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The Good Samaritan

Rembrandt, The Good Samaritan

The parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke is brought up in the course of a discussion between Jesus and a man of law with regard to the question of what one ought to do “to inherit eternal life”. Referring to the answer given by the law the man quotes a verse from the Pentateuch: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”. (Lv 19:18). He goes on to question Jesus on the meaning of the word “neighbour” to which Jesus replies with a parable:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:29-37)

The qualities of the Good Samaritan

A study of the Samaritan’s behaviour reveals several qualities that contribute to his altruism:

  • First, there is his selflessness. The Samaritan’s disinterested renouncements are striking: he leaves his business (his travels) aside to dedicate considerable time to this man, he makes expenses and avoids no efforts (for example in leaving him his donkey)—all for a stranger of whom he expects nothing in return and to whom he owes nothing.
  • The disinterested character of his behaviour is reinforced by the fact that the half-dead stranger is probably Jewish—he in other words belongs to a community that is hostile toward Samaritans. The altruistic gesture of the Samaritan is thus a form of transgression of communitarian taboos. The Good Samaritan’s altruism tends toward a certain universality in which the negative perception of the other is surpassed.
  • Then there is the fact that careful attention is paid to detail in the carrying out of the altruistic act. The Samaritan doesn’t content himself with a simple gesture (as for example bringing the man to the closest abode) but takes the smallest details into account—this is perhaps the most striking aspect of the story: he provides first aid (cleans and binds the wounds, uses oil and wine), transports the wounded man to an inn, covers expenses and takes precautions for the future. He acts upon his altruistic impulse to the fullest extent, zealously following through and giving it all his heart.
  • Finally, his altruistic action stems from a noble emotion: “He took pity on him”. It’s the presence of this emotion that distinguishes the Samaritan from the two other travellers who seem not to harbour this emotion. This emotion—or, in the context of the Gospel, this love for one’s neighbour—is what motivates the altruistic act and gives it meaning.

The commentators of this parable tend to linger on the fact that the priest and the Levite—contrary to the Samaritan—did not stop despite the fact that they had noticed the poor man—the probable reason being that as they were responsible for religious office the contact with blood would have made them impure in the eyes of the law. By opposing the transgressive attitude of the Samaritan to the “legal” attitude of the priest and the Levite, Jesus would be expressing here the priority of the “law toward one’s neighbour”—the law of the heart—over the Law, for he who seeks “to inherit eternal life”. This is a characteristic reversal of the message of this Gospel.

Attention to others

Another essential quality of the Samaritan’s is his attention to others. To fully understand this idea, let us consider the following experiment that uses the parable and that Daniel Goleman describes in his book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (Chapter 4: An Instinct for Altruism):

  1. 40 students from a divinity school are studying a sermon from the Bible, half of whom are focusing on the parable of the Good Samaritan.
  2. The experiment (that the students are—of course—not aware of) is the following: on their way to present their papers they all pass a man bent over and moaning.
  3. 24 out of 40 students stop independently of the theme of their sermon. Having studied the parable at length has had no particular effect on their behaviour.
  4. Out of the 10 students who believed they were late, only one stopped. Out of the 10 who believed they had time 6 stopped.

The main factor determining the students’ aptitude for altruism was thus the degree of concern that they would do well in their presentation (which was reinforced by the anxiety of arriving on time). Furthermore, those who had studied the parable had visibly not crossed the threshold of theory to practice.

Daniel Goleman concludes that for altruism to be possible, the time to pay attention to others needs to be taken. Focusing on others enables empathy to spring up within us, allows us to feel concerned, and generates an emotional circle that motivates us to act. One of the main difficulties we are facing in this modern world is that we get caught up in what he calls “urban trance”—this self-absorbed state we tend to fall into on crowded streets—and thus become incapable of this simple act of attention that generates the emotional circle and in turn altruism; despite the fact—as Goleman points out—that it is an instinctive activity.

