Calais, Peter Hitchens and the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Today I read – well flipped – through the Sunday Mail. I didn’t buy it, I stumbled across it when out visiting, and in it I found an ‘exegesis’ of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

What I really found was either a wilful distortion of this most famous of salvation parables to suit a political point of view, or, more charitably a sloppy piece of interpretive analysis.

Now I want to make it very clear that I accept that the situation in Calais is complicated and there probably aren’t any easy, or neat and tidy, answers. But what I won’t accept is a rewriting of a salvation parable.

Why do I call it a salvation parable? The answer is that the story is told in response to Jesus being asked the following question:

‘Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ The question is about as salvific as it gets.

The answer is given in the form of a story, the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10, 25-37). The narrator is Jesus. Now let’s consider Peter Hitchens’ critique:

‘As for the parable of the Good Samaritan, the hero of the story didn’t tell other people to be compassionate and generous. He did it himself. I am full of admiration for any individual who offers to take home migrants into his home indefinitely, and bear the charges as the Good Samaritan did, of their housing, food and medical treatment. But I have none at all for the pulpit Samaritan who tells others in our overcrowded country that they must suffer for the sake of his peace of mind.’

Before I give, just two reasons why Hitchens’ analysis cannot stand, let me once again say I fully accept there are no easy political solutions to the problems in Calais. Now onto my critique:

My first criticism is this: the Samaritan is not the narrator Jesus is. The Samaritan is one of five fictional characters in a story told by Jesus, to make a point about love of neighbour, which of course is directly related to the question of eternal life. The other characters are the injured man, two highly educated but spiritually blind members of the religious and political elite and, the hotelier or innkeeper(we will come back to him).

So to say that the Samaritan didn’t tell us to do something is at one level correct, but at another level ridiculous. Jesus is the narrator, the Samaritan is an actor, and an actor whose lead we are instructed to follow if we wish to gain eternal life. For after Jesus had finished his story he turns to his inquisitor and asks: ‘Which one of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ The originator of the story responds, ‘the one who showed mercy,’ to which Jesus replies ‘go and do likewise.’ 

Hitchens has tried to analyse the story without understanding that the parable makes no sense when isolated from the conversation between Jesus and ‘the lawyer,’ (and the fact that Jesus was being asked to explain concepts such as justice and mercy by a lawyer is of significant interest).

The notion that we are not being asked to behave as the Samaritan, because the Samaritan doesn’t tell us to, simply doesn’t stand for Jesus, the author of life, tells us, as we have seen, to go and do likewise.

The idea that the Samaritan took the injured party into his own house is also a rewriting of the story. He didn’t. He took the man (verse 34) to an inn, a place of hospitality and respite. He asked another actor to share in the burden of care.

Hitchens’ statement that ‘I am full of admiration for any individual who offers to take such migrants into his own home indefinitely, and bear the charges,’ may be true, but equating this with the behaviour of the Samaritan – ‘as the Good Samaritan did,’ – is an interpretive error.

It may be an error that suits an agenda that wishes to regard religion as simply a stream of private actions, one that wishes to erase places of hospitality and respite from the story, or it may be just sloppy analysis, but either way it doesn’t stack up.

I once led a bible study on the parable of the Good Samaritan in rural Uganda. We acted out the story and at the end I asked the youth group I was working with, ‘who do you think is the most important person in the story?’  Without pausing for thought a teenage boy shouted out ‘the innkeeper.’  I asked ‘why?’ And this was his jaw droppingly amazing answer:

‘Because it is the innkeeper who is responsible for finishing the story – for bringing it to a good ending.’

Makes you think, don’t you think?

To make bad situations better it seems we need both Samaritans and innkeepers, and we need to listen to Jesus as the narrator of the story, for he is the author of life, as life should be lived.


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