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.
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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.