The Wheatley Institution

Plumbing the Heart of Social Institutions: Revealing Truths from the Parable of the Good Samaritan

John Welch
November 20, 2014

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President and Peggy Worthen, the Wheatleys, the Madsens, and friends of Truman, thank you for your presence and for your support of the Wheatley Institution's efforts to strengthen the core institutions of ethics, family, and society. I have been humbled by this invitation.

Thanks especially to this splendid Wasatch Chorale. The words in the opening musical number could not have been more suitable to our subject this evening: "Tend your sick ones, O Lord Jesus Christ; rest your weary ones; bless your dying ones; soothe your suffering ones."[1]

At this event Truman Madsen is sorely missed. When I agreed to be a backup speaker for the very ill David Bentley Hart, I had hoped for several reasons that he would be well enough to be here. Really I wanted to hear him, and I hope we can have him here at another time in the future. I hope that what I will say will resonate with his deep interests in the early Christian fathers and his eagerness to extract from ancient texts insights that might "fruitfully be brought into living contact with contemporary questions."[2] 

I am thankful for help from Barney Madsen who is well on his way toward the completion of Truman's biography. And also for Emily Madsen Reynolds who has struggled alongside me in my efforts to explore a number of possibilities as I finally settled on the title for tonight's lecture.

But most of all, we are here to pay tribute to Truman. He was an amazing Samaritan in many ways. I was indelibly blessed to know him when I was a student in his philosophy classes, to work with him on the boards of FARMS and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, and to enjoy many personal connections. I hope to say something now that would make him rock back, grin, put his hand on my shoulder, and, nodding, smile with his patented pure joy.

Let me begin with a word about my title: "Plumbing the Heart of Social Institutions: Revealing Truths from the Parable of the Good Samaritan." Knowing how Truman relished the playfulness of words, yes, the triple entendres in this title are intended. I realize that it is unrealistic to offer the world today any kind of panacea for all of its horrendous atrocities and perplexities, but I still hope to say something relevant as well as revealing, something not just on my mind but also in my heart. In plumbing the depths, in keeping us true or plumb to the world, and in having us think about the pipelines that interconnect our social relations and spiritual lives, I love how the parable of the Good Samaritan reveals new ways to see the world, new insights into rightful thinking about duties, and eternal realizations that other people are always with us. These thoughts go to the heart of all human relations.

The story of the Good Samaritan is familiar the world over. Biblical scholars, even the most critical, agree that if Jesus said anything, he told this story. Secular legislators in many states and countries have adopted Good Samaritan laws to encourage and protect even bungling people who stop to help those in dire need. I believe that this parable is generic and compelling enough that it can serve as a common paradigm of ethics, values, and social institutions in every culture, and thus everyone interested in establishing justice and promoting the general welfare can draw important social capital from this timely and timeless tale. I would nominate this parable as the paradigm to use in strengthening our core institutions.

My interest in the parable of the Good Samaritan goes back many years, to the 1970s when I began reading books about the Jewish backgrounds of Jesus' parables. But 20 years ago, a new insight into the meaning of this parable was stunningly put in my path. That insight came while my wife, Jeannie, and I happened to eavesdrop as Malcolm Miller explained to a group of tourists the Good Samaritan window in the Chartres Cathedral in France. Soon I realized that there was much more to this parable than a simple story with the headline: "Man Helped on Way to Jericho." Over the last 20 years I have devoted considerable time to researching, writing, movie consulting, travelling with Jeannie to photograph stained glass windows in France, looking for obscure works of art depicting the Good Samaritan in museums all over Europe, speaking at conferences and firesides, publishing articles about this parable, and coming to understand why this parable is often given a place of honor close to the high altars of Gothic cathedrals. In all of this, Jeannie and I have become deeply impressed that this parable epitomizes the plan of salvation and offers the master plan for actuating beneficial human relations. I want to acknowledge her priceless contributions to our development of this understanding. For years, she and I have talked of these things as we have sat in our house, walked by the way, lain down at night, and when we have risen up in the morning. And then she goes out and feeds the homebound, visits the sick, and tends toddlers, the least of these. Her steady schedule of compassionate service qualifies her, more than me, to expound this text.

Like all parables, this story can be read on at least two levels, so that those with ears to hear would hear, and those without ears to hear would still hear at least something. Indeed, the Prophet Joseph Smith affirmed that the deeper symbolic meanings in each of the parables "were all plainly elucidated" by Jesus to his disciples.[3] This double level of meaning is not surprising because with this one story Jesus actually answers two questions: "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" and "Who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10: 25, 29).

