The parable of the Good Samaritan is often misunderstood, not so much by a distortion of its inner meaning, but by an incomplete grasp of that meaning.
It is not uncommon to hear that the parable is about helping strangers and being kind to those who are in need. That is not incorrect, but it is incomplete. And this incompleteness is of great importance, for it goes to the heart of a common misunderstanding about the heart of Christianity — namely, that it is ultimately about being good.
One of the problems is that the Samaritan is sometimes understood or presented as a humanitarian. But, as Father Hans Urs von Balthasar has noted, a “humanitarian would have done something falling somewhere between the do-nothing response of the first two and the extravagant deeds of the third: he might have called the Samaritan police, reported the incident, and gone on his way.” To be a humanitarian is a fine thing, without doubt, but the key to the parable is recognizing that the actions of the Samaritan point to a supernatural extravagance, an overflowing of divine mercy and love, that can only come from the Godhead.
Father Joseph Dillersberger, in his commentary, “The Gospel of Saint Luke” (Newman Press, 1958), describes Christ as the “divine Samaritan.” How can we make sense of this?
Part of the answer is that Jesus, in a purposeful and ingenious manner, reveals both his perfect heart and the very imperfect hearts of all men, whether Jew or otherwise. Although he is the Son of God, Jesus is willing to be associated with people considered revolting and worthy of rejection. The Word did not enter history as a pristine and detached oracle of the divine, but as a true man. He didn’t just talk, but he walked the talk, treading the dangerous road to Jerusalem. In this way, he heaped coals on the heads of both Jews and the Samaritans, who rejected the Messiah precisely because they, a rejected people, did not want any part of the One headed to Jerusalem since they worshipped at Mount Gerizim, not Mount Zion (see Jn 4:20).
The priest and Levite, coming from Jerusalem and the Temple, followed in the failures described in today’s reading from Deuteronomy. They did not heed the voice of God, nor did they keep “his commandments and statutes,” despite possessing the Book of the Law. Religion, for them, became an exercise in regulations, not an expression of sacrificial service.
The parable shows how those in a position of leadership and stature can and will go out of their way, by passing “on the opposite side,” to avoid helping a fellow Jew in severe distress.
This is contrasted with the lowly Samaritan, who had no obligation toward the victim, nor practical motivation to help him, yet was “moved with compassion,” “approached the victim” and cared for him.
St. Paul, writing to the Colossians, describes how Christ Jesus is divine and all powerful, for “all things were created through him and for him.” The Son had no obligation to creation and mankind, save the obligation of love, which flows forth from his perfect heart. Jesus, who “is the beginning,” became man and died so we could share, by his mercy, in the divine life and the new creation. We are reconciled, taken up, and cared for by he who is Love, no longer strangers, but friends.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.