This experiment is presented by Daniel Goleman in the following conference on the theme of compassion:

Conclusion

The following diagram sums up a first glance of the bundle of human qualities involved in practising altruism (click on image for a better view):

altruism qualities

To conclude let us keep in mind two key ideas:

  • Practising altruism mobilizes numerous qualities including: abnegation, attention to detail, noble emotion, universality, and, most of all, attention to others. Try analysing these prerequisites for altruism in yourself.
  • The ambivalence of the character of the Good Samaritan in everyday language. Indeed, “to play the Good Samaritan” means to be charitable and helpful to those in need. The expression has a friendly and positive connotation, but sometimes comes with tinge of irony: the Good Samaritan strikes as a “soft touch” and the naivety of his actions call to mind the Scout’s good deeds. In that sense, he is somewhat immature and exposes himself to potential crooks and swindlers. This touch of irony or cynicism in everyday language (in French perhaps even more so than in English) accounts for a certain ambivalence in the representation we have of the Good Samaritan. Does this ambivalence suggest certain risks or limits of altruism?


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14 comments

  1. toronto Apr 09, 2013 9:51 pm 1

    This was absolutely amazing! thank you for sharing!
    I think it is so useful to be reminded of that in a world today where we are all more concerned and more focused on our own lives and our own interest that we have become so selfish that we forget to take a second and really care! It definitely got my attention!
    thank you

  2. naghme Apr 10, 2013 1:45 pm 2

    Being compassionate out of love is only applicable to very advanced persons but i think at our stage, our love is necessarily a reasoned one and we are therefore compassionate out of DUTY.

  3. naghme Apr 10, 2013 2:26 pm 3

    In altruism and self-sacrifice we have to take into account such particular conditions as the time, place, individual capacities, and so on. we should not ignore our duties toward ourself, our family or those who are near us and our society and so forth. we have to know what is each person’s due and learn to do each thing in its proper place. that’s a bit more difficult than simply practicing altruism without any distinctions. It requires our actions to be balanced, harmonious, exactly appropriate to the situation. Going to extremes without the right measure anybody can do that. but knowing how to do each thing appropriately in the right place and proportions. proper dose 4 each particular case!

  4. Noel Apr 11, 2013 12:29 pm 4

    With daily life becoming more and more hectic, it is easy to forget others in the quest to keep up with busy schedules and life’s ever increasing demands and duties. Hitting the pause button, becoming less robotic and reflecting on the needs of family, colleagues, friends and even strangers not only helps one become less egotistical and selfish but also creates a space and an opportunity to act on one’s professed principles and apply the Golden Rule. This article is great reminder of how to put the principle of altruism into practice! Thank you.

  5. Haleh Apr 13, 2013 4:42 pm 5

    Regarding the question at the end of the article, I have seen that sometimes I indeed can limit my acts of altruism when I think people may call me “soft”. Sometimes I do not show my love to my loved ones in front of others even if I feel like it. Sometimes I do not do things because I feel embarrassed or I do not want to be called soft (stupid), let alone the times I do not want to be taken advantage of.
    I think I have read somewhere that I have to do things excessively when dealing with my weak point. Any suggestions? (Please help)

  6. JW Apr 13, 2013 7:22 pm 6

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful & potent article.
    Some thoughts that came to mind in relation to finding more practical means/tools for further developing the sense of altruism and carrying out altruistic acts in me:
    a) The importance of autosuggestion. b) Revisiting and brushing up on the topic and importance of “Social Intelligence:” paying attention to others needs. c) Paying a lot more attention and effort in the development of my “Spiritual Comprehension:” seeing, recognizing and carrying out each thing or each act in its proper place for this may effect and act as an aid to one’s ability to better understand, recognize and pinpoint the appropriate situation for acting as a good Samaritan and avoiding the tinge of irony associated with crooks and swindlers taking advantage of a soft or concerned heart with good intentions.

  7. Bardi Apr 16, 2013 7:22 am 7

    Thank you for this effective article. I agree with Naghme in terms of considering all aspects before acting altruistically.
    @Haleh: I think some aspects of this behavior come from pride but like every other characteristic you have to balance it, not completely ignore it. Also you don’t want to show off, by acting good in front of others. So, not feeling comfortable doing good in front of others may not necessarily be a bad thing. As long as you know the reason behind it you know best what to do with it. I also have this problem and act shy in front of others. I think some of it comes from pride but I’m not sure.