At the first of these two levels, this parable is a report of an all too common occurrence on the robber-infested road that went down precipitously from the rocky heights of Jerusalem to the sandy bottom at Jericho, near the north end of the Dead Sea, the lowest place on planet earth. Jericho was famous in antiquity as a winter spa for the self-indulged aristocracy in the world of Jesus's day. Read at this level, it is a story of flesh and blood, meanness and misfortune, hopelessness and indifference—but also of compassion, healing, and selfless service. The compelling and expansive moral of this story has made it one of President Thomas S. Monson's favorite texts, because it leads us in the pathways of perfection, gives new lease on life, and applies to everyone in the world.[4]

The words in this story have been carefully selected. The Greek yields interesting nuances.[5]

When it says that the man fell among thieves, the Greek is not kleptoi but leistai, bandits, outlaws.

When they stripped him of his raiment [all one word] the word for stripped is ekdusantes (they undressed or disrobed him), the opposite of endusantes (to get dressed). These participles come from the verb endu?, a lot like the root behind the English word "endow."

When the Samaritan had compassion on him, the word is esplanchnisthe, the word used for divine compassion.

And when he pours on oil and wine, he gushes it out generously.

He took care of him that night and when he departed, he paid the innkeeper to take care of him, using same word, epimelomai—in effect asking him to take care of the wounded man just as he himself would have cared for him.

The Samaritan's promise to repay when he come again is more than just covering the costs but also promising to reward the faithful innkeeper.

Enriching, and not detracting in any way from its moral mandate, a second level of meaning sees this parable as being profoundly allegorical, laced with specific details that have been intentionally included in the story to support its very evocative symbols that convey deep religious and eternal-man meanings.[6] This was the traditional Christian meaning that I first caught a glimpse of twenty years ago in Chartres. In with this masterful allegory of the plan of salvation, the Master effectively answers the first question last, and then the second question first.

Read in this symbolic way, the parable is clear that the man who descended from Jerusalem represents all of mankind, coming down from a holy beginning.

The thieves or robbers represent Satan and his minions.

When they strip the traveler, they do not take his goods (which the parable never mentions) but they literally strip or undress or disrobe him, wanting something he has brought from above.

The wounds represent sins or disobedience.

They leave him half-dead, having suffered one death but not the second.

The priest and Levite, who are there by chance, do not stop to help but we are not told why. They saw but turned away, and passed by on the other side. There may have been several reasons for this, both legitimate reasons (such as a fear that they might thereby become the next target of the robbers) or conveniently concocted excuses (such as the possible inconvenience of contracting some minor impurity).

But a certain Samaritan who came, evidently not by chance, saw the half-dead man, had divine compassion, and went to him.

Bound up his wounds, and binding more than wounds, he covenantally bound the man to him.

Generously he administered soothing or healing oil.

And likewise wine to wash away the sins, to cleanse, and to give drink to comfort him and to dull the pains.

Putting him on his very own beast (or body, as the Greek has been read), he took him to an inn,             stayed the night with him, and when he left the next morning, he gave the innkeeper two d?naria, silver coins equal to two full days' labor, and promised that he would return and reward the innkeeper, covering at least whatever costs he might incur.

Christians as early as the second century saw the figure of the Good Samaritan as a reference by Jesus to himself, perhaps turning the tables on those at the temple in Jerusalem who had previously derided him saying, "Speak we not well that thou art a Samaritan?" (John 8:48). Indeed, it makes sense to see this Samaritan, the rescuer, as the savior of this fallen man, who had fallen prey to this band of robbers. Both Jesus and Samaritans were despised and rejected. Both Jesus and this Samaritan brought the man to safety. Both disappeared from the scene, asking no payment, only our thanks, appreciation, and imitation.

Moreover, Christians at least as early as Origen in Caesarea at the end of the second century AD saw the man who went down as representing Adam and his wounds as being the result of disobedience. His falling among the robbers represented the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the loss of his garments was the loss of immortality. His being left half-dead represented his expulsion from the presence of God, the suffering of a spiritual death but not yet the second or physical death. The priest and the Levite represent the law and the prophets; the Samaritan is Christ; the inn is the church, the pandocheion, which receives all (pan); and the promise to return refers to the Lord's second coming.

Origen himself attributed this understanding to the presbyteroi, the old members of the church who had been taught by the apostles themselves.

This interpretation of the parable was the basis for these depictions of the Good Samaritan in the famous twelfth- and thirteenth-century stained glass windows of world famous French cathedrals in Chartres, Bourges, and Sens in western Christianity. In the East, this understanding also informed this little-known Byzantine mural on the back side of the icon screen in the Greek Orthodox chapel in St. Catherine's monastery in the Sinai.

This understanding of the parable prevailed throughout Christianity until the Enlightenment in the seventeenth century, but the Enlightenment overvalued certainty and geometric analysis at the expense of allegory and synthesis. It is too bad that when Descartes said "I think therefore I am" (cogito ergo sum), he didn't say, "I think ego sum" (cogito ego sum), for ego sum is the Latin for I am, as in the divine appellation, the I am that I am. Actually, perhaps Descartes should have stopped while he was ahead and just said, "I think, therefore I think." That, after all, would have been a most indisputably certain statement.

