Last Sunday evening a 20-year-old man, carrying a rifle and multiple rounds of ammunition, opened fire indiscriminately inside the Greenwood Park Mall and in 15 seconds killed three people before being stopped. The Greenwood Park Mall is in my wife’s hometown, only six minutes from her childhood home, and only 25 minutes from mine. It is a grand shopping center we have visited countless times.
What struck me as particularly poignant was the way the local police described the man who stopped the gunman. They referred to him again and again as a “Good Samaritan.” I’m quite thankful for this man, and his quick courage to use his handgun to stop further carnage. Yet I wrestle with how we use biblical language to culturally sanctify certain acts.
The scene’s description caused me to go back to the story in Luke 10, and read again for myself what makes for a Good Samaritan.
According to the Gospel, Jesus tells this parable on the heels of the lawyer asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind… and love your neighbor as yourself.” But as any lawyer worth their salt knows, it’s important to ask qualifying follow-ups. “And who is my neighbor?”
The story Jesus then tells is a reframing of that very question: It’s no longer about who qualifies as a neighbor, but who acts as a neighbor. It’s not about determining which people belong to the neighborhood, but about acting in a way that demonstrates just how far the neighborhood extends.
The traveler who is making his way from Jerusalem down to Jericho is left beaten, naked, and close to death by the brutality of the world. He is an example of extreme human need. While we would do well to spend more time exploring the nuance of why the priest and Levite bypass the man in the ditch, it is the Samaritan who haunts the story. He comes as the unexpected one, remembered not just for what he does, but for who he is.
Many ancient hero stories involved three characters, and it stood to follow that Jesus would respect the pattern of presenting two upstanding Israelite figures followed by a regular Israelite who would ironically illustrate the righteous example. Instead, he ends the story with the saving act committed by the very last person that any self-respecting Jew would have anticipated.
Samaritans were kith and kin to the residents of Judaea, but after centuries of family squabbles the Jews saw them as the enemy, perhaps more dangerous than Rome because they were the enemy they knew best. Or thought they did.
More so, the Samaritan comes to the aid of the wounded, at the risk of his own life. He is unclear if the danger which caused the man to be injured is still lurking nearby. Or if the entire scene is a trap, meant to ensnare him and endanger him as a scapegoat for his people.
When the Samaritan stumbles on the scene, the text says he is moved with pity. A better translation of that word might be compassion. The Greek wording used here indicates he was moved in his bowels — in his gut — where Jews believed the center of mercy resided. It also should be noted that compassion’s root word means co-suffering, to be in pain alongside another as a form of solidarity and empathy. He was moved in his gut by what he saw, and despite whatever fear he may have had, he risks his own life to come to the aid of another.
The Samaritan feels the desperation of this wounded person, and out of the awareness of his own despair, comes to the wounded man’s side. One scholar notes that the pain of the Samaritan becomes a source of healing power.
Afterward, the Samaritan treats the wounds, takes the man to an inn to rest and recover, and pays for his stay. Jesus says, “Which of these characters was a neighbor to the man in the ditch?” The lawyer replies, “The one who showed him mercy.”
As much as I am grateful for the bravery and courage of the young man at the Greenwood Park Mall last Sunday, I wonder if applying the term “Good Samaritan” to any person who acts with bravery dilutes the power of the parable. I wonder if its shocking truth isn’t a bit muddled when we forget the surprise of a Jew realizing a Samaritan has come to their aid.
Who are those among us we would call Good Samaritans should they come to our aid in a moment of crisis? The answers vary. Some may imagine the parable of the Good Democratic Socialist. Others visualize the Good MAGA Republican. Many may think of the Good Black Lives Matter Activist, while others consider still the possibility of the Good Alt-Right Anti-Semite. Of course, this does not address the power differentiation that exists in the story between the Samaritans and the Judeans, but it does capture the surprise.
These days, when the amount of daily horror can be mind-numbing, we are in desperate need of Good Samaritans. I wonder how we might act as one to another in a time of great need? Who knows, the opportunity to do so might just shock and save us yet.