The compassionate empathy of the Good Samaritan

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Teofilo Patini, Good Samaritan; Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

(from Alphonsian Academy blog)

Jesus is an authentic teacher, rich in empathy and compassion, both in his attitudes and teachings (cf. Jesus, model of integral empathy). In this sense, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:33-37) shows how the notions of empathy and compassion are at the heart of Jesus’ Gospel message. We, therefore, see how these two attitudes should inspire and influence the moral judgement and ethical conduct of Christ’s disciples in their interpersonal relationships.
The attitude of the Good Samaritan is characterised by an authentically empathetic moral perception of the situation of the wounded man: “A Samaritan … passed by him, saw him and had compassion on him” (v. 33).
The exegetical meaning of this verse means that, at the sight of the seriously wounded man, the Good Samaritan is moved to his very core; he is seized with visceral compassion. In other words, he is deeply moved by the scene, triggering in him an intense empathic emotional reaction, as well as a compassionate reaction to help the wretched man. Thus, the Samaritan’s ability to “put himself in the shoes of the wounded man” and be sensitive to his suffering opens the moral judgment of his conscience to compassionate empathy.
Indeed, compassion impels the Good Samaritan to help the wounded man through concrete acts: “He came to him, bound up his wounds, poured oil and wine into them and then mounted him on his horse, took him to an inn and cared for him” (v. 34). (v. 34). In the light of this parable, one could say, metaphorically, that compassion represents the “arms of empathy”.
The merciful attitude adds a spiritual dimension to the notion of compassionate empathy since the merciful compassion of the Good Samaritan is a human empathic response but inspired and transformed by divine grace.
Therefore, by using this parable, Jesus makes empathy, compassion and mercy the constitutive elements of his disciple’s moral conduct. To be the neighbour of the other (v. 36), therefore, means adopting the attitude of the Good Samaritan, becoming a witness of empathy, compassion and mercy towards the one who suffers: “Go and do likewise” (v. 37). (v. 37).
In summary, with this parable, Jesus teaches us that our Christian moral life involves a double-conversion: an interior conversion to Christian empathy to live the commandment of love-charity; and an exterior conversion to evangelical compassion to adopt concrete ethical actions full of mercy towards our neighbour.
In the 67th issue of his encyclical letter, Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis points out that this parable is an “enlightening icon” that offers us a “fundamental option” in the face of the pain and wounds of our brothers and sisters. In this way, we can better appreciate how the empathic, compassionate and merciful Good Samaritan can illuminate our path of growth.

Fr. Mario Boies, C.Ss.R., M.Ps.

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