Theatrical Samaritans: Performing Others in Luke 10:25-37

Howard Pickett
Washington and Lee University

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37 NRSV)

1. Introduction

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is no doubt a familiar one to modern Americans. Its influential reach extends far beyond the pulpits and pews of today’s churches—so much so that it may well be the most familiar parable in modernity, well-known to Christians and non-Christians alike. The Samaritan haunts the halls of the great museums as often as he does the narrower confines of our television sets and computer screens: in works by Rembrandt and Van Gogh, in episodes of TV’s Seinfeld, and even in a number of surprisingly well-made animated videos on the internet. [1] The Samaritan surfaces from time to time in the names of this country’s hospitals as well as in the best speeches of our best speakers: in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s repeated reference to the “Jericho Road,” to take an especially famous case. [2] Most notably, perhaps, Jesus’ Samaritan has recently provided lawmakers with a new way of talking about the legal obligations of those who witness a person in distress, as well as the legal protections of those who come to the aid of the endangered. A so-called “Good Samaritan Law” in Minnesota, for instance, requires those at the scene of a crime or emergency to provide “reasonable assistance” to a stranger in need, whether through direct intervention or the mere dialing of 911. [3] By all accounts then—secular or religious, public or private, high culture or low—Luke’s Samaritan is alive and well in America today.

However, even more than the widespread appeal of Jesus’ parable, the widespread exegetical agreement accompanying most modern echoes of it deserves our attention. An especially powerful video on the popular website presents the agreed-upon exegesis in the clearest terms possible. In it, we find a security camera’s black-and-white surveillance video of a Hartford, Connecticut, man struck by a hit-and-run driver back in 2008. As the man lies lifeless on the road, indifferent citizens walk by (and in one case virtually over) the injured victim. While we watch the video, a somber voice-over retells Luke’s Good Samaritan parable, at the end of which overlain text asks: “I wonder what I would have done. What about you?” [4] As the video makes abundantly clear—indeed, as countless Sunday morning sermons have also made abundantly clear—the Samaritan parable must be, first and foremost, a story about me. Who will I be in a similar situation? Will I be the negligent priest or Levite who walks on by, leaving the beaten man for dead? Or, preferably, will I be the Good Samaritan, the ideal moral agent who stops to give aid to a stranger in need?

Despite today’s rather common assumption that the story of the Good Samaritan “is simple and conveys a clear lesson”—namely, that I ought to emulate the Samaritan—Luke’s parable has not always been read this way. [5] What interests me, then, is not only the overwhelming agreement among modern readers, but more to the point the overwhelming disagreement between modern readings of the parable and premodern readings. Modern readings, as already indicated, typically assume that the parable’s audience (whether the intratextual audience: i.e., the expert in the law with whom Jesus converses; or the extratextual audience: e.g., today’s Christian reader) should identify with the Samaritan in the story. In fact, thanks to statutes like the one in Minnesota, I may now have a legal as well as a moral obligation to emulate the Samaritan, at least in some small way. Premodern readings, on the other hand, more often assume that the audience should identify not so much with the Samaritan, but rather with the beaten man the Samaritan helps. In effect, for premodern commentators, Jesus’ parable is not first and foremost about me at all. Rather, it is first and foremost about God—and Christ specifically, represented in the figure of the Samaritan.

In what follows, I show that despite objections from modern historical critics, the premodern reading is an insightful one, fostered in many respects by the subtleties of Luke’s text. Just as importantly, I demonstrate that this premodern interpretation (identifying audience with needy victim—if not also Jesus with Samaritan) may better serve the moral aims modern interpreters pursue than does their own ostensibly ethical interpretation (which identifies audience with compassionate moral agent). More precisely, holding together the premodern with the modern reading best serves our moral aims. When we hold together both modern and premodern views, Jesus’ parable takes on a striking—if somewhat surprising—resemblance to the theories of secular ethicist John Rawls and Jewish ethicist Emmanuel Levinas. In particular, the identification of the moral agent with the vulnerable victim lies at the heart of both the Rawlsian “original position” and the Levinasian category of “substitution.” Furthermore, when we hold together both readings—when the audience identifies with both victim and agent—we see how thoroughly Jesus’ story involves its listener in a double-identification that does justice not only to the divine imperative (to love your neighbor as yourself) but also to the intersubjective, even theatrical, nature of the ethical self.

2. Premodern Interpretations

Long before he found his way into the law books and television sets of America, the Samaritan made regular appearance in the exegetical writings of the early church fathers. However, unlike modern Americans, who tend to see ourselves wherever we look (e.g., in the noble deeds of the Samaritan), the patristic writers tended to see God—and Christ, in particular—most of the time (including in the saving work of the Samaritan). Origen illustrates the point in starkest terms: “The priest is the law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ” (Homily 34.3). [6] While not every patristic commentator echoes Origen’s particular take on the Levite and priest, consensus among the church fathers developed rather early about the identity of the Samaritan. As Ambrose of Milan asks in his Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, “Who is [the Samaritan] except he who descended from heaven, who also ascended to heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven?” [7] Ambrose’s younger contemporary, St. Augustine, likewise maintains this identification of Christ with Samaritan. In the words of De Doctrina Christiana, “[I]t is himself that the Lord Jesus Christ is indicating as the one who came to the help of that man lying half dead on the road, beaten up and left there by robbers” (30.33). [8] As one of Augustine’s sermons more succinctly puts the point: “In this Samaritan the Lord Jesus Christ wanted us to understand himself” (171.2). [9]

