Hero photograph

What to do with the Stranger?

Wendy Taylor —

Change has accelerated in our globalised world.

The onslaught of COVID-19 has fundamentally altered the character of the world around us, and consequently, the way we see and act in that world. At a time when we are required to pull in towards ourselves and our own loved ones, trying to create an impenetrable bubble of security, one story of Jesus stands out as a beacon, a reminder of a different way. It is the story of two strangers, one left naked and half-dead on the side of the road to Jericho, and the other a seemingly godless outsider, travelling for personal gain. In this story of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus redefines who belongs to the in-group and effectively obliterates the concept of “them and us.”

The first stranger is a man often thought to be one of the “in” crowd, that is a Jew, but in fact, Jesus does not specify his ethnicity. Robbed of his clothes by his assailants, his identity is lost for both the listener to the story and the other characters of the story: the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan. Throughout his two volumes, Luke has used clothing as “a consistent indicator of wealth and social status, or the lack thereof.”[1] Michael Knowles, determines that for Luke, “being stripped of one's apparel is a mark of humility or humiliation.”[2] As well as being stripped of his dignity, the robbed man was stripped of an easy and obvious way of determining his social, economic, and ethnic identity.[3] In contrast, the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan were most likely all easily identifiable by their dress.[4] However, the unidentified man is not able to be placed within any group. He is truly a stranger to each of the three that approaches him.

The robbed man is not the only stranger in the story. Elizabeth Palmer points out that:

… in the contemporary Jewish context, as soon as the story mentions a priest and a Levite, every- body knows the third person will be an Israelite… The shock is that the third one is a Samaritan, and Samaritans were the enemy.[5] 

Ernst van Eck disputes that Samaritans were despised and shunned by Jews purely on the basis of their ethnicity. He argues that, at the time Jesus told the story, Samaritans were seen as “trustworthy Israelites.”[6] However, he claims that the shock factor of the story is that the Samaritan was a merchant and “for the 1st-century hearers of the parable, merchants personified the godless, symbolising everything that was unacceptable.”[7] He was likely an oil and wine merchant, a familiar figure to Luke’s readers.[8] Whichever way the Samaritan is seen, he is a negative stereotype, the unexpected third person. He is also an outsider, a stranger in this story.

Each of the three travellers saw the injured man. Both the priest and the Levite saw and crossed to the other side of the road ( vv.31-2).[9] But it is the Samaritan who truly saw the man and was moved with pity. His lack of regard for who it was he is helping and his recognition of the robbed man’s humanness, inherent worth and dignity, is confronting. Thus, “the story concludes with richly textured, detailed words of just how concrete, real, and intimate this compassion is.”[10] So it is the Samaritan, the outlier, who becomes the champion of the story, seemingly unconcerned about the cost of intervening. With the help of the innkeeper,[11] his sacrificial actions bring restoration. The lawyer, whose question prompted the story, calls the Samaritan “the one who had mercy” ( v. 37), a characteristic that Luke attributes to God.[12] The Samaritan is “a hero who goes well beyond the minimum and whose abundant acts of mercy are reflections of God’s own mercy.”[13]

It is at this point that Jesus reorientates the lawyer’s question. The lawyer asked, “who is my neighbour?”, but Jesus answered to whom should he, the lawyer, be a neighbour. The point is not whose neighbour is the robbed man, that is indeterminate, but who will be a neighbour to him, whoever he is. No doubt, when Jesus tells the lawyer to “Go and do likewise,” the stereotype that keeps his attitude in a tight order is annihilated.

What about us?

James Hunter has outlined three different ways the church has tended to view the stranger.

1. As a potential threat whose “difference” can be neutralised through conversion or remain threatening.
2. As representing no essential difference, leading to accommodation.
3. As a “darkness” from which to remain separate.[14]

None of these positions are consistent with Jesus’ story. His story forces us past the expected or inherent reactions and into the realm of the exceptional, where barriers are broken.

