Trump’s Parable of the Good Samaritan

By Jim Simpson 8-12-2016
Donald Trump speaks during a press conference on July 16 in New York. JStone / Shutterstock.com

The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the first stories you learn as a child in Sunday school, is widely known even in non-Christian circles, and has even broken into our general and legal lexicon through the use of terms like “the good Samaritan law.” The point of the parable is obvious to everyone who reads it and even those that haven’t. Well, maybe everyone —

The strength of the parable lies in the context that Jesus tells it and in the way he sets up the parable. The parable is used in “ten Luke” verses 25-37 (to use the standard Trumpian biblical referencing annotation).

The telling of the parable is set up by “an expert in the law” testing Jesus by asking, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by asking the expert what is written in the law — to which the expert responds, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus says the expert is correct. The expert, annoyed that Jesus made him answer his own question and intent on justifying his question responds by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” Gotcha, thinks the expert.

Now before we get into analyzing how Jesus responds to this question and sets up the parable, it’s important to note three things: a) in the time of Jesus, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is notoriously dangerous, b) the route from Jerusalem to Jericho skirts along the borders of Judea and Samaria, and c) Judeans hated Samaritans.

OK, back to the parable. Jesus sets up the parable by saying, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.”

Jesus, I believe, is intentionally vague. He doesn’t say who the man is, where he is from, or why he is traveling. He also doesn’t name or describe the robbers. I would argue that this was intended to invite those listening to fill in the details with their own implicit bias. Those listening to the story would have naturally cast the victim as someone similar to themselves and the robbers as someone they despised — a Samaritan, for example. Already in the first line Jesus has laid the trap to expose the biases and question their notion of “neighbor.”

Jesus goes on to describe how a priest and a Levite both pass by and ignore the man. Then, of all people, a Samaritan walks along. This is troubling because the people listening to the story have already cast the Samaritans as the robbers.

So why did I mention Donald Trump in the title? Because I want to suggest that he has set up his story very differently than Jesus. Across this country Donald Trump has cast Samaritans as “criminals” and “rapists.” He wants to build a wall and separate us. Donald Trump, like Jesus (stay with me, here), is intentionally drawing on the implicit biases of the people listening to him — but in the complete opposite way. Rather than using his position to help people question their biases and reconceive their notion of “neighbor,” his rhetoric is pushing them to deepen their hatred of Samaritans.

It’s very telling at the end of the parable when Jesus finishes by asking the question, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in law replies, “The one who had mercy on him.”

The expert in law didn’t even want to say “the Samaritan.” He went out of his way to ensure that he didn’t name and give credit to the Samaritan. Because, after all, that would be too humanizing.

Donald Trump’s version of this parable would go something like: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers, rapists, and murders. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. That’s why I am building a wall. It’s going to be a great wall, believe me. And who’s going to pay for that wall?”

“Samaria!” the crowd shouts.

James Simpson is Director of the President’s Office and Director of Advocacy at Sojourners.

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