While modern scholarship typically dismisses all allegorical interpretations, insisting on reading texts only in their original historical contexts, I reject that dismissal in this case on several grounds. First, what if Jesus originally intended his parables to be understood at two levels? Then the symbolic reading is integral to their original historical context.[7] Second, the limited secular reading precludes too much, for any legal norm, precedent, rule, or ideal is already—like an allegory—a generalization, abstraction, or projection that rises beyond a mere statement of fact.

Thus, I enlist this classic story tonight, together with its theological overtones. Although this parable "has been subjected to countless interpretations down through Christian history, and [thus] the secondary literature on it is immense," the potential of this seminal text has not been exhausted.[8] What more might this parable teach us?

Since it appears that every detail in the parable of the Good Samaritan was consciously and brilliantly chosen by Jesus, out of each of these details we can construct an agenda for developing ideas to strengthen ethics, community, family, and society. For example, the road down to Jericho was obviously dangerous. While we are all called to rescue half-dead travelers on life's roadside, as Martin Luther King Jr. insisted, more than a Band-Aid solution is needed. Among Martin Luther King Jr.'s dreams was his hope that

one day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway.  True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial.[9]

The parable also features the oddity that all of these travelers are traveling alone. No one in the ancient world traveled alone. Too many things could go wrong. People listening to Jesus as he told this parable might immediately have thought to themselves, "Why on earth would this man have gone down that road from Jerusalem all alone? What was he thinking? Of course the robbers would get him!" But the solution is not to dismissively blame the wounded man for his own misfortune but to realize that all of life's travelers need mentors, companions, trainers, friends, bishops, and teachers to help them understand the risks and even to walk together with them through perilous stretches of the path.

The parable speaks of injuries, both of bodily wounds and the loss of clothing and property, to say nothing of the loss of dignity and confidence. Can we imagine the humiliation and shame that the wounded man must have felt not only to be ignored by the priest and the Levite but also to have to be helped by a Samaritan, and then to be taken to a public place where everyone knew of his misfortune? Legal justice might see that such a man has medical care and receives damage payments, but victim recovery calls for a more robust concern for victims, for programs that counteract society's propensities to dehumanize and blame the unfortunate, and for the promotion of social principles that bring to life an all-encompassing engagement with the rule of compassion. Anyone interested in victim awareness might want to use, as a sourcebook, Christopher D. Marshall's superb treatment of the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, entitled Compassionate Justice: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue with Two Gospel Parables on Law, Crime, and Restorative Justice, just out in 2012.

The parable identifies not just neglect but blatant turning away as one of our main social ills. While the priest and the Levite come close enough to the victim to see the problem, they both turn away to the opposite side and keep going on their own way. To "pass by on the other side" they may even have had to leave the road and go out of their way in order to distance themselves from this problem. This detail cries out for efforts to encourage people to turn toward and not away from each other. A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, entitled "Masters of Love,"[10] reports research by psychologist John Gottman, who has studied thousands of married couples to figure out what makes them either masters, or disasters, of love. His research finds that all people, throughout any given day, make requests for connections, what Gottman calls "bids." When one makes a comment to a spouse or neighbor, he or she is typically not just imparting information, but rather requesting a response, a sign of interest or support or connection, however momentary.  Presented with a bid, the other person now has a choice. He or she can either respond by turning toward or turning away from the person who has made the bid. Gottman's research has found that these bidding interactions have profound effects on marital and social well-being. By observing such interactions, Gottman can predict with up to 94% certainty whether couples "will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy, several years later." While Gottman's research bolsters common sense conclusions with quantified scientific support, the world really needs to look no further than to the parable of the Good Samaritan to know that turning away is always detrimental, undesirable, and in many cases even disastrous.

But maybe the priest and Levite were simply unprepared to help and therefore turned away. Maybe they came without bandages, wine and oil, or any ability to help this fallen man. Specialists in organizational behavior know that all performance problems boil down to either an ability problem or a motivation problem. And usually if people have the ability to help and feel confident that they are competent to serve, they will be much more likely to have the motivation to do so. Programs that offer skills development could enable people to deal with the predicable problems that inevitably arise in political, community, or family situations.

The richness of this text also reminds us that things are not always the way they appear. Indeed, turning subjects over often reveals that we have gotten things upside-down. 

One of the first lessons we try to teach students at the Law School is that their initial reading of an assigned case is woefully inadequate, that their natural impressions are often misdirected, if not 180 degrees wrong. In his answer to the lawyer, Jesus gave that legal scholar much to think about beyond his normally predispositioned thought.

