Who is my neighbor?

In the wake of the killing of Jordan Neely on the New York City subway, a new meme has emerged on the right: the killer, Daniel Penny, was acting as a “Good Samaritan.” A more craven and blasphemous distortion of Jesus’s parable is hardly imaginable. In fact, I almost hesitate to dignify it with a response. Neely himself is so obviously the victimized party here, and if anything, his murder shows what happens when a “Good Samaritan” doesn’t show up. Moreover, the fact that the story a story that is so obviously about moral decency that crosses lines of ethnic enmity and distrust — the Jewish victim’s co-religionists pass him by, while a member of a hated, supposedly half-breed sect provides generous help — can be deployed to apply to a member of a privileged in-group using lethal violence against a multiply marginalized person displays the kind of willful, spiteful ignorance that only committed racists can pull off.

This isn’t the first time the story has been misunderstood. There are numerous accounts of preachers crafting a contemporary version of the parable where a priest and a deacon pass the victim by, while an atheist (or an illegal immigrant, or a trans person, or whoever else) generously helps. The punchline is always that the parishoners — who have presumably known this story all their lives — inevitably find this retelling offensive and insulting.

This misunderstanding is all the more puzzling given that Jesus clearly intends for the listener to identify with the victim. The interlocutor asks Jesus “who is my neighbor,” presumably to get out of the exhorbitant demands of Jesus’s teaching by applying them only to a limited in-group. Jesus tells the story and then asks essentially, “Okay, who was that guy’s neighbor?” The pride and presumption of the interlocutor, who wants to be able to pick and choose his neighbors, is undercut by a scenario in which he is radically vulnerable and is no position to turn away any neighborly assistance.

Except! Yes, that’s right, there is a catch, and it’s the fateful last exchange: “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.’” Go and do likewise — suddenly the interlocutor is no longer identified with the victim, but with the hero. What’s more, this isn’t just any guy off the street, but a teacher of the law. There is nothing a teacher of the law knows better than how to get out of things, so we can imagine the gears turning: “Go and do likewise — but in what respect? Was it not the case that the Samaritan was helping my fellow Jew, filling in for the neglectful priest and Levite? Perhaps I, like the Samaritan, should help Jews in need so that they aren’t put in the embarrassing position of relying on the help of a Samaritan, who surely has his own Samaritan problems to attend to. And if I’m supposed to take away the message that Samaritans are worthy of respect, surely the best kind of respect is not to impose on them, right?” And so it goes.

There are other trap doors as well. Could we not see the scenario as precisely a failure of policing? Again, we wouldn’t have needed to bother the poor Samaritan if our Roman men in uniform had done their jobs! Better, perhaps, than cleaning up after someone is victimized would be to intervene before it gets to that point, right? In this interpretation — presupposing, of course, the racist premise that Neely was somehow primed for violence, which no empirical evidence supports — Penny was a true neighbor to everyone on that train, a kind of super-Samaritan! And the fact that he is being persecuted for his actions by the usual rogue’s gallery of liberals and reporters and various social jusice warriors shows that he must have done the right thing. Maybe he’s even a little bit like Jesus! In fact, I wonder if we can detect some Christ-like imagery in these dramatic photos portraying Penny between two subordinate figures, like Christ crucified between two thieves:

All these various plot holes and “outs” may be an indication that entrusting the moral formation of one’s society on a half-remembered story that may have been told by an apocalyptic preacher in first-century Palestine is a questionable move. This is not, I hasten to add, because those stories are garbled or incoherent. No, the reason this is a risky procedure is that they are designed as traps. At one point, the disciples ask Jesus why he preaches in parables. His answer is not that they are more memorable or easier to understand or anything we might expect on a common-sense level. Instead, he offers a more paradoxical answer:

He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”

As my theology professor Craig Keen loved to paraphrase this passage, Jesus is saying, “I tell them parables rather than preaching straightforwardly because otherwise they might turn and be saved.”

A parable, in other words, is not a memorable tale or a moral lesson. It is a judgment — or better, it is a way to get people to pass judgment on themselves. We can try all we want to point out to these people identifying a cold-blooded murderer as a Good Samaritan how much they have misunderstood the text, but the text is doing what it is meant to do — it is giving them the opportunity to demonstrate that they are well and truly lost. What we do with that information is unclear, given that we do not expect the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God, but the information itself is unequivocal. Anyone who could bring themselves to utter such a blasphemous thing is beyond help, beyond hope. They are damned, and to live as they do is surely a living hell.

2 thoughts on “Who is my neighbor?

  1. Apropo of nothing, and stretching the exegesis of the Good Samaritan story somemore somewhat, what do you make of the fact that those Jesus indicts in the parable are the Levites? The priestly caste?

    It’s a truism now to say the Levites weren’t a tribe at all, but probably a set of endogamous castes belonging to and living within other tribes.

    Jesus’ indictment of them is if not paradoxical, than especially pointed is because if we can be fairly certain of one thing, it’s that Mary was an Aaronite. Given the restrictions on this caste (marital and otherwise, found in Leviticus) and their social function, I guess the closest analogous group in the modern world we could imagine would be lawyers and the Supreme Court justices.

    I think this dovetails nicely along the lines of your post.

  2. I think the issue is that they value their religious prestige — maintaining their ceremonial cleanness — over the man’s health and well-being. The original audience likely would have inferred that they chose not to touch him because he may be dead, in which case they would pollute themselves by touching a dead body. The Pharisees, who were obviously a big foil for Jesus in the Gospels, advocated that all Jews should hold themselves to the standards of ceremonial cleanness expected of priests and Levites, so this parable is probably part of that polemic as well.

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