He said, "The one who showed him mercy [compassion]."
Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
I have always thought this to be one of the great works of literature, ethics and morality - as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago. Writers can only aspire to create a story within a story as beautifully realized as this. Philosophers have not been able to improve on its compelling ethical and moral logic.
As a child, I was captivated by the story, particularly when read aloud with feeling. Something about the vividness of the scene and rightness of its message resonated and lodged.
As a teacher, I marvel at the sophistication of the teaching techniques involved, appealing to both the imagination and to reason. Jesus turns the question back onto the lawyer, forcing him to reflect on what he has already been taught and to accept responsibility for his own learning. Rather than preach, he tells him a story. Jesus does not promise him 'eternal' life, just 'do this and you will live.' The final stroke of genius is to reframe the question: not whether the man in the ditch was their neighbour but which of them was a neighbour to him?
As a lawyer, I am chastened by the confrontation between cleverness and goodness.
As a human being wanting to know how I should live, I am humbled by the example of the good Samaritan and challenged to ponder whether I am rather more like the priest and the Levite than I care to admit.
The story also makes me reflect on what it is that I love with all my heart, soul, strength and mind – what is 'God' for me, in the sense that Paul Tillich defines God, as 'that which is ultimate reality for you; what you take seriously without any reservation.' And this forces me to reflect further on whether I should be redirecting my attention in life to what is more worthy of such love.
Because of my background and temperament, I also find myself wondering about the relationship between 'the law' and 'love', between morality and compassion. The story operates at both levels: the Samaritan represents compassion in action; the parable represents moral reasoning in action.
Elsewhere, Jesus unambiguously proclaims his understanding of the Golden Rule, which is the basis of the Abrahamic law: 'Do unto others as you would have others do unto you'. This positive exhortation to 'do good' to others is a significant extension to the more generally accepted negative injunction: 'Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.' This primary obligation to 'do no harm' remains the basis of our law today. But it is an insufficient basis for our morality.
The Golden Rule, in one form or another, is universally recognised, because it is integral to the moral fabric of our being. As a very insightful friend pointed out to me: 'It's not a matter of accepting the rule and acting on it, but of the rule reflecting the universal nature of the impulse.' The distinctive inflection in the Parable of The Good Samaritan is that it affirms the sovereignty of good and the primacy of love, which transcends the law.
What is most striking about the difference between the priest and Levite and the Samaritan is that the former act partially out of a sense of what convention dictates, what their discriminatory religious rules require of them. By contrast, the latter acts out of a spontaneous compassionate impulse: 'when he saw him, he was moved with pity.'
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