Christocentric interpretations like these appear not only in patristic sermons and commentaries, but even more vividly in the Eastern Church’s icons of the parable—icons which, even when created in modernity, remain nevertheless indebted to this premodern tradition. In Orthodox representations of Luke’s story, the Samaritan is unmistakably the Christ. Bearded and surrounded by a crossed halo, the Samaritan-Christ figure comes to the aid of the fallen man (or is it simply Fallen Man?) in need. [10] These depictions of the parable—again, even when produced in modernity—bear a greater resemblance to the standard patristic reading than they do to so-called “modern” Western views of the story (whether Protestant, secular, or Catholic). [11] Perhaps unsurprisingly then, what I call here the “premodern” reading also appears in modern-day Orthodox sermons as well, sermons which more often than not acknowledge their patristic influences explicitly. [12] Gregory of Nyssa, for one, provides an especially influential connection between the Samaritan’s saving descent down the Jericho road and the Incarnate Word’s synkatabasis —i.e., his own “descent down” to the level of humanity. [13] Because of that parallel, Gregory maintains that “the Word explained, in the form of a story [the story of the Good Samaritan], God’s entire economy of salvation.” [14]

As one might imagine though, allegorical, Christocentric readings of Luke’s parable have not fared terribly well among modern historical critics. True, there are exceptions (albeit modest ones) to that rule. For instance, in E. J. Tinsley’s view, Jesus’ parable “poses the question ‘Is Jesus the Samaritan who really obeys the Law, though unconventionally, and is discipleship of him an imitation of his manner?'” [15] However, even here Tinsley’s focus (now not so much on the salvific work of Christ but instead on Jesus’ supposed tendency to buck the mores of his Jewish community) still assumes our basic identification with the Samaritan. In other words, even if Jesus is the Samaritan—something “left to the questioner,” in Tinsley’s estimation—we in the parable’s audience have not yet become the victim in the ditch. [16] Even more reminiscent of the patristic tradition is the reading presented by Jean Daniélou [17] —a fact that should come as no great surprise, since Daniélou was one of last century’s most influential patristic scholars. It seems no coincidence, in other words, that Daniélou, the scholar who gave us the collection of Nyssa’s writings from which the earlier line about “God’s entire economy of salvation” was drawn, would also give us a thoroughly patristic interpretation of Luke 10.

Howard Marshall, author of The New International Greek Testament Commentary (1978), presents a very different—and, I maintain, more characteristic—modern assessment of the patristic reading: “It would be possible for the early church to see in the Good Samaritan a picture of Jesus, and in his ‘return’ a symbol of the second advent…but this was surely not the original meaning of the story, and the allegorizing involved is unnatural.” [18] Joseph A. Fitzmyer seconds the point in his Anchor Bible Commentary (1985), labeling the allegorical reading at one point “far-fetched.” [19] As Fitzmyer goes on to explain, although “Luke would be the first to stress the love of Jesus for the afflicted and distressed of humanity […] that is not the point of this […] parable.” [20] While one might raise all sorts of theological objections to the overconfident dismissal of the early church’s Christocentric reading, I want to focus on specifically exegetical and ethical objections below.

3. Exegetical Objections

First of all, what Marshall and Fitzmyer fail to recognize is that the allegorical reading does much more than simply identify Jesus with the Samaritan. Rather, the premodern understanding of the parable also identifies us (those in the parable’s audience, that is) with the beaten man. In the words of Ambrose’s commentary, “Since no one is closer than he who tended to our wounds, let us love him as our Lord.” [21] Or as Augustine explains in Sermon 179A, “Robbers have left you half-dead on the road; but you have been found lying there by the passing and kindly Samaritan. Wine and oil have been poured into you; you have received the sacrament of the Only-begotten Son” (179A.7). [22] If, for Origen, Ambrose, and Augustine alike, the Samaritan is the Savior, then the beaten man is simply man, the ordinary human with which Jesus begins his parable, according to Luke’s Greek. The beaten man is, to quote Augustine, “you,” since he is, in effect, “everyman.”

In fact, the beaten man is each and every one of us, in patristic hands, since he is Fallen Man in general. “The man who was going down is Adam,” Origen says. [23] “When he turned aside to worldly sins, Adam fell among thieves,” Ambrose agrees. [24] To be fair, this view crops up in modernity as well—albeit rarely. Karl Barth, most notably, reiterates the point, interpreting, as John N. Sheveland has recently pointed out, ‘the wounded man laying half dead in the ditch along the side of the road as a parable of the human condition.” [25] In Barth’s own words, “the lawyer had first to see that he himself is the man fallen among thieves and lying helpless by the wayside.” [26]

Whether or not the equation of Christ and Samaritan is a “natural” one, then, the corresponding equation of ordinary reader and victim certainly is. To start with, that equation gels well with certain aspects of Luke’s narrative. By my count, there seem to be no less than three distinct ways Luke’s parable discourages the lawyer’s proud identification with resourceful agent and encourages a humbler identification with the story’s victim instead.

