The Girard Samaritan

As the comments to my previous post demonstrate, the parable of the good Samaritan can be read in a number of ways: Jesus as the Samaritan or the victim by the side of the road, us as the victim and/or the Samaritan and/or the innkeeper, and so on.

These multiple readings are by no means contradictory or exclusive of one another. Indeed, they are themselves a key part of its teaching. However, they can begin to appear slightly chaotic, with the links between them apparently arbitrary: we are both the victim by the road and (in imitating Jesus) the good Samaritan, because. Rather like a physicist confronted with a multiplicity of “fundamental” particles, this makes me want to look for a unifying principle beneath these different interpretations.

And so to our old friend René Girard, and the two dynamics he sees as driving human behaviour: mimetic desire (our desires are learned from those around us) and the scapegoat mechanism (human societies establish their unity by expelling an arbitrarily-chosen victim). How can these principles help us read the parable?

First, as most interpreters seem to agree, the priest and the Levite do not walk past the victim out of malice or heartlessness, but because touching a dead body (as it might very well be) would have made them ritually unclean. Concepts of cleanness vs uncleanness are an expression both of mimesis and the scapegoat mechanism: societies reinforce their unity by defining themselves over against an unclean “other”, and the desires of individuals within those societies are formed by those models of cleanness and uncleanness. For the priest and Levite to help the victim would not only have made them personally unclean, but would have undermined a unifying principle of their society.

The exclusionary mechanism is made even more explicit with the arrival of the Samaritan. Here is the very embodiment of the unclean other. Yet he is the one who breaks down the division of clean and unclean by helping the victim.

He does this by simultaneously showing his indifference to the exclusionary mechanism and (by so doing) taking upon himself his appointed role within it as the unclean other. After all, for an unclean Samaritan to touch a dead body was no more than he deserved, and only confirmed his status in the eyes of the “in-group”. But the Samaritan shows himself indifferent to this, and by acting as if the division did not exist he abolishes it.

So the Samaritan is doing more than just helping one victim: he is establishing a new way of being human, one in which we live as if the scapegoat mechanism, the exclusionary divisions between clean and unclean by which we shore up our societies, did not exist. By doing so we both confirm the abolition of that mechanism and place ourselves at its mercy by exposing ourselves to the scapegoating vengeance of those whose sense of belonging still depends on such divisions: the unclean making ourselves unclean, as the Samaritan would by touching a dead body.

This in turn draws together the different interpretations of the parable. Jesus is the Samaritan who destroys the exclusionary division of clean/unclean by both ignoring it and becoming its victim. It is then in a very precise (and neither arbitrary nor moralistic) imitation of him that we also become the Samaritan by treating any remaining vestiges of the scapegoating mechanism in the same way.

The new way of being human that is established by the Samaritan – one entirely without any scapegoating or exclusion or defining of ourselves “over against” some “other” – is to be found first of all at the inn, at which Jews, Samaritans and all others are accepted and included without distinction. In other words: the church.

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5 Responses to The Girard Samaritan

  1. Fascinating.

    A first-century fact (via Kenneth Bailey) to add to this imagery: inns were considered disreputable and dangerous places. The very word could be used as a synonym for a brothel. It is in this hive of undesirables (scapegoats?) that the act of mercy is carried out, in which the division of clean/unclean is being abrogated.

    In other words, the church is not so much the temple into which the unclean are brought as the house of Levi where Jesus is the guest of honour.

  2. Matt J. says:

    My favorite reading so far as it provides what I consider to be the best explanation behind the behavior of the priest and Levite, which by default is ourselves.

    Sitting in Sunday school, seeing the little flannel-board priest walk by with his nose in the air and the little frowny-faced Levite (in a striped robe) just doesn’t jive with reality. These people aren’t typically overtly cruel and heartless. These are people we know. Perhaps ourselves, or our own fellow Christians or even pastors. But we are still, to some degree, depending on the “over/against the other” to keep us glued together. So we walk by on the other side all the time.

    Jesus, embodied in the Samaritan in this case, is our new model.

  3. John A says:

    Even within the logic of this reading, how is the neglect of a battered person *not* a heartless move? In their zeal to follow the God-mandated purity laws, the priest and Levite avoid a person who “might very well be” dead: they don’t even know whether they will be defiled by going over to the man.

    The priest and Levite desire sacrifice, not mercy: they are unmerciful, and so they are unable to do what the law says.

  4. misterjamesnicholas says:

    It is a tempting reading, sir, to suppose the relevant considerations surround ritual purity.

    It gets repeated a fair bit and is not without contemporary application and so, to repeat, I appreciate the reading is tempting.
    However, it ends up, Amy-Jill Levine considers, bearing false witness against Judaism. I refer you either to her book “The Misunderstood Jew…” (chapter 4) or her presentation here ( on the Good Samaritan (around the 31 minute mark).

  5. neilrobbie says:

    Reblogged this on Transforming Grace and commented:
    I preached the parable of the good Samaritan on Sunday and chose to focus first on the soteriological question “how may I…can I justify myself” before the ethical “go and do likewise.” That is, if we hold up the Samaritan as the paridigm for goodness which leads to eternal life we end up with a very English misunderstanding of the gospel: “If I am kind to people I will go to heaven.” So instead I followed Augustine and went for the Samaritan as a type of Christ. This post gets close to what I saught to say. Any comments would help sharpen this iron.

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