The way in which the man who opened fire on the Texas Baptist church shooter last week was hailed as a ‘Good Samaritan’ suggests that Jesus’ parable is used somewhat loosely nowadays.
Stephen Willeford was undoubtedly a brave man but to compare him with the hero of Jesus’ famous story is to stretch credibility.
It’s not an isolated reading. Towards the end of the mammoth Syria debate in 2015, Hilary Benn attempted to persuade his party of the merits of military intervention by reminding them that ‘as a party we have always been defined by our internationalism… We never have, and we never should, walk by on the other side of the road’.
Still, if Benn’s use was egregious, it’s hard to see where the parable has been used well in public life. Margaret Thatcher was fond of it but her best known interpretation – ‘No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well’ – was widely criticised.
Then again, it’s doubtful that when Gordon Brown used it to defend the fiscal stimulus package his government put together after the financial crisis, implicitly comparing the Conservatives to the Priest and Levite in the process, he was doing any better.
Does this matter? The parable of the Good Samaritan is remarkably popular – indeed, it has been referenced by most major British politicians over the last thirty years – but it’s also interpreted rather vaguely.
This is partly because it is far from clear what it actually ‘means’. The story is part of a ‘halakah’ debate about the interpretation of the law; about crossing religious, ethnic, and cultural boundaries; about going the extra mile; about shifting from moral categorisation to moral action; about being willing to receive as well as give care. It is an astonishing vignette, simultaneously exquisite miniature and rich polyphony.
We should not, therefore, be surprised if it is used imprecisely but nor should we despair. The parable might be complex but it’s also stubborn, refusing to allow us to twist it to our agendas. Its very presence in rhetoric enables us to challenge, even to correct and rebuke, those who are pursuing their own case, in a way that more mundane rhetoric does not. Politicians may choose to bring the Samaritan on stage but, as the parable reminds us, he won’t necessarily do what we expect him to.
Nick is Research Director at Theos. His new book, The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable is published by Bloomsbury.