First, Jesus transfigures the connotations of “neighbor.” As Luke tells the story, Jesus agrees with the lawyer’s conclusion that eternal life comes from loving both God and neighbor. However, following that agreement, the lawyer of Luke’s narrative asks the crucial follow-up question: “And who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29). Rephrased, to whom should he actively show love in order to inherit that eternal life? In asking the question this way, the lawyer insinuates that “neighbor” (despite any reciprocal implications) is simply the name of the recipient of some assistance—the recipient of the resourceful lawyer’s own assistance, to be exact. Nevertheless, in Jesus’ final, post-parable reformulation of the question—”Which of these three [the priest, Levite, or Samaritan] was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Lk 10: 36)—”neighbor” appears no longer as a name for the needy victim or recipient. It has, instead, become a name for the resourceful agent, the one who gives aid rather than receives it. Yet, if the lawyer’s opening question assumes that the “neighbor” is other—that the “neighbor” is what the lawyer is not—then Jesus’ concluding question implies that the lawyer must be anyone other than those three: priest, Levite, or Samaritan. Consequently, the lawyer must be anything but a resourceful agent—let alone the compassionate resourceful agent known as the “Good Samaritan.” With that move, then, Jesus turns on its head the lawyer’s proud assumption that he (the lawyer) will be the one doling out goods and assistance to needy neighbors in the future.

Admittedly, this peculiar transfiguration of the neighbor question has long been recognized by modern historical critics. However, what I interpret here as a sign of Jesus’ ethical wisdom is just as often interpreted as little more than a sign of Luke’s rough-shod editing. Simply put, for many modern critics, Jesus does not transform the lawyer’s question at all; rather, Luke’s ham-fisted text does—by inserting Jesus’ parable where it simply does not belong. As Klyne Snodgrass explains, dispute about this parable’s proper place following the dialogue with the lawyer “depends on assessments of…the disjunction between the neighbor as object in the lawyer’s question (v.29) and the neighbor as subject in Jesus’ question (v.36).” [27] What I mean to suggest here, however, is that these assessments about whether Jesus’ parable is a legitimate response to the lawyer’s question might benefit from a more charitable hermeneutic, one that presupposes the scriptural text’s insightfulness. A charitable reading might, after all, uncover in the apparent “disjunction” between the two questions not so much a disjunction or editorial mistake, but instead a compelling ethical move on Jesus’ part—one that pulls the lawyer (and us) up short in smug, self-congratulatory formulations of the neighbor question. No doubt the modern scholarship on this parable, like that on most of Jesus’ parables, is vast. Consequently, countless modern commentators have also admitted the way Jesus’ transformed question functions well in the story. G. B. Caird, for example, writes that Jesus “tells the story of the Good Samaritan, not to answer the question ‘Who is my neighbor?’ but to show that it is the wrong question.” [28] However, despite that more charitable recognition, Caird goes on to say that “[t]he proper question is, ‘To whom can I be neighbor?'” [29] In other words, Caird’s reading (like that of most modern interpreters) retains the lawyer’s own earlier assumption that I (if now as “neighbor”) must remain the resourceful agent rather than the needy victim.

Second, Jesus similarly resists the lawyer’s proud self-conception (his assumption that he must always be the resourceful agent) by presenting him not only with an agent named “neighbor,” but with a particular neighbor-agent who is his ethnic and religious other: the Samaritan. In other words, Jesus’ story resists the lawyer’s proud self-conception once again by presenting as the story’s virtuous moral agent (a role the lawyer wants to play) the ritually unclean, socially outcast Samaritan (a role he refuses to play). Consequently, the lawyer’s initial reluctance to identify himself as “neighbor” is reinforced only too well by his long-assumed reluctance to identify with the Samaritan—who is, by the lawyer’s own final admission, the particular “neighbor” in this case. As a result, Jesus’ parable does not simply compel the lawyer to identify, however begrudgingly, with the other in the Samaritan (the moral point made in countless modern sermons on the parable). Rather, the story initially—and crucially, I might add—draws on the lawyer’s resistance to that identification to compel his equally important identification with someone other than the virtuous agent—someone like the vulnerable victim in the ditch.

Third, Jesus further resists the lawyer’s proud self-identification as resourceful agent and instead encourages identification with the beaten man by asking the lawyer to define “neighbor” from the point of view of the story’s victim. [30] When Jesus asks at the conclusion of his parable, “Which of these three proved neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers ?’ (10:36), he asks in effect, “Tell me, lawyer, if you were the beaten man, how then would you define ‘neighbor’?” By that light, it begins to look as if premodern interpretations of the text (at least, those that identify audience with victim) might actually be on to something about Luke’s narrative—a point which brings me to my ethical objections to dismissing those readings.