Our world today is radically different from the world even two months ago. It remains to be seen what the longer-term changes will be, but in this time of shrinking social identity, we can remember these two strangers, the unidentifiable robbed man and the outlier Samaritan. In this way, “theology to be authentic must be constantly challenged, disturbed and stirred up by the presence of strangers.”[15]

First, Jesus as our pioneer, identifies with both outsiders. Here, “there is a striking suggestion in the New Testament that Christ himself is a stranger.”[16] He is the stranger that we welcome and the naked that we clothed (Matt 25:35-36). Indeed, “when Christ himself is presented as the stranger ‘who needs to be fed, clothed and visited,’ the gospel suggests a revolutionary displacement of ‘the centre’.”[17] Power and prestige are upended.

Jesus is also the Saviour of the stranger: “What if, instead of seeing ourselves as the people going by on the road, we see ourselves as the person who is lying in the ditch, half-dead, bleeding to death?”[18] Jesus then is the scandalous one who shows extraordinary mercy. In the drama of Scripture,

we are the “other.” Though we are irreducibly different from him and, in our sin, irreducibly estranged from him, he does not regard us as either “danger” or “darkness.” We neither threaten him nor diminish him in any way.[19]

He covers our shame, heals us, and lifts us into his glorious light.

However, the Samaritan merchant also reminds us, that in our turn, we remain strangers.[20] And as we follow the example of Christ, we are called, like the lawyer, to act towards the person in need with the uncommon mercy of the Samaritan. The identity of the stranger is irrelevant; it does not matter whether they are near or far, Kiwi, of a different ethnicity, rich, or poor. There is no “in” or “out.” We are called to break that “perennial tendency, faced by each generation, to make the distinctions more important and more threatening than they are.”[21]

This does not mean that we are all the same—one large homogeneous mass with no cultural or ethnic difference, but that our responsibility extends to all who are hurting.

In the koinonia of the self-giving Christ there is no struggle between unity and diversity. Both unity and diversity are signs of the blessing of God as manifested in the Body of Christ. “… we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17).[22]

When my husband and I were about to adopt a little four-year-old girl from Thailand, we were told that we should look in our “own backyard” rather than go further afield. There are plenty of children here that need help. There is no denying that the needs of New Zealand children are great but so are the needs in Thailand. The needs of New Zealand children should not be put in opposition to those of children from other countries. Jesus’ story breaks such distinction. Jesus calls us to help any child in need, no matter the location nor the ethnicity.

In recent days, the country of Uruguay has shown more than kindness to the passengers of the Greg Mortimer, a cruise ship where almost sixty percent of passengers tested positive for COVID-19. Other South American countries had refused to let the ship berth, but Uruguay coordinated a difficult operation to disembark the passengers. Ill patients were taken to Montevideo’s British Hospital. The words of a Dr Adrian Aguiar, an intern at that hospital, exemplifies an attitude of uncommon mercy: “They are not Uruguayans and they are in a foreign-flagged ship, but they are human beings.”[23]

Hunter proposes that rather than seeing the stranger as a threat or as darkness, or simply ignoring their difference, we need a “theology of faithful presence.”[24] This is a theology of engagement in and with the world around us. It is a theology of commitment, a theology of promise. It is disarmingly simple in concept yet in its implications it provides a challenge, at points, to all of the dominant paradigms of cultural engagement in the church.[25]

An inward focus on friends and family is totally understandable in a COVID-19 environment of uncertainty and fear of the future. However, “[c]aution can be excused, even commended, but indifference is another matter.”[26] Throughout the world, people are hurting. In India, food prices are rising dramatically. In Mumbai people are being locked in their apartments. Fruit and vegetables are no longer available, and people are frightened.[27] We have yet to see the full impact of COVID-19 on Africa. Let us truly “see” what is happening, both to our literal neighbours and to those beyond our borders, and may we be moved to act with uncommon mercy. To be kind to those around us is a universal ethic but loving the stranger is a truly Christian calling.

