In 1889, the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) checked himself into a psychiatric asylum. Over the course of his yearlong hospital confinement, van Gogh produced around 150 paintings, including his interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan.
Found in Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the good Samaritan is one of the best-known of Jesus’ parables. However, this story may have become so familiar that it has lost some of its power. The phrase “good Samaritan” has become a cliché, a synonym for a person who is kind and helpful and an adjective used to identify anything from RV clubs to hospitals.
Van Gogh’s painting
Can van Gogh’s painting help us reclaim Jesus’ parable as something more meaningful than a cliché instructing us to “be kind”?
In a mountainous and desolate landscape, two men occupy the foreground of van Gogh’s painting. On the left, an open trunk, or chest, reminds us that the victim was robbed. Clothed in yellowish-brown garments, two individuals nearly disappear into the background. They walk away from the viewer. One of the men reads a book as he walks.
We might expect the central scene to be painted in somber colors, but van Gogh has used vibrant blue, gold, and red to portray the Samaritan and the injured man. The Samaritan struggles to lift the man—suggesting that compassion requires effort. Van Gogh’s focus on the two main characters and his use of bright colors place the Samaritan’s compassionate action in the foreground. The artist seems to say, “Notice the brilliance of this man’s compassionate act.”
As I study van Gogh’s painting, I ask myself, “Where am I in this picture and where should I be?” To explore the parable further, I raise two questions:
- Why do the two men pass by without offering help?
- What can we learn for today from this parable?
Because Jesus identifies the three travelers as priest, Levite, and Samaritan, it seems important to understand those identities in their historical context.
In the time of Jesus, Jewish priests were religious leaders trained to conduct worship at the Jerusalem temple. They taught and interpreted the religious traditions of Judaism, and they were well-regarded members of society. Levites also served in the temple, but had different responsibilities, and are thought to have been second-rank priests.
As both John Dominic Crossan and Amy-Jill Levine explain, this parable follows a traditional storytelling pattern: two failures are followed by a dramatic success. When hearing a story about a priest and a Levite, says Levine, ancient readers would have expected the third person to be an Israelite. Jesus’ identification of the third person as a Samaritan would have shocked his audiences. Why? Who were the Samaritans in the first century?
By the time of Jesus, Samaritans and Jews viewed each other with suspicion and enmity. Both groups viewed themselves as the true descendants of the ancient Israelites. Both groups observed the beliefs and practices found in the Pentateuch. Both made offerings to God. But they had different versions of the Pentateuch, and they worshiped God at different temples. (Samaritans worshiped at Mount Gerizim and Jews worshiped at Mount Zion.) Samaritans and Jews agreed more than they disagreed, but the points of disagreement had turned them into enemies.
Most New Testament texts share this negative evaluation of Samaritans. Jesus instructs the twelve not to enter any Samaritan town (Matthew 10:5). In one village, Samaritans refuse to welcome Jesus and the disciples (Luke 9:51-55). Recognition of the historical enmity between Jews and Samaritans is key to understanding Jesus’ parable as a story that challenged his first-century audience. In the parable, the religious leaders who know they should act with compassion fail to do so. Instead, someone not expected to show compassion sees the man and responds to him with compassion (v. 33). He tends to the man’s injuries, takes him to an inn, pays for the man’s care, and promises to return (vv. 34-35).
Why do the priest and Levite pass by without helping the victim? Readers today often attribute concerns for ritual purity to the priest and Levite, but Levine explains that there would have been no impurity involved in touching someone who is “half dead.” And, if the priest and Levite discovered the victim to be dead, they should have covered the corpse and gone for help. Attributing their inaction to a concern for ritual purity is a way of distancing ourselves from the priest and Levite in the story, when we should, instead, see ourselves in them.
The parable omits a reason for the religious leaders’ inaction; however, we may want to ask, “What prevents us from acting compassionately?”
One possible answer has to do with ego. In his final speech, delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. commented on this parable. According to King, the priest and Levite walked on by because they thought of their own wellbeing: “What will happen to me if I stop to help this man?” The Samaritan, however, thought of the wellbeing of the man: “What will happen to this man if I do not stop to help him?
We can easily look down on the priest and Levite as being uncaring or misguided in their religious piety, but, if we dig deeper into the parable, we discover that its challenge is twofold.
First, Jesus’ parable teaches us to “dethrone ourselves from the center of the world,” as Karen Armstrong puts it. More than single actions, compassion becomes a way of life for those who consider the wellbeing of others.
Second, Jesus’ parable challenges us to check our sense of superiority. In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Armstrong explores the shared commitment of the world’s religious traditions to compassionate action. She challenges us to set aside differences in belief in order to focus on shared commitments to compassionate living. Growing into a compassionate life demands more from us than being kind and helpful when it is easy or convenient to do so.
As we in the Church of the Brethren work toward a compelling vision for how we will continue the work of Jesus, we would do well to keep this parable before us.
John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus (HarperCollins, 2012). Crossan emphasizes that the parables communicate Jesus’ message about love, justice, and peace.
Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (HarperOne, 2014). Levine argues that we too often tame the radical parables of Jesus, and she tries to restore their provocative message.
Christina Bucher is professor of religion at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College.
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