But first, let me hasten to add that there may be sound exegetical reasons to accept the particular association of Christ with Samaritan as well. As already intimated, the early church fathers saw Christ in the Samaritan, in part, because they saw Christ at every turn—at least, at every turn of the scriptural text. Augustine gives voice to this radically Christocentric hermeneutic in his “Exposition of Psalm 103”:

There is but one single utterance of God amplified throughout all the scriptures, dearly beloved. Through the mouth of many holy persons a single Word makes itself heard, that Word who, being God-with-God in the beginning, has no syllables, because he is not confined by time. [31]

As Augustine’s passage insinuates (a passage still cited in The Catechism of the Catholic Church ‘s treatment of scripture), the Word of God (i.e., the Bible) presents to God’s people nothing less than the Word of God Himself (i.e., Christ). Consequently, Luke’s gospel story of the Good Samaritan, like every other passage in scripture, must somehow reveal Christ. One way of doing that (if only one way), the church fathers imply, is by means of allegory. Furthermore, the Christocentric reading of Luke’s parable may have found additional encouragement in the patristic commitment to following or imitating Christ. If the Christian is called to imitate Christ (something Paul commends explicitly at I Corinthians 11:1), then Christ’s own command at the end of the parable—that the lawyer imitate the Samaritan, that he “Go and do likewise”—might only make sense if the two (Samaritan and Christ) are somehow already one. In short, the imitatio Samaritani recommended by Christ himself at the end of Luke’s parable makes most sense if it entails (allegorically, at least) an imitatio Christi as well. In imitating the “Good Samaritan,” the church fathers might have observed, one must somehow also imitate the one who alone is truly “Good” and worthy of imitation—namely, God or Christ.

Granted, such views may not pass muster with many modern historical critics, since patristic assumptions like these lack uniform acceptance within the modern academy. As a result, inescapably theological beliefs (about the unity of scripture, its divine provenance, Christ’s divine self-understanding, and the ethical imperative to follow Christ and Christ alone) have been largely bracketed out of the field of modern biblical interpretation. Nonetheless, given even a thoroughly naturalistic view of the passage, something persuasive might still be said about this premodern equation of Incarnate God and Samaritan. As Luke’s narrative indicates, the Samaritan is moved to aid the beaten man because of his “pity.” To be exact, Luke’s Greek suggests that, upon seeing the fallen man, the Samaritan is moved viscerally with feelings of compassion [ἐσπλαγχνίσθη] (Luke 10:33). Yet, despite that word’s bodily connotations—from the root σπλαγχνον, meaning “innards”—Luke’s gospel reserves the term (and its variants) for more-or-less divine figures exclusively. Its first use (of four in Luke) appears in the so-called “Song of Zachariah,” where Zechariah associates the term with God. Specifically, Zechariah celebrates the “tender mercy of God” [σπλάγχνα ἐλέους θεοῦ (Luk 1:78 BYZ)], which is announcing salvation for the people through Zechariah’s own son, John the Baptist (Luke 1:78). The term’s second use appears in a miracle story, where it is associated with Christ particularly. In that story, Christ raises a young man from the dead, because, upon seeing his widowed mother, the Lord (like the Samaritan) is moved with compassion [ἐσπλαγχνίσθη] (Luke 7:13). Its final use (after the Samaritan parable at Luke 10:33, that is) appears in Luke’s equally famous “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” Near the end of that story—long-interpreted even by modern historical critics as an illustration of the gracious mercy of the heavenly Father [32] —Luke’s text explains that the old man, upon seeing his long-lost son, is moved with compassion [ἐσπλαγχνίσθη] and, so, runs to embrace him (Luke 15:20).

In each case, compassion is the response of a more-or-less divine figure: God, Christ, or a parabolic figure for either. True, the parable of the Good Samaritan’s use of the Greek term,ἐσπλαγχνίσθη, could somehow disturb or interrupt this overall pattern establishing pity’s divine provenance. In other words, the Samaritan could, of course, be an exception to the rule in Luke that links compassion with God or Christ. However, one might just as well wonder—especially in light of patristic commentaries—why this pattern of divine association does not, in fact, urge a Christocentric (or, at least, a theocentric) reading of the Samaritan story, instead. In short, one might just as well wonder why the Samaritan is not, alongside the Prodigal Son’s father, yet another Lukan figure of divine mercifulness, a divine mercifulness incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. [33]

4. Ethical Objections

What I now want to suggest is that the premodern reading—and its association of reader with victim, most centrally—is not only on to something about Luke’s narrative; it is also on to something about the ethical life in general. In other words, despite what Howard Marshall contends, there is in fact something incredibly “natural” (or at least something ethically compelling) about the premodern audience’s hesitation to self-identify with the resourceful agent. Before I get to that though, I ought to point out that even the most upbraiding modern interpretations of the parable—ones that identify audience members with neither victim nor Samaritan, but rather with the priest and Levite—remain altogether too self-congratulatory and proud to be truly upbraiding. After all, such readings (however much they attempt to chastise me for my own indifference to human suffering) still assume that I must be a resourceful, autonomous agent, rather than a vulnerable victim in need of rescue. Moreover, they assume that goading me into imitation of a compassionate agent (into emulation of a “Good Samaritan”) is the most ethically edifying and practically effective move Jesus’ parable could possibly make.

In light of the earlier reading, however, we may see instead how Jesus’ reformulation of the neighbor question challenges our own proud self-conception more profoundly, and, in doing so, draws us (albeit subtly) into a realization of our own resemblance to the beaten man. More to the point, by encouraging identification with the needy victim, rather than the resourceful agent, Jesus’ parable puts us in a precarious place that may be both more realistic about our actual condition in the world (at times, at least) and also more conducive to insightful ethical thinking. In effect, when Jesus subtly draws his audience into identification with the needy victim, he also subtly draws from that audience a broad—perhaps universal—definition of the neighbor.

