Bad Samaritans on a Small Planet:
Rethinking 'Neighbor' in an Ecosystem

Timothy C. Weiskel
Director, Harvard Seminar on Environmental Values
and the Environmental Ethics & Public Policy Program
at the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life
Harvard Divinity School

St. John's, Lafayette Square
Washington, D.C.

Sunday Service
3 May 1998

Copyright, ©1998, Timothy C. Weiskel, All Rights Reserved
Archive Version:

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       And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying: "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read?" And he answered, "You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have answered right; do this, and you will live."

       But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half-dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 

       But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the inn-keeper, saying, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.' Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor ...." He said, "The one who showed mercy on him." And Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise." 
Luke, 10:23-37

      There is a troubling aspect to much of scripture. Just when we think we've figured it all out, the words seem to change their sense, revealing new levels of possible meaning -- some of which are neither clear nor comfortable. This is particularly true of the parables -- that is, those stories which collectively represent the "teachings" of Jesus preserved in the Gospels. Almost all of them take a narrative form with a troubling, ambiguous or hanging ending where we the readers are called upon to supply the meaning.

      The typical situation is one in which Jesus is asked a testing -- sometimes aggressive -- question (rather like a modern day press conference, I suspect). In response he tells a story with a ending that takes the form of a question posed back to the questioner.

      Now, we have all witnessed situtations -- particularly in this town, I dare say -- where public figures, are asked testy questions, designed in part to project the visibility and prominence of the questioner. The scripture account underscores this aspect of the narrative. It says: "And behold, a lawyer stood up..." (even in Biblical times lawyers seemed to have a reputation for this kind of thing) "...a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, 'Teacher, what shall I do...?'"

      Actually, I must confess that, personally, I am particularly sensitive to this form of questioning, because we as teachers are subjected to this kind of self-aggrandizing question all the time. "...But teacher, what should I DO...?" Sometimes the question is asked with an bit of an edge to it, as if they were saying, "Hey, Teach! (if you're so smart), tell me what the heck am I supposed to DO to inherit eternal life, anyway?!"

      Jesus's response to this testing question is masterful. Perhaps sensing that his questioner was a lawyer, Jesus responded in terms a lawyer could immediately understand.

What is written in the law? How do you read?" And he answered, "You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have answered right; do this, and you will live."
      The whole conversation could have ended right there, if it weren't for the fact that this particular lawyer was such a wise guy. He asked a question; he was asked a question in return; and he proceeded to answer the return question quite well. Why not leave it at that?

      But the lawyer didn't want to leave it at that. He wanted to push the question further. The scripture is quite clear on this point. As the text puts it:

But he [the lawyer], desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
      Now you and I may well have come back at such a wise guy with an equally derisive and barbed quip -- something to the effect: "Go figure!" But Jesus -- being Jesus -- can't get away with a quip like that. So he replies by telling one of these darned parables -- one of those long narrative stories with a hanging and ambiguous ending. He says, in effect, "Yo! Bro! So you wanta know who your neighbor is, eh? Let me tell ya... There was this guy was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho..." Then we get the whole schpeel in parable form....

      Here, of course, is the troubling part. Parables are troublesome basically for two reasons: first, they are packed with meaning; but, second, meaning is never fixed. Their meaning is always and inherently ambiguous, and it is necessarily subject to change. The lawyer started off, you'll remember, by asking a concrete question, but because he keeps pushing the point he ultimately gets an allegorical response.

      Now ask yourself: What good is an allegorical response to a concrete question? It just leads to further frustration.

      What is so maddening about these kinds of parables is that as WE are called upon to supply the meaning in an ever-changing world.

      Let's look at the parable again to see in detail how this works. The narrative proceeds by telling us of the plight of the beaten man who was bypassed by both a Priest and a Levite (the holiest of the holy in that day). But when a foreigner, an outsider -- a Samaritan -- sees the wounded creature he ministers to his need, taking care of his wounds and seeing to it that he is nursed back to health.

      A couple of details are worth noting here. First, remember that the wounded man never utters a word. There is no appeal for help, nor word of gratitude. The Samaritan acts both before and without any request for help. He acts on impulse, we are led to believe out of the generous nature of his heart.

