The Common Good

When Robbers and Innkeepers Profit from Good Samaritans

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most well-known, beloved, and influential portions of the New Testament. As a striking narrative about care and compassion for others, the content of Luke 10:29-37 has reverberated throughout the centuries as a clear and profound call to public love through personal action. All together, the radical hospitality of the Samaritan has sparked various charitable acts and organizations around the world. Thus, one can argue that no other parable has offered a more profound impact on the course of human history. 

While the Parable of the Good Samaritan is brilliantly effective for what Jesus seemingly sought to promote, one can argue that out-of-context misinterpretations have since initiated numerous incomplete social movements, which in turn has led to the survival of unjust social structures. In other words, the narrative seems to promote short-term aid without addressing long-term justice, and the appearance of such an omission needs to be explored more thoroughly.

For example, what were the social conditions that led to such a dreadful act of violence on the road to Jericho? Why was the stranger so brutally victimized at that particular location and not somewhere else? Was the event merely a crime of momentary opportunity, or was it a predictable outcome of a deeper societal illness?

In other words, was short-term aid all that was necessary in response to the incident, or was the Good Samaritan later inspired to engage the dilemma through advocacy?

All together, the parable provides us with a number of important lessons surrounding acts of charity, yet it also leaves an assortment of questions in relation to the promotion of justice. One wonders what would happen if the Good Samaritan traveled down the same road, day after day, and continued to find helpless victims at or near the same location. What then would be his response? At what point would the Samaritan do more than offer short-term aid for the victims? Would he start asking deeper questions about the social location? Would he seek solutions for long-term change? In addition, at what point would the Samaritan begin to critique the political and economic agendas of those in power in that particular area?

One can assume that, if such a scenario took place, the Samaritan would not only seek to meet the immediate needs of those harmed, but he would also advocate for policies that provide for a better future. And so, we can safely conclude (because the Samaritan is, as Jesus shared, an example of love for neighbors), that – if he believed it was necessary – the Good Samaritan would show love for his neighbor not only through momentary acts of charity, but also through sustained advocacy for the promotion of a common good. 

While the Parable of the Good Samaritan provides a wonderful lesson in response to a specific question — “Who is my neighbor?” — we are left wondering how to advance life-giving communities alongside our neighbors. For example, while people of faith are often spectacular at following the "Good Samaritan" model of providing relief in times of crisis, we too often fail at the long-term work that is necessary for lasting social justice. For example, if the parable from Luke 10:29-37 continued and the Good Samaritan decided to pay accommodation and medical costs for fallen victims day after day, the short-term relief effort would be centered around his relief efforts, but the long-term solution would be to try and prevent people from being victimized in the first place.

And so, just as we can assume the Samaritan would have offered a common good approach to a larger scale issue, such wisdom needs to be applied to our current day and age. In other words, if we focus on short-term aid at the expense of long-term justice, not only do we fail to prevent people from being beaten, but we also create more wealth for the robbers and innkeepers.   

In reflection upon the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the time is upon us to more faithfully critique the policies and procedures that impact our neighbors — and in doing so cooperate with advocacy organizations that assist in the countless efforts directed at structural change. Instead of allowing the robbers and innkeepers of our world to profit from modern day “Good Samaritans” who focus solely on responding to the latest crisis, we recognize that the entire road to Jericho must be transformed so that no one is beaten and robbed. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

And so, while charity must continue because of the injustices of our present day and age, our ultimate goal is to reach a point of community companionship in which such acts are no longer required. In the meantime, may we be tormented by the ideal of a common good — and by God’s grace, may we trust that justice will indeed prevail.

Brian E. Konkol is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), serves as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, Wis.), and is a PhD candidate in Theology & Development with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa). 

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