The lawyer’s question “And who is my neighbor?” wonders: To whom must we show love in the future—to how many hundreds or even thousands specifically? By the end of Luke’s parable, though, Jesus’ reformulated question asks, instead: From whom would we like to receive love—especially in the event that we find ourselves in need? Jesus’ parable, by this reading, acknowledges that when we see ourselves as resourceful agents (the ones faced with the onerous burden of giving to others in need), then our definition of neighbor is bound to be pretty narrow in scope. On the contrary, when we see ourselves as needy victims (the ones desperate for help from any and all others), then our definition of neighbor is likely to become much, much broader.

Indeed, because Jesus’ parable asks how we might define neighbor (as well as the demands of justice to that neighbor) from a place of vulnerability and disadvantage, it bears considerable resemblance to a thought-experiment made famous by John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971). [34] In Rawls’ experiment, individuals are imagined to formulate (contractually) the principles of justice for their own hypothetical society; however, in order to eliminate unfair bias, the formulators must do so only once they suspend knowledge of their own particular social positions (their identities, talents, particular conceptions of the good, etc.). As Rawls explains,

In the original position, the parties are not allowed to know the social positions or the particular comprehensive doctrines of the persons they represent. They also do not know persons’ race and ethnic group, sex, or various native endowments such as strength and intelligence…We express these limits on information figuratively by saying that the parties are behind a veil of ignorance. [35]

In such a position, Rawls assumes, rational agents would adopt principles that are to the greatest advantage of the least well-off members of society. More accurately, faced with the possibility of being anyone, a rational agent would formulate principles to make the most of her own worst-case scenario. We might all be reasonably expected, Rawls insinuates, to employ the “maximin” strategy in such a situation—to make the minimal (or most vulnerable) place in society maximally good, free, etc. In effect, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan does something similar when it asks its audience to re-define neighbor from the point of view of the unidentified anthropos lying in the ditch. To overstate the case, then, I am arguing that Jesus created the maximin strategy. More modestly, I am arguing that Luke’s Jesus anticipates Rawls and his maximin heuristic, by first assuming the lawyer’s own self-interestedness (and ours along with it), and then imaginatively—we might even say theatrically—extending that self-interest to protect others in need.

This imaginative—again, more-or-less theatrical—identification, in which I inhabit the role of the other, is (to come to my main point here) at the heart of the ethical life. To perform any good deed for another, one must first perform the part of that other imaginatively and sympathetically. In fact, one must perform it, not just imaginatively, but actually. When I offer aid to a person in need, I must put myself in that needy person’s position. I must do so, first of all, by simply recognizing that need exists—i.e., by recognizing that the person I see is not in a desirable situation. I do that, as Adam Smith famously noted, by sympathetically imagining myself in a similar situation. [36] Beyond that, however, I also have to allow myself to become the needy person in her own particularity. I must avoid simply imposing on the needy other my own preferences; instead, I must try to understand her own wants and needs given her own identity and previous commitments. In more overtly theatrical terms, I must put something of myself into the role, but I must also allow the role to put something of itself into me. In effect, as actors have long acknowledged, the other plays me as much as I play the other. However, my performance (in order to become ethical, at any rate) must move beyond the merely imaginative and sympathetic to enter the world of the actual as well. I must do more than simply imagine something (whether what I would like in a similar situation or else what the needy herself might like). I must actually allow the other’s wants and needs to compel me to act in the world, the way my own wants and needs usually compel me. Indeed, as I conclude below, the ethical life may involve an additional performance as well. It may involve not just inhabiting the role of the needy other—in imagination and actuality—but inhabiting and imitating the role of a moral exemplar, too: one who inhabits the roles of needy others, in particular.

Despite his understandable worries about hypocrisy and mere role-playing, Jewish ethicist Emmanuel Levinas repeatedly (if subtly) grants this theatrical side to ethics as well. Simply stated, Levinas asserts that ethics, at its heart, involves “substitution”—an overcoming of my own egoistic self-concern by giving my time, resources, and even life for the other. To be ethical (as Levinas sees it, at least) I must learn to be somehow non-coincident with myself—to be other than I am: not simply other in the sense of better (that is, better than I was in my egoistic self-interest) but other in the sense of concerned, even obsessed, with the needs of the actual other. [37] I must, in effect, learn to take on the role of the other in responsibility. Granted, this pairing of Levinas and Rawls may seem like a strange one; the two appear poles apart to most eyes. Most obviously perhaps, Levinas appears to emphasize the ethical over the just, while Rawls appears to move in the opposite direction. [38] For another, Rawls’ liberalism relies on an abstracted agent and other, while Levinas’ more postmodern approach arguably emphasizes and respects the particularity of both. Moreover, Rawls’ theatricality seems chiefly agent-centered, putting oneself (if not imposing oneself) into the position of the other, while Levinas’ theatricality seems much more other-centered, putting the other into the position of oneself, to the point of becoming obsessed, even possessed, by that other. Nevertheless, both Rawls and Levinas endorse what I call an ethical theatricality. That is, they both rightly see that—whether for reasons of justice or ethics, whether abstractly or particularly, whether out of self-interest or other-interest—we do well when we engage in identification with others, an identification (as I have said) that seems profoundly similar to the actor’s art of role-playing performance.