Wendy Taylor spent five years in Indonesia with her husband and five children, ministering amongst the Dayak peoples in West Kalimantan. She is currently co-principal of the Nations Course, which provides training for cross-cultural missionaries from all over the world for World Outreach International and other organisations. She has been a part-time teaching fellow for Laidlaw College for the last four years, teaching Mission, Church & Community. When she is not travelling, she enjoys research, gardening, and farm work.

[1] Michael P. Knowles, “What Was the Victim Wearing? Literary, Economic, and Social Contexts for the Parable of the Good Samaritan,” Biblical Interpretation 12, no. 2 (April 2004): 155. See Luke 3:11; 7:35; 8:27, 31; 9:3; 12:22-3, 27-8; 15:22; 16:19; 20:46; 22:63-64; 24:49; Acts 12:21; 16:14; 16:22-23.

[2] Knowles, “What Was the Victim Wearing?," 157.

[3] Philip F. Esler, “Jesus and the Reduction of Intergroup Conflict: The Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Light of Social Identity Theory,” Biblical Interpretation 8, no. 4 (October 2000): 337–38. Esler also points out that the man’s nakedness enables the travellers to identify if the man was circumcised or not. However, as he states, both Jews and Samaritans were circumcised, therefore, this is of little use as an identity marker and less obvious to a passing traveller. See also Knowles, “What Was the Victim Wearing?,” 157.

[4] Knowles, “What Was the Victim Wearing?,” 157–68.

[5] Elizabeth Palmer, “Listening to Jesus as a Jew,” Christian Century 136, no. 7 (March 27, 2019): 26.

[6] Ernest van Eck, “A Samaritan Merchant and His Friend, and Their Friends: Practicing Life-Giving Theology,” Hervormde Teologiese Studies; Pretoria 75, no. 1 (2019): 5. The shift in attitude towards the Samaritans possibly took place after the Bar Kochba revolt in 132-5 CE.

[7] Ibid., 6.

[8] Knowles, “What Was the Victim Wearing?,” 150–55.

[9] Purity issues have no relevance to their decision to walk on by. “A human was lying in a ditch, dying, and to save a life was so important in the Jewish world that ‘Jewish Law mandates that it override every other concern, including the Sabbath,’”; van Eck, “A Samaritan Merchant,” 6. See also Palmer, “Listening to Jesus as a Jew,” 26.

[10] Mark E. Stenberg, “Everything You Know Is Wrong: Shame, E-Dentity, Identity, and the Samaritan Savior of Luke 10:25-37,” Word & World 30, no. 3 (Summer 2010): 324.

[11] van Eck, “A Samaritan Merchant,” 5. Most likely, the innkeeper knew the Samaritan.

[12] Strahan, Joshua Marshall, “Jesus Teaches Theological Interpretation of the Law: Reading the Good Samaritan in Its Literary Context,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 10, no. 1 (2016): 81.

[13] Ibid., 82.

[14] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, 1 edition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 219–20.

[15] Kōsuke Koyama, “‘Extend Hospitality to Strangers’: A Missiology of Theologia Crucis,” International Review of Mission 82, no. 327 (July 1993): 283.

[16] Ibid., 284.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Stenberg, “Everything You Know Is Wrong: Shame, E-Dentity, Identity, and the Samaritan Savior of Luke 10:25-37,” 326.

[19] Hunter, To Change the World, 243.

[20] Cf. 1 Pet. 1:1, 2:11

[21] Arland J. Hultgren, “Enlarging the Neighborhood: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37),” Word & World 37, no. 1 (Winter 2017): 77.

[22] Koyama, “‘Extend Hospitality to Strangers,’” 287.

[23] Anthony Dennis, “Coronavirus: Only One Country Was Willing to Help Trapped Kiwi Cruise Passengers,” Stuff.Co.NZ, last modified April 14, 2020, https://www.stuff.co.nz/travel/news/120993898/coronavirus-only-one-country-was-willing-to-help-trapped-kiwi-cruise-passengers.

[24] Hunter, To Change the World.

[25] Ibid., 243.

[26] Hultgren, “Enlarging the Neighborhood,” 76.

[27] This is anecdotal evidence received by email from Indian friends and colleagues.