    • Thanks. I think Jesus is telling the lawyer that his neighbors are the people with whom he actually has vital relationships, and that he must break free of the dead social form of Judaism. Like the tree in another parable, a vital relationship is known by its fruit. A tree that does not bear fruit should be cast into the fire, and likewise a social relationship that no longer does anyone any good. Jesus was trying the destroy the old and unfruitful Jewish community and replace it with a new and vital Christian community. Your neighbors are the people who love you. If the people in your immediate vicinity love you, there is no reason for you to abandon them for strangers.

      • I don’t disagree but Jesus instructs at the end of the passage to “go and do likewise,” a clear instruction to act as the Samaritan acted. We know Jesus does not refer to the Jew because the Jew does not “do” (or even think) anything in the parable.

      • The instruction may be “clear” to you, and has evidently been “clear” to a great many Christians who are better than I. But it is not at all “clear” to me, and I think my post makes a good case that it is, at the very least, not so “clear” as is generally supposed. We probably wouldn’t be having this discussion if philanthropic Christians hadn’t weaponized this parable to make it seem that they were the most super-duper Christians ever, and that misanthropic Christians were dirty dogs and scoundrels. And please note that I say the Samaritan is a good man. I think we should help strangers out of ditches. I just think there is nothing uniquely Christian about this sort of common decency.

      • He is telling us to honor genuine goodness in a man, irrespective of our formal relations to that man by blood or custom. We are to judge men by their fruits, which is to say by their actions. Elsewhere he tells Christians they must be prepared to break with their families, but he nowhere says they must break with their families. You can get plenty of cross-cultural goodwill out of my reading, but the driving sentiment is gratitude, not pity.

      • The driving sentiment is mercy. Neither gratitude nor pity are expressly mentioned (which is not to say they cannot be present or implied). However, mercy is expressly mentioned. This is why I think (with respect) that you are projecting what you desire the parable to be about into the parable.

      • And who is more likely to show mercy than a man who is truly grateful for mercies he has received. There is a virtuous cycle here, but I think gratitude gets the ball rolling.

    • Something that may help is to keep in mind that Jews and Samaritans were, in actual fact and a plain meaning of the word, neighbours. They didn’t live together, because the Jews shunned the Samaritans as heretics, but they definitely lived near enough together that a Samaritan coming across a Jew lying in a ditch wouldn’t be terribly unusual.

      In other words, the good Samaritan being a Samaritan rather than and Ethiope or a Briton or a Russ is important.

  8. So rather than seeing the parable as merely a lesson on what it looks like to be a good neighbor, it identifies your neighbor as the one who shows you mercy, which mercy reflects the mercy shown you by God as your love for that neighbor reflects the love you are to show God. This is good to reflect on. Thank you for that exposition.

      • Related to winstonscrooge’s question on what Jesus is commanding when he says do this, it would seem to me that is more related to the lawyer’s first question, which was how to inherit eternal life. The “do this” is to love the ones who show you mercy. The lawyer never asked how to love their neighbor, and as you mentioned this seems pretty obvious to the lawyer. The specific questions were around who is the neighbor I am to love so that I inherit eternal life. He’s not telling us to be a passive victim, he is telling us that the Jew in the ditch should love the Samaritan, and so too the lawyer should love those who show them mercy.

      • There is a symmetry there that I never noticed, and as I think someone else mentioned is missing in the common reading. Again, want to echo the thanks for delving into this and giving an opportunity to think afresh about what I think I unfortunately think of as a stale parable due to the way it is overused and misused. It also makes me think back to the post about students seeing the notes and highlights of prior students, which means we don’t wrestle with the text ourselves, but rather read the text as we’ve been told it means. This is why meditating on the Scriptures is so important.

      • @winstonscrooge In what way was I basically saying the same thing as you? I don’t think I did. We can certainly agree that it is good to aid someone in a ditch and in that way be a neighbor to the person in the ditch. But that is obvious, and I am persuaded that it is not the purpose of the parable. The purpose of the parable is to answer the lawyer’s question, which wasn’t how to I be a neighbor, but rather who is the neighbor I am to love so that I may inherit eternal life. In that case, we view it from the perspective of the Jew in the ditch. That is who the lawyer is being put in the place of, and from that perspective of the Jew in the ditch, the lawyer gets an answer of who is the neighbor he is to love.

      • I think winston and JMS are talking past each other a little bit here. I think ultimately, the root difference between the philanthropic and the misanthropic readings revolves around the question of whether neighbor-ness is commutative.

        Commutative, in the same sense that addition and multiplication are mathematically. Just as 2 + 3 equals 5, you can switch around the operands and 3 + 2 still equals 5. Likewise, 2 * 3 = 6, and 3 * 2 = 6.

        So then, the common, philanthropic approach can be thought of as asserting that neighbor-ness is commutative; that is, if Alice is a neighbor of Bob, then it necessarily follows that Bob is also a neighbor of Alice.

        In contrast, the misanthropic position asserts that neighbor-ness is non-commutative; that if Alice is a neighbor of Bob, then it does not necessarily follow that Bob is a neighbor of Alice.

        I thought of a new parable to illustrate the misanthropic position and how neighbor-ness may not necessarily be commutative: I call it the Parable of the Bad Jew. Here goes:

        The same Jew from the Parable of the Good Samaritan who was in the ditch is now, much later, walking down a different road. He comes across the same Good Samaritan from earlier who had helped him. The Good Samaritan is badly injured and calls out for help, but the Jew ignores his cries and walks away.

        Is the Jew a neighbor of the Samaritan?

      • This is a good point. I’m happy to say that the parable can be read either way depending on the lesson that the reader is most in need of learning.

    • I daresay that the lesson the average reader (or hearer, as it were) of the parable is most in need of learning – the majority of present company excluded – is the misanthropic side of the debate which you, Prof. Smith, have so well and effectively articulated here, both in the O.P. and in the comments threads. Lord knows every single one of us has had the philanthropic reading pounded into his head since before he were able to read the story and contemplate its meaning for himself and independently of the heavy-handed world of philanthropic sneakery entrenched about him on every side. And this is why, as I said yesterday, that I intend to send every philanthropic sneak and/or philanthropic sneak in the making I encounter in future to this post for further reading.

      • I often brood over the unjust exaggerations and inventions of the champions of “Justice.” The same can be said of the champions of “Charity.” How charitable is it to accuse a very generous nation of hard-hearted miserliness? How just is it to accuse a remarkably fair-minded nation of gross “Injustice”? You are not speaking “truth to power” if you have the power and what you say is not true.

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