To be fair, Levinasian substitution, like role-playing—and like the Rawlsian original position itself—never amounts to the absolute negation of myself (though it could very well lead to the death of myself). Rather, it requires that I bring something of myself to the enterprise of substitution. After all, if in ethical responsibility I substitute myself somehow for the other, then presumably I must be there along with the other. In fact, as Levinas often suggests, it is only through this act of substitution that I come to have a self that can be there at all. In the words of the epigraph to Otherwise than Being ‘s central chapter on “Substitution” (and here Levinas quotes poet Paul Celan): Ich bin du, wenn ich ich bin (roughly: “I am you, if and when I am myself”). In other words, ethical selfhood (if not selfhood in general) requires a double-identification. [39] To be who I should be—who I truly am—I must be myself, of course. But only myself insofar as I am thoroughly other—insofar as I am thoroughly for-the-other. “The self, a hostage,” Levinas says, “is already substituted for the others.” [40] As a result, we might well say, following Rimbaud, “‘I am an other.'” [41] To have a self, one must play a part—indeed, the part of another—but not just imaginatively and certainly not hypocritically. One must play that part in fact—in a kind of guerilla theater of responsibility. One must, to put the point differently, follow the divine imperative: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, as Levinas prefers: “Love your neighbor; he is yourself; it is this love of the neighbor which is yourself.” [42]

5. Performing Others

This sense that neighbor and self—even compassionate agent and needy victim—are both tied up inextricably together appears, as this essay contends, not only in Rawls’ and Levinas’ influential ethical works, but, long before that, in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan as well. The audience (whether yesterday’s expert in the law or today’s reader) is somehow the beaten man. However, he is not only the beaten man—not only the passive victim, in short. Rather, as modern readings of the parable have noted only too well—and only too crucially—Jesus’ final instructions to the lawyer command nothing less than the lawyer’s own responsible agency, his own imitatio Samaritani. In fact, I am arguing here—along with most modern moralistic interpreters—that it is vitally important that Jesus instructs the lawyer to follow the example of the Samaritan, to do something for needy victims (regardless of their ethnicity, religion, etc.). [43] In that sense, premodern (or even Barthian) interpretations may lack something the modern reading supplies. Yet, I am also arguing—along with premodern interpreters—that it is just as important that Jesus encourages the lawyer to see himself in the beaten man first and maybe foremost. [44]

More precisely, I am arguing that it is crucially important that Jesus encourages the identification with the Samaritan only after the lawyer’s initial, reluctant identification with the half-dead man on the Jericho road. Only after he has, like the half-naked man on the side of the road, been “stripped”—in this case, of his proud self-conception—is the lawyer ready to “[g]o and do likewise” (10:37). [45] That is, only after he has realized his own profound vulnerability—indeed, only after he has substituted himself for the vulnerable other—is the lawyer ready to be an ethical self. Only then is he able to be like the Samaritan, who is, as the lawyer himself ultimately admits, both resourceful agent and neighbor.

In this final command, Jesus’ story once more performs the second great commandment. After all, in this final recommendation that the lawyer follow the example of the Samaritan, Jesus’ parable once again encourages the lawyer to love his neighbor as himself. (1) First, as so many premodern commentaries have tacitly recognized, Jesus’ parable—and its reformulation of the neighbor question, in particular—draws the lawyer into an initially reluctant identification with the beaten man, the proverbial neighbor or other in need. As a result, Jesus’ parable draws the lawyer into a loving (if somewhat self-interested) concern for that other. Simply put, once the self-loving lawyer sees himself in the beaten man, then he also comes to love that needy neighbor (albeit initially as himself). (2) Second, as so many modern commentaries have observed, Jesus’ parable—and its final command to “Go and do likewise,” in particular—draws the lawyer into an initially reluctant identification with the compassionate agent, the socially outcast Samaritan, who is (as the lawyer finally admits) the story’s true “neighbor.” In other words, by making the Samaritan the imitable figure in the story (i.e., the noble moral agent whom the lawyer longs to resemble), Jesus’ story once again draws the lawyer into a deep concern for another neighbor, here an ethnic and religious other. More to the point, by recognizing the Samaritan’s admirable character (despite his religio-ethnic difference), the lawyer loves his neighbor as himself—or, at least, as his ideal ethical self. (3) More than that, because of the sympathetic nature of the Samaritan, the lawyer’s identification with that particular agent involves the lawyer in yet another performance of the second commandment. Again, the lawyer’s identification with the Samaritan is, in effect, an identification with a neighbor who lives according to that second commandment. Crudely put, the lawyer’s identification with the Samaritan is an identification with a neighbor who has a marked tendency to identify with neighbors. To identify with the Good Samaritan, then, is effectively to identify with both the moral agent and the vulnerable victim with whom that agent himself compassionately identifies.

Consequently, the lawyer—who identifies with both victim and Samaritan—becomes neighbor to himself in the story. He inhabits all parts in a deep double-identification with victim and agent, with neighbor and self. Indeed, these various identifications become still more complicated when we recall that the story is told not just for the lawyer’s sake, but for ours as well. The parable, then, calls us in Luke’s audience to identify, not just with the beaten man (as premoderns have presumed) and not just with the Samaritan (as so many moderns have emphasized), but also with the lawyer himself as he double-identifies with both. It goes without saying, then, that anti-Jewish readings of the parable miss the point of the story altogether. “Perverse” is, perhaps, the only word fit to describe Christian efforts over the years to turn this parable (i.e., a parable about the unbounded quality of neighborliness and ethical responsibility) into an occasion to vilify the Jewish people supposedly represented by the lawyer, priest and Levite. By my reading, while Luke’s Jesus has much to criticize in all three of those figures, his ultimate criticism is reserved for us—those of us in today’s audience, that is, who must identify, as I conclude here, not only with the victim and the Samaritan, but also with the lawyer himself. In short, the lawyer is, we must admit, proud by Luke’s account. However, he is proud, because we (i.e., humans) are proud—and not for any other reason (ethnic, religious, or otherwise). In fact, as a word of caution for this essay, its author, and its readers: the lawyer is perhaps proudest when he most resembles today’s ethicists, parsing out the particular nature and scope of his responsibilities to needy neighbors.

