Snakes and Samaritans

A lawyer once asked Jesus of Nazareth what one must do to be on the path of righteousness. Jesus answered with two challenges: first, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart,” and second, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer responded, as lawyers tend to do, with a meticulous question about particular definitions, asking Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?” This happened to be one of the most important clarifying questions in world history. To answer it, Jesus launched into a parable, one which two millennia later, is perhaps his most beloved: The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Here’s how it goes (paraphrased from Luke 10:25-37):

There’s a man walking on a road to Jericho. He’s attacked by robbers, stripped of clothes and left for dead. One guy walks passed him. Another guy walks passed him. Everybody walks passed him… except for one guy, the Good Samaritan, who, instead of walking passed him, walked up to him, bandaged him up, took him on his own donkey and brought him to an inn. He gave the innkeeper money to look after him and said he would be back to check on him.

Jesus ended his parable with a question for the lawyer: “Who was being the most neighborly to the stranger?” The lawyer responded, “The one who had mercy on him… the one who entered into his troubles.” Then Jesus advised: “Go and do likewise.”

In his speech this week marking a hundred days in office, Donald Trump read from the lyrics of a song, “The Snake,” a riff he had perfected in his 2016 campaign stump speech. Here’s how the song goes:

“On her way to work one morning, down the path alongside the lake, a tender-hearted woman saw a poor half-frozen snake. His pretty colored skin had been all frosted with the dew; ‘Oh well,’ she cried, ‘I’ll take you in and I’ll take care of you.’ ‘Take me in tender woman; take me in, for heaven’s sake; take me in, tender woman,’ sighed the snake. She wrapped him up all cozy in a comforter of silk and laid him by her fireside with some honey and some milk. She hurried home from work that night and, soon as she arrived, she found that pretty snake she’d taken to had been revived. She clutched him to her bosom: ‘you’re so beautiful,’ she cried. ‘But if I hadn’t brought you in by now you might have died.’ She stroked his pretty skin again and kissed and held him tight. Instead of saying thanks, the snake gave her a vicious bite. ‘I saved you,” cried the woman. ‘And you’ve bitten me, but why? You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die.’ ‘Oh shut up, silly woman,’ said the reptile with a grin.‘You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.’”

The message of Trump’s parable is not just opposed to Jesus’ parable– it is, in fact, the direct inverse of it. Jesus’ lesson is that we should turn the strangers we encounter into neighbors by reaching out a helping hand. Trump’s lesson is that to help a stranger is foolish, for people from outside groups possess certain inherently dangerous qualities, just like animals.

With his parable, Trump is not only failing to practice tenderness– he is actively condemning it. As Pope Francis explained in his TED talk this past week, tenderness “is the love that comes close and becomes real.” To be tender is “to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other… to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need.” It is to be “on the same level as the other,” lowering ourselves, as God has, so that we can best speak “the real, concrete language of love.” Loving one another, acknowledging one another, listening to one another, humbling ourselves to care for one another… this is what Trump is rejecting when he mocks the tender-hearted.

Francis reminds us that “tenderness is not weakness… it is fortitude.” Tenderness is the path that “the strongest, most courageous men and women” choose. To be unable to practice tenderness is, in fact, a sure sign of weakness. And when power is bestowed on men who are too weak to practice tenderness, Francis warns, bad things happen.

A weak man can be neighborly to those who are exactly like him. A weak people can hold together a nation where everybody looks and thinks and acts the same.

But the challenge and promise of America is that we don’t look and think and act the same. To be held together as a nation, we need to do the hard work of turning strangers into neighbors. To do this work, we need to be strong… strong enough to practice tenderness. This is the work of mercy that makes a country what it is: not the thickening of its outlines, but the deepening of its solidarity. We are fortified as a country by our open hearts, not our closed borders.

If I die from a snake bite, so be it. We’re all going to die some day. We can’t control how or when it happens, no matter how much security we have. What we can control is how we live while we are alive. And I would rather die as a neighbor than live as a stranger.

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