Good Samaritan: Love Of Neighbor, Not Refugee Resettlement

Are Christians obligated as “good Samaritans” to encourage their nations to bring in refugees of war? No. As opposed to popular culture’s proof-texting of the parable of the good Samaritan, Christianity does not require, as some suggest, the relocation of foreigners from distant lands to one’s own country. And it certainly does not require being concerned with the well-being of those foreigners more than the well-being of one’s fellow citizens. If anything, the parable of the good Samaritan discourages the privileging of foreigners to one’s actual neighbors.

Some context is required for those unfamiliar with the parable: A lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what is written in the law. The man responds, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.” And Jesus says, “Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.” Then the man inquires as to who his neighbor is. Jesus responds with a parable about a traveling man who is robbed, wounded, and left for dead on the road. Two men choose to pass him by, but a third man, a Samaritan, binds his wounds, takes him to an inn, and pays the host to take care of him. Jesus asks, “Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?” The lawyer responds, “He that shewed mercy on him.” Jesus tells him, “Go, and do thou likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37 KJV)

Instead of answering the lawyer’s inquiry directly, Jesus instead tells him to do as the Samaritan does in the parable. Technically, the person identified as a neighbor is the Samaritan, not the wounded man, but the commentary here will follow the usual practice of referring to the latter as a neighbor to the former. In any case, although some people assert that the example of the Samaritan is easily extended to importing Middle Eastern refugees into Western countries, there are a few obvious difficulties:

First, the Samaritan does not take the man back home with him. Rather, he takes him to an inn — presumably one along the way that he intends to pass by again, since he assures the host of compensation later for any costs exceeding what he has already provided. Incidentally, a closer equivalent to this than bringing refugees into one’s own country is providing a “safe zone” close to or within the refugees’ own country. But even this is a stretch, because complex policy decisions are not easily extracted from parables.

Second, the Samaritan does not use other people’s money to help the man, but instead pays from his own pocket. Refugee resettlement, however, is a big racket that relies on taxpayer money, which brings in foreigners who also rely on taxpayer money. A rough equivalent would be if the Samaritan not only dropped off the man at the inn without compensating the host, but also extracted money from the people there, and then used that money to ship more wounded men to the inn.

Third, the Samaritan does not go out of his way to find a man to help, but rather helps a man in need whom he sees as he is traveling. Insofar as his example applies to Christians in America, it does so with regard to needy people in America, specifically those whom the Christian happens to find around him. Indeed, the Greek word translated as “neighbor” is a substantive use of an adjective that means “near” or “close to.” A neighbor in the context of the parable means someone who is nearby, not halfway across the globe. As Clarke writes in his commentary,

It is evident that our Lord uses the word πλησίον (very properly translated neighbor, from nae or naer, near, and buer, to dwell) in its plain, literal sense. Any person whom you know, who dwells hard by, or who passes near you, is your neighbor while within your reach.

Even though this point should be fairly obvious — that the parable about loving one’s neighbor is about loving one’s neighbor and not someone in a distant land — it is obscured by interpretations that tend toward needless abstraction. Moreover, it runs against the misguided egalitarianism and universalism popular today, whose adherents contend that a preference to help the man nearby (the neighbor) over the one far away is unfair or prejudiced. But it’s simply a fact that even an egalitarian and universal love must express itself in concrete actions toward particular individuals. Augustine addresses this difficulty in his book On Christian Doctrine:

Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you. For, suppose that you had a great deal of some commodity, and felt bound to give it away to somebody who had none, and that it could not be given to more than one person; if two persons presented themselves, neither of whom had either from need or relationship a greater claim upon you than the other, you could do nothing fairer than choose by lot to which you would give what could not be given to both. Just so among men: since you cannot consult for the good of them all, you must take the matter as decided for you by a sort of lot, according as each man happens for the time being to be more closely connected with you.

So, according to Augustine, it is possible to love all men and yet still prefer to help one man over another on account of a greater claim he has upon you due to need, relationship, time, place, or circumstance. It just so happens that the primary beneficiaries of neighborly charity will tend to be those around whom one lives, and people often choose to live near those who are like them. Exceptions will arise due to travel, but travel is incidental to the main point of the parable, which involves helping those who are near. To demand that one’s government move in people from far away in order to help them is to turn the parable on its head. Love of neighbor is for neighbors.

Contemporary commentators like to note that the stumbling block for the lawyer to whom Jesus tells the parable is that he interprets “neighbor” to refer to people who are like him, so he overlooks the suffering man nearby, and instead thinks of his fellows who are distant. But the stumbling block for today’s Christian is often the reverse: He interprets “neighbor” to refer to people who are unlike him, so he overlooks the suffering man nearby, and instead thinks of foreigners who are distant. But charity begins at home. As Paul writes, “If any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” (I Timothy 5:8 KJV) Today’s practice of seeking out distant peoples to help, and then saddling one’s actual neighbors with the costs and consequences, is the precise opposite of that for which the good Samaritan is credited.