With that final identification in mind, then, the parable calls us to find ourselves in every possible figure in the story—a point Larry Bouchard has recently made. Emphasizing the fundamentally theatrical quality of Luke’s story, Bouchard observes that the parable “may ask the audience to take or identify with all these roles—shifting from the wounded man to the Levite, to the Samaritan, to the Innkeeper, et cetera.” Indeed, in an equally theatrical remark, Robert Funk even earlier suggested that “[t]he ‘meaning’ of the parable is the way auditors take up roles in the story and play out the drama.” More to the point here, the story calls us not so much to find ourselves narcissistically in every figure—playing all parts, all others, all victims, all agents. Rather, it calls us to “find ourselves” ethically —by recognizing, wherever we look, those others whose parts we are called to play. All in all, ethics (like the Good Samaritan parable itself) necessarily involves “performing others.” When done right, that is, ethics begins (again, like this passage from Luke) with a recognition of the resourceful others who might (if sometimes surprisingly) perform for us in our need. Yet, ethics also goes on (like Jesus’ parable) to draw us into transforming identifications with, even performances of, the others who surround us. In short, ethics recognizes (in the wake of Luke 10:25-37) not only the others who perform for us in our need, but also the needy others for whom—and even as whom—we ourselves are often called to perform.


[1] See: Rembrandt’s sketch of “The Good Samaritan” in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the thirty-eighth episode of Seinfeld, known as “The Good Samaritan”; and the Lego stop-motion version of the parable found at: (accessed November 30, 2011).
[2] King’s last speech, “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” (3 April 1968), draws an especially close parallel between the “dangerous unselfishness” Jesus’ Samaritan exhibited on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem and that exhibited by striking sanitation workers and their supporters on the dangerous streets of Memphis, Tennessee. Of course, King’s own “dangerous unselfishness” resulted in his assassination the very next evening at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel. American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Michael Warner (Library of America 1999).
[3] You can see the Minnesota law at: (accessed November 30, 2011).
[4] “The Good Samaritan: A Modern Telling,” (accessed November 30, 2011).
[5] The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Luke, A Commentary on the Greek Text, ed. I. Howard Marshall (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1978).
[6] Origen: Homilies on Luke, Fragments on Luke—The Fathers of the Church, vol. 94, trans. Joseph T. Lienhard (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press 1996), 138.
[7] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Luke, ed. Arthur A. Just, Jr. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press 2003), 179-80.
[8] Teaching Christianity (De Doctrina Christiana), The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, New York: New City Press 1990), 120-21.
[9] Sermons, III/5, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, New York: New City Press 1990), 248.
[10] An eighteenth-century Russian image can be found at:, while a twentieth-century Greek image can be found at: (both accessed November 30, 2011).
[11] Although he acknowledges this Christocentric reading in his recent Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI shows considerable ambivalence about the patristic interpretation of Luke’s parable. First of all, he relegates the issue to the concluding paragraphs of his discussion, so that it becomes something of a footnote to the more important moral reading of the text. Second of all, the pope refers to the allegorical reading, at one point, as “an interpretation that bypasses the text”—something many modern historical critics might assert. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (New York: Doubleday 2007), 199. At most, in the pope’s words, “We can safely ignore the individual details of the allegory” even if we can “happily retain” the basic equation of Jesus and Samaritan, on the one hand, and the equation of alienated humanity and beaten man, on the other—at least, as a “deeper dimension of the parable that is of concern to us,” 201.
[12] Find an example from St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church (McKinney, Texas) here: (accessed November 30, 2011).
[13] See The Brill Dictionary of Gregory of Nyssa, eds. Lucas F. Mateo Seco, Giulio Maspero (Leiden: Brill 2009), 694.
[14] From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, eds. Jean Daniélou and Herbert Musurillo (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1979), 280.
[15] E. J. Tinsley, The Gospel According to Luke: Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1965), 119.
[16] Tinsley, 119.
[17] “Le Bon Samaritain,” Mélanges Bibliques rédigés en l’honneur de André Robert (Paris: Bloud et Gay 1957), 457-65.
[18] Marshall, 450.
[19] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Anchor Bible—The Gospel According to Luke: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (Garden City, New York: Doubleday 1985), 885.
[20] Fitzmyer, 885.
[21] Just, 181.
[22] Hill, III/5, 312.
[23] Lienhard, 138.
[24] Just, 179.
[25] John N. Sheveland, Piety and Responsibility: Patterns of Unity in Karl Rahner, Karl Barth, and Vedanta Deshika (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate 2011), 188.
[26] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2, eds. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1970), 418.
[27] Snodgrass 348, emphasis added.
[28] G. B. Caird, Westminster Pelican Commentaries: Saint Luke (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminster Press 1977), 148.
[29] Caird, 148.
