The Good Samaritan Dumbed Down

Jesus was broadly inclusive. He welcomed into his movement the outcasts of his day. He instructed his disciples to preach the Gospel everywhere — north, south, east, west.

But still he drew a line. And anyone on the other side of that line, he condemned. For example, in Mark 16:16 he said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”

And if that’s not scary enough, he made the fate of outsiders more explicit in Matthew 13: 49–50, where he said: “So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

I don’t remember reading a single passage in the New Testament that says if you put love at the center of your life, if you’re committed to compassion and the welfare of others, if you perform good deeds diligently and daily, you will be saved even if you don’t become a confessed believer in Christ.

The Gospel makes clear that it’s not enough to live by love. You have to be an official member of Christ’s tribe.

And in our time, the fundamentalists who claim to be the only true Christians, are using Christianity as a label for their tribal identity rather than as a commitment to a loving way of life. This means that someone who actually lives Christ’s message of compassion, but does not swear personal loyalty to Christ is lost, while someone who does evil, as long as he has taken the oath of fealty, will be saved.

So Jesus was a tribal guy. He didn’t dispense with us-versus-them. But he was also complicated and contradictory. We see this in the familiar story from the Bible which starts when a lawyer challenges Jesus with the question, “And who is my neighbor?”

And Jesus answering said, “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

“And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

“And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

“But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,

“And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

“And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.”

Then Jesus asked the lawyer, “Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves?”

The lawyer replied, “He that shewed mercy on him.”

And Jesus said, “Go, and do thou likewise.”

Drawing by ArtMari on Shutterstock

Samaritans, being a different people, were reviled by the Jews of that time. They were not considered neighbors in the sense of being insiders or included under the umbrella of tribal protection.

So Jesus in that moment wasn’t telling a cute story extolling a random act of kindness toward a stranger. He was taking a radical trans-tribal stand. I wish I could have been there to see the reactions of his listeners, a very tribal people. How shocked were they to hear him say they should extend their love and care to people from other tribes? How hard was it for them to accept this teaching?

How hard is it still today? In our common parlance, the phrase “good Samaritan” has come to mean a stranger who helps you out. It’s lost the original meaning of coming to the aid of someone who by virtue of being on the other side of a tribal divide is your enemy or potential enemy. And that’s a profound loss.

This story, it seems to me, of all the stories in the tribal Bible, is the one that’s most different, and most subversive. It’s the one we’d most need to follow if we really wanted to get serious about saving ourselves. Because if we can’t stop battling each other, tribe against tribe, and nation against nation, then there’s no chance that we’re going to survive.

Sometimes I like to imagine that the real Jesus, in his heart of hearts, was trans-tribal, and that none of those verses where he damns people were really his own words but were slipped in later on by his chroniclers who were not as enlightened as he was and dragged his gospel back down into the tribal mud.

Or if it was in fact true that, having grown up in a tribal culture, Jesus did condemn nonbelievers and meant it, then I would hope that as he grew older, had he not been crucified, he would have become more and more trans-tribal, maturing his gospel until it became one of pure nurturance with the power to transcend boundaries.

Mobius Strip graphic by Dotted Yeti on Shutterstock

Author of Love with Fight in its Heart, free at And author of a website on post-hope activism:

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