      The second thing to notice is the particular form of the concluding question that Jesus poses to the lawyer. As Jesus puts it:

Which of these three..." [the three who happened upon the beaten man] "Which of these three do you think, proved neighbor to this man?"
      Jesus didn't ask: "Which of these three was a neighbor of this man?" or "Which of these three could have been the neighbor to this man?" No, in the text there is no article! Not "a" neighbor; not "the" neighbor. Rather, Jesus's simple but profound question focuses upon the quality of relationship not the status or physical or even social proximity of the individuals. "Which of these three do you think proved neighbor...?"

      Basically, in this parable Jesus explodes the concept of neighbor beyond any and all notions of neighborhood. Neighbor in this sense does not have to do with physical space or social proximity. It has instead to do with a quality of relatedness. When Jesus asks, "Which of these three do you think proved neighbor...? it is the lawyer who ultimately answers his own question: "The one who showed mercy on him." Then Jesus adds the injunction: "Go and do likewise."

      Proving to be neighbor, then, means acting like the Good Samaritan.

      This is all well and good for an agrarian society in the Palestinian hill country, but what can this story of a good Samaritan possibly mean in the post-industrial ecosystem in which we find ourselves today? How are we to make sense of this infuriating parable in our world?

      One suspects that strict textual literalism is not appropriate. This story, even in its day, was an allegory. Thus although it is set on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, one suspects that the contemporary hearers of the story readily understood that it would apply as well to, say, the road between Jerusalem and Nazareth, or Nazareth and Bethlehem. Right?

      This is the trouble with Biblical literalism. How can Biblical literalists understand the parables? Basically, they can't make any sense of them. Parables are allegorical stories in their very essence. There can be no literal meaning to an allegorical story. The meaning of parables is necessarily open-ended because the meaning of the concepts they elaborate are necessarily expanded and re-interpreted in every age and social context. In short, you can either take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously, but not both. I am among those who chose to take it seriously.

      But what if we are to take the Bible seriously? In a late 20th century, strife-ridden, world -- how are we to understand the parable of the Good Samaritan if we take the Bible -- not literally, but -- seriously?

      Simply put: Who is 'neighbor' in an ecosystem?

      This is a troubling question, you see, because our question has become that of the wise-guy lawyer in the parable.

      Remember, in the parable, Jesus draws attention not to the status of the people concerned nor to their geographic or social proximity but rather to the character of mercy expressed in purposeful behavior. This is what proves one to be "neighbor."

      Thus, in our day, one proves to be "neighbor" if one acts in a manner that manifests immediate, unquestioning and complete mercy to those speechless and suffering creatures encountered in our journey on life's road.

      The more we come to know of the interdependence of all species in the ecosystem the more it becomes clear that the speechless suffering we encounter may not be limited to our "own kind" -- people we choose to recognize or even fellow human beings at all. The whole point of the parable is that mercy must be extended well beyond those whom we recognize to be our "own kind."

      Scientists have been telling us, and we are just beginning to understand that we are neighbors to all species that inhabit the wondrous sanctuary of creation. We did not create them, just as we did not create ourselves. To all but the willfully deaf, the speechless suffering of fellow living beings on the planet cries out for our compassion. Yet in our feverish rush to acquire, dominate and develop we seem intent upon driving countless species into permanent extinction. In this awareness those who take the Bible seriously are called to change their ways and to live more mercifully with all life-forms as neighbors in creation. For Christians, respect for biodiversity is not just an optional "good idea." It must be understood as eminating from the core of our most cherished beliefs and values.

      Biblically speaking, of course, there is no such thing as a "Bad Samaritan." For that matter, there is no such thing as the "Good Samaritan" either. The nickname was added later to encapsulate the meaning of the parable. As you already know, however, I am not a biblical literalist. Instead, I take the Bible seriously, and those of us who do cannot help being confronted with the troubling question:

"Which of us has proved 'neighbor' to the voiceless and defenseless of God's creatures in the ecosystem?"
      Biblical literalists may take comfort in the fact that there are no such things as "Bad Samaritans" in the Bible. But for those of us who take the Bible seriously, this is small comfort, for we can't help but remain troubled by the fact that both as individuals and as a species we have failed to act as "Good Samaritins" in the created order. 

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