The Church's charity became toxic through a fundamental misunderstanding of the world's most famous story about helping others - the "Parable of the Good Samaritan." The prevailing summary of the story recorded in Luke 10:25-37 is “be helpful to people in need, like the Good Samaritan.” While the parable does teach that, this is absolutely not the central lesson that Jesus sought to convey. Making this lesser point the main point has placed its hearers in the role of being or becoming a hero - the ugly seed of our toxicity.***
Interpreting parables is aided by emplacing the initial audience in the story. Who are they? What happens to them? What should be learned from their experience? Answers to these questions tell us what the parable is fundamentally about and how to apply its teaching to our lives.
The initial audience was a lawyer who wanted to justify himself. Jesus would not have taught him anything had he simply said, "be nice to strangers." This man's specialty was Jewish law. He knew that one already. And Jesus was smarter than that.
The hero of the story that Jesus tells happens to be a Samaritan. If Jesus wanted to emplace the lawyer in the story as the Samaritan, it would have stretched the lawyer some. Generally speaking, first century Jews hated Samaritans and vice versa. But, at least he would have been the hero in the story. Certainly that would have softened the blow a little.
But the lawyer is not the Samaritan. Jesus tells the parable in response to the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” And after Jesus tells the story, he repeats the lawyer's question but he flips it around by asking, "So who was a neighbor to the man?" This is the key to understanding the parable.
The lawyer answered that the one who showed him mercy was his neighbor. This answer reveals who the lawyer is in the story and unveils its central teaching. He's the battered traveler lying by the side of the road half dead. He’s not the Samaritan. He’s the guy the Samaritan helps. He’s not the hero. He’s not the one who has it all together and is able to show mercy. He’s the one who needs mercy.
The central teaching of the parable is, "You need mercy, brother. You are lying half dead by the side of the road. But God, in his mercy, will send you some help. You just may not like who he sends your way."
The battered traveler gets the help he needs. And the help that God provides is through the efforts and means of someone the lawyer surely looked down on. While it might be difficult to give help to someone you look down on, that can also just reinforce the sense of superiority. It's an entirely different experience altogether to receive help from those you look down on. No greater path to humility has ever been laid out. And it sets the stage for us to embrace the deepest implication of the story.
Jesus is the Good Samaritan. He's the hero. Which means we don't get to be the hero. Ever. Our over zealous applications of the Good Samaritan parable have led the Church to embrace the role of hero. We have played God for others and encouraged a type of dependence on us that should be reserved for God alone. We have refused to receive help and learn from those in distress, trumping their skills and hopes with our resources and plans. Our efforts have led to a toxic codependence which has resulted in tragic cases of burnout, resentment, and shame.
We like to play God. We like to be the hero. But Jesus came saying, "Good news: You can stop playing God. It's killing you. I AM HERE. I will pick you up off the side of the road and take care of you. I am the hero." We killed him for that. Now we just ignore him. And we do so at our peril. For he alone can meet our deepest need.
None of us want to need mercy. But we do. We all desperately need mercy. Whatever has you half dead, don't let it stop you from accepting the mercies of Christ and the help of those he sends to be a neighbor to you.
[***The term "Toxic Charity" comes from a book by Bob Lupton. If you haven't read it yet, it's time. It'll help you understand this phenomenon more broadly. This post outlines what I believe to be the source of the problem in the Christian Church - arguably the world's most charitable organization.]
Phil Hissom is the Founder of the POLIS Insitute and the primary author of Dignity Serves. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-lesson course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.