Are Robbers my Neighbors too?: Chasing Alterity in the Parable of the Good Samaritan

by Nestor Ravilas

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is radical and audacious in many ways. It was Jesus’ trump card in his struggle against the religious and political leaders of his time. It basically questions the prevailing religious and social norms that formed and shaped social relations and arrangements of first century Palestine. First, the parable points out the inadequacy of written laws to embody the demand for social responsibility. That every accomplishment of each moral code written will only give you this strange feeling of insecurity of not having done enough to satisfy the requirements of ethics. To declare, therefore, that you have already done all of them is only to say that you have finally reached the limit of language, and what you are facing now from that edge is the infinite abyss that separates you from the demand — love your neighbor. Thereafter, every act of goodness you make, in hope to reduce the abyss, will always count insufficient to make the two horizons kiss. The demand therefore has no satisfaction, only its iterable cycle of beginning, of doing good again and again.

It calls out in the same way our notion of neighbor. Language is contrived to describe and to designate, thus is has its innate weakness to distinguish one from another. Demographically, neighbor is distinguished from stranger. Relational, it is defined against enemy. Having chosen a Samaritan as the main actor who is “taking to himself the plight of the other” is to overcome both demographic and relational barriers and thus affirms proximity of all human beings.
Jesus in the same way saves passion from those who are in the business of demeaning it. Emmanuel Levinas himself, who is now shrines as the precursor in the return of god in the 20th century via ethics, detaches love from emotion by describing love in his rational innovation as “taking to oneself the plight of the other”. Although the Plato-Kantian tradition may find ally in him, and Martha Nussbaum in the same way may gloat to this, Levinas however fails to take account of what motivates the act of “taking” in the first place. Judith Butler, although standing in the shoulder of Levinas, provides what is lacking from her main interlocutor. Responsibility emerges from affects, from emotions, she said. Was not the Samaritan himself prompted by pity and compassion before the exposed vulnerability of the “other” that he disregarded the ontological animosity between Samaritans and Jews, and opted rather to be driven by emotions? Does Jesus is telling us not only to train our mind the rigors of science, math, and philosophy (theology) but to appreciate, nurture, and cultivate good emotions and passions?
All of these were accomplished by a single parable. Nonetheless, an alterity always exceeds human intentions and purposes. It indeed serves the purpose of Jesus, but unfortunately it brings to the fore another serious problem. Serious than what he intends to resolve. If the half-dead victim, who is presumed a Jew and religiously framed therefore as enemy, is now a neighbor to the Samaritan, and the Samaritan is now a neighbor to the inquiring “expert of the law” who is also a Jew, whose neighbors then are the robbers? What particular response I should have to demonstrate, therefore, before such awful view of punching, kicking, and robbing the helpless victim? If the centuries of animosity between Samaritans and Jews overcome by compassion, are they not compelled to show the same compassion to the robbers? Unfortunately, Jesus did not bother to answer it. Thus it leaves us to ask, “Whose neighbors are the thieves then?”
Let me pause for a while and share this question with you; hoping to hear response from you.

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