The Common Good
February 2008

Going with Your Gut

by Laurel Rae Mathewson | February 2008

I often "miscue" in reading the story of the Good Samaritan.

I often “miscue” in reading the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Here’s how: I sometimes place the Samaritan in the role of the one who was beaten by robbers and later cared for by a stranger. Because Samaritans were hated as “mixed race” people (part Gentile, part Jew) and heretics in the eyes of the Jewish community, the central message I’ve absorbed remains the same: Everyone is your neighbor. You should help them even if it’s dangerous, and even if they’re your enemy.

Jesus could have made most of the usual points associated with this parable equally well if the Samaritan was the victim. Imagine this: The lawyer says “who is my neighbor?” and Jesus replies, “A Samaritan is walking on the road to Jericho. He’s beaten and left half-dead on the side of the road. A Levite and a priest pass by and don’t do anything. But then a Jewish lawyer, just like you, is moved with pity and helps the guy out. Tell me, who was a neighbor to the man?”

The lawyer who asked the question would still be in a rhetorical trap: It’s obvious that the person who helped the Samaritan acted in love—taking risks and putting himself in danger to help the stranger on the side of the road. It’s also obvious that Jesus is scandalously claiming that we should love those whom we hate, despise, and are our culturally defined enemies, the ones we definitely don’t think of as our neighbors.

So why didn’t Jesus tell the story in this more straightforward manner? If he was merely trying to make the point that those we consider our enemies are really our neighbors—that in fact everyone is a neighbor to be loved as we love ourselves, no matter how inconvenient the timing of the need—then making the Samaritan the victim works just as well.

But Jesus didn’t. And I trust that he was a lot wiser about both his society and human nature than my miscuing brain.

What does this story gain when the Samaritan is the helper? For starters, the point about accepting love from unlikely, uninvited sources is hammered home: We must be willing to accept help and mercy from those we’d least like to have minister to us. Although that point could have been made if the Samaritan had been the victim (I doubt he’d really want to be saved by a Jewish lawyer given the choice), it is more emphatic and memorable because Jesus asks the lawyer to imagine someone who might be the lawyer himself in need and suffering. Because the lawyer first empathizes with the one who’s robbed, it’s more obvious to him that the unlikely, despised candidate acts as a neighbor—that our neighbor is the one who is kind to us, regardless of ethnicity, religion, politics, or past personal history.

As Walter Brueggemann writes, “this may be much more difficult than finding the inner strength and grace to stop and give aid and comfort to our enemy. To comprehend our utter inability to help ourselves, swallow our pride, and permit those we dislike or detest to save us is to come to the point of calling them friends. It is the crossing of an enormous barrier on this earth, certainly one of the most unspannable for human nature.” Jesus reveals this tough lesson by first having the lawyer empathize with the one in need.

Empathy—this ability to imagine, feel, and identify with the pain of another—is key to the Good Samaritan story. Empathy is likely what inclined the Samaritan to stop. He would have known what it was like to be ignored, to be hated as a mixed-race person. He knew that if he were mugged, no one would stop. He could identify with the victim. In this way the story is more true as Jesus tells it—it might have been simply inconceivable that a Jewish lawyer would have stopped for a mugged Samaritan.

I love the way Walter Wink sums this up: He describes a Princeton sociological study in which seminarians were read the parable of the Good Samaritan and then asked to go across the street, one at a time, to preach or teach on the passage. Unknown to the seminarians, an actor was stationed on the sidewalk feigning distress. With their heads full of the parable, only 40 percent of these Christians stopped and assisted the person in need.

Wink calls this “ingenious,” saying that it “proves that people are not compassionate because they are ordered to be so by religious law. They are, on the contrary, compassionate most often when they see themselves in the victim beside the road. Com-passion: Literally it means ‘to suffer with.’” Wink points out that the Samaritan was not necessarily a better person than the priest or the Levite—“We call him ‘good’ though … he may have been a shyster”—but he sees himself in the sufferer. And that makes all the difference.

If the roles in the parable had been flipped, perhaps someone would have helped the Samaritan because they were told they should, not because they could relate to the suffering or imagine themselves as the victim. Then the message and truth of empathy would have been missing. As Wink puts it, the idea that it is as “we identify and find healing for our own wounds that we are able to become wounded healers for others” would have been lost.