[30] Robert W. Funk has made this case about the parable as a whole—i.e., that the story is told from the perspective of the victim throughout. As a result, it is probably Funk who offers a reading most consistent with the one I offer here—especially in light of Funk’s recommendation that “one become the victim in the ditch.” Parables and Presence: Forms of the New Testament Tradition (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Fortress Press 1982), 34. However, contrary to my own essay’s argument about the parable’s recommendation of double -identification with both victim and agent, Funk encourages a single-identification (if with the victim), maintaining at one point that the story “does not suggest that one behave like the Samaritan.” Funk, 34.
[31] Exposition of the Psalms, III/19, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, New York: New City Press 2003), 167.
[32] According to Fitzmyer’s analysis, “the parable [of the Prodigal Son] presents the loving father as a symbol of God himself.” Fitzmyer, 1085.
[33] In fact, the particular use of ἐσπλαγχνίσθη is not the only notable parallel among Christ’s resurrection of the widow’s son, the Samaritan’s rescue of the beaten man, and the father’s forgiveness of the prodigal son. In all three cases, compassion is generated by a more-or-less visual encounter: Christ is moved upon seeing the widow; the Samaritan is moved upon seeing the fallen man; and the father is moved upon having seen his son in the distance.
[34] Needless to say, the essentially atheistic political theory of John Rawls differs considerably (in motivation, anthropology, theology, etc.) from the profoundly theistic ethics of Luke’s Jesus. Yet the Good Samaritan has become so much a part of Western ethical thought that it makes an appearance in Rawls’ work as well. In fact, in his advocacy of “public reason” and corresponding rejection of religious discourse from the public square, Rawls employs “the familiar story of the Good Samaritan” itself as his example of a religious narrative that, because of its religious history, requires for its just political use a non-religious interpretation, a translation “in terms of proper political values.” John Rawls, Political Liberalism (Columbia University Press 2005), 456.
[35] Though the wording here comes from Rawls’ later work, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Cambridge, Massachusetts 2001), 15, the thought-experiment detailed here is fundamentally the same as the one appearing earlier in A Theory of Justice (1971).
[36] Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments begins with a foundational discussion of the nature of sympathy and the importance of an explicitly theatrical approach to ethical deliberation, reliance on the so-called “impartial spectator.” Adam Smith, Part I, Section I, Chapter I: “Of Sympathy,” The Theory of Moral Sentiments, eds. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie (Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund 1976), 9, 26.
[37] Levinas’ discussion of “non-coinciding” appears both in his central discussion of “substitution” and (albeit more paradoxically) in his less well-known recommendation of “sincerity” as well. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being: Or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press 2008), 115, 56.
[38] I say “appears” because Levinas actually has a good deal to say about justice, while Rawls’ concern for justice roots itself fundamentally in ethical commitments. For Levinas’ most provocative discussions of “justice”—the justice which appears whenever a “third” person enters and affects the interpersonal ethical relation of the face-to-face—see Levinas, Otherwise, 16, 82, 157, 161, 168, 190-196. Thanks to M. Jamie Ferreira for first pointing this pattern out to me.
[39] Levinas, Otherwise, 99.
[40] Levinas, Otherwise, 118.
[41] Qtd. in Levinas, Otherwise, 118.
[42] Emmanuel Levinas, Of God Who Comes to Mind, trans. Bettina Bergo (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press 1998), 90.
[43] Although considerable debate persists over whether or not the Good Samaritan parable is, in fact, a so-called “example parable,” most readers feel pushed to some modest concession to that point when they consider Jesus’ “Go and do likewise” conclusion. Some, like John Dominic Crossan, insist that the parable (initially a “parable of reversal” in the historical Jesus’ use of it) has been tamed into a mere example parable by the tradition leading up to the composition and canonization of Luke’s gospel. John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (New York, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers 1973), 64-66.
[44] The early church fathers also recognized this side of Jesus’ parable, on some level, by recognizing our need to imitate the Good Samaritan’s true referent, Christ. However, most patristic interpretations make relatively little of this dimension of the story—at least, when compared to their modern counterparts. In fact, avoiding the presumption of taking on the part of the story’s hero, early church fathers sometimes encourage imitation not so much of the Samaritan, but instead of the innkeeper, who tends to the needy victim in the Samaritan’s absence. Seeing the inn as a figure for the church itself, Augustine observes: “We are performing the duties of the innkeeper” (Sermon 179A). Hill, III/5, 312.
[45] Levinas’ comments about the centrality of “denuding” onself before the other in sincerity, while more directly reminiscent of Isaiah’s suffering servant, seem relevant here. Ethics involves being stripped not only of one’s ordinary masks, clothes, and costumes, but even of one’s skin (of even boundaries of self-protection). Levinas, Otherwise, 15. Perhaps by that light, then, there might be something ethically desirable about Rawls’ largely abstracted agent (the most objectionable feature of his theory for more communitarian thinkers like Michael Sandel). Read the right way, that is, his more-or-less rootless liberal individual is not so much a community-free individual as he is a stripped and utterly naked anthropos in the ditch.
[46] Larry Bouchard, Theater and Integrity: Emptying Selves in Drama, Ethics, and Religion (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press 2011), 337.
[47] Funk, 34.