“Samaritans” today

Even many people who’ve never set foot in a church are familiar with the phrase “Good Samaritan,” and many have at least a rough idea of the story. “Samaritan” has come to mean “a charitable person.” Thus, much of the original point of the story is obscured, if not lost altogether.


For those to whom Jesus told this parable, “Samaritan” did not have a positive connotation. They considered Samaritans to be inferior, half-breed people to be avoided. Sure, the listeners probably got the point about how we should help others, but they may have been taken aback when the hero of the story was “one of those people.” Yet, Jesus told the story in answer to the question, Who is my neighbor? He was expanding the definition of “neighbor.”


In the ’60s, there was a version that was popular with advocates for racial integration, of which I was one. In it, the man robbed was white, those that passed him by were church leaders and the “Samaritan” was Black. Once when I heard it told, someone suggested that the victim could be a white liberal and the Samaritan a “redneck.” Indeed, Harry Chapin, in his song “What Made America Famous,” offers a similar approach to the parable.


I find it helpful to look at the 1997 movie, “As Good As It Gets,” with The Good Samaritan story in mind.


Melvin Udall, played by Jack Nicholson, is racist and homophobic. He earns his living writing trashy romance novels. He won’t bother to take his OCD medication, which would help him be less annoying. He doesn’t seem to like other people and doesn’t seem to care whether they like him.


Greg Kinnear’s character, Simon Bishop, is Udall’s neighbor. He is an artist who is gay. Udall verbally spars with Bishop and with his African-American agent Frank Sachs (Cuba Gooding Jr,), making no attempt to hide his prejudice toward both.


Then Simon is beaten and robbed in his apartment. He’s left seriously injured, and on the verge of bankruptcy. He’s not able to get help from his family nor from anyone on a long list of friends and fellow artists.


Melvin takes him in to his own apartment, to give him a place to live as he heals from his injuries and gets back on his feet financially. It’s a more expansive understanding of being a neighbor.

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