  8. Noel Apr 23, 2013 1:34 pm 8

    I experienced a simple example of how to put altruism into practice the same morning that I read this article. My model was a stranger I encountered on the metro on my way to work. It was extremely crowded in the metro that morning and I was struggling to read a book while standing up and holding onto my computer bag at the same time. After 5 minutes or so, a woman called out to me and asked it I wanted to take the seat that had just become available in front of her. I hadn’t noticed that seat at all and she could have easily taken that seat for herself. Instead, she was so aware of my need for a place to sit that she actually went out of her way to get my attention and asked if I wanted to take the seat. I thought how kind and thoughtful and how interesting that I should experience a small, tangible example of someone who not only noticed and paid attention to the need of another but also went out of her way to help. This small act of kindness has remained with me as a good example of how to practice altruism in small ways throughout the day.

  9. Charlie Apr 28, 2013 12:29 am 9

    Thank you so much for this article. I read it every morning on my commute to work and it motivates me to pay more attention to others and means I was able to take advantage of more opportunities to do my duties than would otherwise have been the case. It also helps me analyse myself better and I find it amazing that the thought process when I am going to try to put altruism into practice is so complex. The one thing that seems to come with it each time is that despite trying to correct my intention, I have to fight off this sense of pride that seems to come with it. I had not noticed this before and am trying to fight it. I wonder if anyone else has any experience of this and how the are dealing with it.

  10. Photon Apr 29, 2013 4:43 pm 10

    Thank you for the article. I was wondering if anyone has analyzed (or can analyze) the process — and to what extent — did the good Samaritan gain self-knowledge by his altruistic act. I understand it was a very kind act and many people indeed do kind acts everyday. But without having any hopefully material intention, and only divine satisfication in mind, is that sufficient to increase our self-knowledge.

    Also it was noted in the article: “In that sense, he is somewhat immature and exposes himself to potential crooks and swindlers”. However, God cares primarily about the intention and even if he was helping a crook or swindler without knowing it, I believe he would be rewarded (spirituality) the same. Otherwise it would go against the justice of God.

  11. Charlie May 05, 2013 9:45 pm 11

    @photon
    What great questions.

    From my very limited experience, I find that when I actually tried to put the principle into practice, I began to notice other forces at play. For example, there are times that it is so hard to do a simple act of kindness, like giving up my seat on the train to a pregnant lady (!!) without having to face and fight a feeling of contempt directed at the other passengers who have not done so. Believe me, at these times I try so hard to correct my intention, which is why I become so aware of my thought process. Or, when people turn to me for help, I feel a surge of pride at being the one they need. I know how stupid this last sentence sounds but again, it is because I am trying to correct my thought process that I know it is what is going through my mind and I try to fight it. So, I would say these are some examples of how I learnt more about myself. I am learning a lot about how negative feelings can effect intentions and motivations which I would not have known about otherwise. Also, I now know the sense of happiness I feel when I have the opportunity to be of some use to others. That in itself, to me, is self-knowledge.

    With reference to your final paragraph, for me, it would indicate that before I go ahead and do an altruistic act, I need to use my reason so I don’t fall prey to crooks and swindlers. But I would also say that if one’s intention is correct then that is what counts, spiritually.

  12. adissam May 06, 2013 12:53 am 12

    I guess it’s only through experience that we can gain knowledge, and altruistic acts help gain self-knowledge.

    As Malak Jan Nemati mentions “[…] By contrast all the goodness that exists come from Him, who sometimes puts the opportunity to do a good deed before us”.1

    What is the process that could make us acquire such knowledge ?
    ————–

    Reference
    1. Leili Anvar, Malak Jan Nemati (New York: Arpeggio Press, 2012), 134.

  13. Photon Jul 09, 2013 5:57 am 13

    @Charlie. Thanks for the comment. You mentioned:
    “I need to use my reason so I don’t fall prey to crooks and swindlers”

    Interestingly, I was reviewing the 100 Maxims of Guidance by Ostad Elahi and there it is stated in clear terms:
    Allowing oneself to be swindled is to be unjust to those who are truly needy.

    Well, I guess I should be more careful now and do my research to the best I can. I want to ensure that the charity I provide goes to the truly needy.

  14. henry Aug 13, 2014 10:25 pm 14

    @adissam

    An altruistic act can show us how noble humans can become. Yet, if we consider that it is “Him, who sometimes puts the opportunity to do a good deed before us” then there is less opportunity for an idle boast.

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