The passage says, “and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds.” The Samaritan felt, he identified, and then he acted to heal.

What does this mean for those of us who have suffered relatively little, who are privileged members of society? As a white, well-educated, middle-class American female, how can I literally be “moved with pity” (rather than paralyzed with pity) to help those who have been left half-dead on the side of the road? Where will this heartfelt, feet-moving compassion come from?

It is a real challenge for the rich, privileged, and powerful to be moved bygenuine empathy (and not just byguilt) to compassionate action. It is perhaps part of the truth behind Jesus’ teaching that the poor are blessed and the rich have their woes. But I find liberation in realizing that perhaps we simply must work harder to act compassionately—that one of our responsibilities is to be more intentional about compassion.

Intentional, yes—but entirely forced, no. Lord knows, even the rich receive their share of wounds—even if they are just slivers, small openings to areas of empathy and genuine compassion; slivers that we must be very intentional about identifying and sharing, even as we are still in the process of healing. And then we might truly “suffer with”—show compassion.

That said, “naturally” having compassion due to personal experiences of woundedness—like the kind of compassion the Samaritan had for the beaten man—is not the be-all and end-all. We are all called and invited to feel a parental sort of compassion for our neighbors, the kind that is not necessarily born of a particular woundedness. Marcus Borg points out that the word translated into English as “compassion” in Luke has rich metaphorical associations in both Hebrew and Aramaic. It is the plurplural of a noun that in its singular form means “womb.” In other words, compassion is rooted in a particular part of the body, the loins—for women this is the womb, for men this is the bowels (apparently this explains the rather odd biblical expression of “bowels being moved with compassion”). The King James Version of Jeremiah 31:20, for example, has God say, “Therefore my bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy upon him.” A parallel phrase might be, “My womb trembles; I show motherly compassion.”

When we are called to be compassionate with our neighbors, we are being called to feel and act for others as a mother feels for the children of her womb. This life-giving, nurturing, and fierce love, which applies to paternal instincts as well, is not limited to biological parents. Nor is it intellectual or motivated by religious law; it comes from a place far from the head. It’s more of a “feeling,” and more specifically a “gut feeling,” of empathy.

Personally, this isn’t an easy argument for me to make. I was raised to be suspicious of too much emphasis on emotions, on pathos. I learned early that “love is a choice and an action, not a feeling.”

But then how are we to respond to the part of the parable that says, “he was moved with pity”? Pity? Now there’s a word we socially progressive types don’t like. Actually, our entire society doesn’t like it. No one wants to be pitied. No one wants to love out of pity. Pity is decidedly passé. But we can’t ignore the implication of emotion in the word. And we can’t forget that this feeling,in essence, moves the Samaritan to action; or that the word compassion— “suffering with” or felt in the “womb/bowels”—has a decidedly emotional, instinctual tinge.

So let’s not leave emotion, pathos, and genuine empathy out of our efforts to be good Samaritans as we seek social justice in the world. While we must hold a tension between our heads and our hearts—or perhaps our loins—we can intellectualize the need for justice too much sometimes and forget that the Samaritan was “moved with pity,” or that, for example, the prophet Amos describes God as flat-out furious in his disappointment with Israel.

While it’s important to know that the Bible has 2,000 verses relating to the poor and that there are X number of new AIDS victims each day, we might not want to rely solely on that knowledge for our motivation. Stark statistics have power, and sometimes do lead to movement, but we can put too much weight on these numbers when it’s not necessarily true that this “head knowledge” leads to empathy and identification.

Intentional openness to empathy is hard. Images of suffering in the age of global communications can be so overwhelming; it’s impossible to deeply feel for each sufferer. But as Wink reminds us, ultimately religious rules and “shoulds” don’t always motivate us very well. We also must allow ourselves to be moved to action by the fatherly/motherly instincts within us and our wounds that are somehow close to the suffering we witness. Within each of our experiences, I’m convinced there is much fodder for empathizing with all sorts of people across all sorts of borders—and being ministered to in return.

Laurel Rae Mathewson was an intern at Sojourners when she presented this sermon.

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