Religion often attempts to provide a broad framework for understanding how to be a good person. And there is no other story that shapes how men can perceive their “correct role” more than the story of the Good Samaritan. But does our modern understanding of the story correctly represent the intent of the original storyteller?
Quick background for those unfamiliar with the story: Jesus used a form of oral storytelling called parables. These parables were metaphors to present spiritual truths to an audience of “common people” using language and a format they would accept and understand. One of the most famous of these stories is the story of The Good Samaritan. The spiritual truth that is often derived from the story is that we are called to act like the Good Samaritan in the story and provide assistance to those who need it.
Unfortunately, this understanding lacks the context of the original story and can result in a perversion of the actual message Jesus is attempting to communicate with the story.
First, let’s look at the format of the story. The audience would understand that the main character—the one with whom they should identify and the one whom they should emulate—is always the very first character mentioned in the story. In this case, the Samaritan is one of the last characters mentioned and is therefore not the character the audience is being asked to identify with. Instead, the story begins with “a man traveling along the road is attacked by robbers and left for dead.”
Then Jesus describes characters who the audience would identify as religious, political, and community leaders who pass by the man and leave him for dead because they believe following the letter of the law is more important than providing assistance to someone in need. Finally, a Samaritan sees the man and is moved enough to assist the man by bringing him to an inn and paying the innkeeper to care for the man.
The people to whom Jesus was telling the story would be shocked by this behavior because they viewed the Samaritans as “no better than dogs”. The audience would understand that the man would owe his life to a Samaritan, which was a very serious debt that could never be dismissed. Since the man does not know exactly which Samaritan saved his life, he would, in effect, owe his life to every Samaritan. In today’s America, this would be as shocking to the audience as an anti-immigration Trump supporter owing their life to every Mexican immigrant.
So, instead of the common misinterpretation of this story (“be the good Samaritan and save people who need it”), the spiritual truth is that we’re called to live our lives as though we owe a life debt to our perceived enemies. What does this difference mean for how men understand their role? Traditionally, men have been taught to be the Good Samaritan, which is akin to being the knight in armor who rides in on a white horse and saves the damsel in distress. In other words, we’ve been taught that being a man implies a moral imperative to be a savior.
But when we look at the story within its complete context and understand it the way it was originally meant, what does this mean for men in a modern context? What does it look like to be “the man left for dead on the side of the road who owes his life to the very people he dislikes” instead of the hero of the story? What role would men play in their families and communities based on this core teaching of Jesus to explain how we should live our lives in relation to our neighbors?
So much of our spiritual traditions, especially within Western Christianity, have been taken out of context, misapplied, or misunderstood. Jesus preached a message of deep personal responsibility of one’s own life and relationship with God and others. It’s a message I encourage every man to examine more closely as we seek to better understand our purpose and to create lives worth living.
This content is sponsored by Stephen Fofanoff.
This post is republished on Medium.
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