Syrian refugees and the Good Samaritan


Discussion of the Syrian refugee crisis has been making the rounds on Facebook. Among many articles and posts that I have seen, I’m particularly struck by the one above (whose authorship, alas, I do not know and so cannot cite). The picture, of course, refers to the parable of the Good Samaritan, a gospel story in which Jesus is asked, “Who is my neighbor?” The Pharisees asking the question seemed to be intending for clarification as to the scope of those to whom we have responsibilities. Jesus, however, refuses to answer the question as posed. As many a Biblical commentary has noted, he changes the question that is being answered from “To whom must I act as a neighbor” to: “What does it mean to be a neighbor?”

In the parable, Jesus notes that a priest and Levite pass by the injured man, but a Samaritan stops to assist. The priest may well have had good reason to avoid the injured one–he may have suffered as a result from ritual impurity after assisting him and so passes by. Samaritans had different religious practices and were despised among Jesus’s audience. Even to share a cup of water with a Samaritan, as Jesus does in John’s account of the Samaritan woman at the well, would have violated Jewish religious purity laws. Yet Jesus shows us that these considerations,while practical, are not as significant as the demand that the injured person makes upon us others when he is in need.

The story also simply points to ethnic and religious divisions as to who “counts” as my neighbor. Today we could ask: Americans and Europeans who suffer? Or only Christians? Or does the suffering of Syrians, including Muslim Syrians, count? It seems difficult to interpret the parable of the Good Samaritan without drawing the conclusion that Jesus’s message as to who is neighbor does not attend to religious or ethnic distinctions. It does not stop at national borders.

Jesus, however, adds another twist to the story. The person who is assisting is the Samaritan. It is not the injured man who is a Samaritan, and an exemplary Jew who stops to assist. In other words, Jesus does not make heroic the insider who willingly takes on the burden of the outsider. Rather, the Samaritan is the hero of this story. This way of telling the story suggests that it might be we, ourselves, who in our failure to see are the ones who are in need of assistance. Perhaps we see ourselves as the powerful ones who get to decide for or against opening our borders to the refugee. But it is the outsider and the despised one who stops to help, who exhibits compassion. Perhaps the real challenge of the story lies in the idea that it’s the outsider who has something to bring to us in entering into the overly narrow concepts that we hold about community and being a neighbor. Perhaps it’s the Syrian refugee who breaks into our false comforts who will teach us what it means to live as neighbors.