So we must allow for the possibility that we do not understand everything that we should understand. As Truman's friend Steve Covey often said, "We must seek to understand more than to be understood." What could improve family, business, and civic relationships better than a pervasive attitude among all people to sincerely strive to better understand before forming opinions or taking action?

Often, the first step toward wisdom is to understand that the highest good is not necessarily what we think it is. The Lord has said as much: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways" (Isaiah 55:8). The inverted sayings of Jesus similarly offer important reorientations in thinking about human nature, ethics, society and eternal goals. He said, "He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it" (Matthew 10:39). "He that is greatest among you shall be your servant" (Matthew 23:11). And as Paul stated of Christ, "Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that through his poverty ye might be rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Truman Madsen was similarly prodigious in redirecting our thoughts by spinning out clever truisms that I like to call Trumanisms. When theologians belittled the idea of an anthropomorphic God, worried about bringing the divine down to the level of man, Truman spun the idea around with the neologism "theomorphic man," bringing man up toward the level of God, and adding "God became man so that man could become God."[11] When some "despaired of religion and then made a religion of despair," Truman responded that they have it "exactly backward."[12] Finding a religion of joy, you enjoy religion.

Turning again to the Good Samaritan, the parable can teach us startlingly unexpected things. It can shock us to find our own judgmental predilections exposed. We notice immediately that it was the lowly, despised Samaritan who came to the rescue and not, as we would have expected, the public official (the priest) or the dutiful functionary (the Levite). By this unexpected turn of events, we as listeners are arrested, realizing that our strongly conditioned social tendency to place people into stereotyped classes has led us wrong. And indeed, this parable, which is often invoked as Jesus' social commentary on relations between Jews and Samaritans, actually says nothing about the ethnicity of the man who went down from Jerusalem. For all we know, the traveler could be an Essene, a Galilean, a Gentile, or even another Samaritan. Subsuming that fallen man—or any of our neighbors, employees, or fellow citizens—under some kind of ethnic grouping or social subset already starts us down a steep descent that ends in debilitating discrimination and the paralysis of polarization.

To counteract these problems, our recently retired BYU Law Professor David Dominguez has pioneered an expansive approach to justice. He calls his project "Samaritan Justice" and it has become for him a way of life. I point to his work as a model for bringing principles of the Good Samaritan and objectives of the Wheatley Institution to life.

Standing normal expectations on their heads, Professor Dominguez insists that "a Samaritan is willing to shock the sensibilities of on-lookers and listeners—willing to scandalize traditions because of a higher calling of justice. . . . Samaritan Justice calls out the least among us to demonstrate the most important lesson of life—yes, the Greatest Commandment.

David and his students worked up close with troubled kids incarcerated in Provo's juvenile detention center. It was those kids, David says, "Who introduced us to Jesus and what it means to love with heart, mind, soul, and strength" and what it means, as Micah says, to "do justly," "love mercy," and "walk humbly" with God (Micah 6:8). 

At the same time, David served the residents in the South Provo Boulders apartment complex, many of whom are desperately poor. Of them he has said, they "open our eyes to the greatest riches of the kingdom. In fact, Samaritan Justice claims that unless you see such transformation in the despised of our society, unless you witness these glimpses into the kingdom of heaven within us, around us, and through us, there is no living testimony, only an echoing of someone else's faith."

In his courses, David combined theory with practice. He taught his law students to explain technical due process rights and court procedures "so that the children and their families can [effectively] advocate conditions for release at detention hearings." At the same time, he worked to promote new cultural bridges and deeper inclusion in the human family, while empowering young detainees to change their social status. To do this, David "structured opportunities for those young [people] to restore healthy relationships as valued members of a family, school, and society" and to "collaborate effectively with a full range of diverse community representatives: local leaders, school administrators, juvenile probation officers, judges, two universities, and many others." 

David's Samaritan Justice, which is a variety of restorative justice, uses a full range of legal problem-solving situations "as an opportunity to teach us all new roles in relation to each other: youthful 'troublemakers' learn what it means to be trusted teachers; detention staff practice mediation skills; ethnic local leaders participate in the juvenile court system as "court monitors"; university students present pertinent legal information to incarcerated children while serving as mentors."[13]

Thus, whether a person in America is religious or not, this parable offers to everyone a real way to model the transformation of society and at the same time to be transformed. As David warns, even the best of our usual interpretations of the parable "come up short." Why? As David concludes: "Because they stop before dealing with the biggest claim Samaritan Justice makes: if you are doing Christian work, all 'inns' and 'innkeepers' had better beware, because they will never be the same again; they too will be revolutionized; they too will experience new life and be 'born again.' Samaritan Justice warns the jailhouse, 'We will turn this place of hurting and despair into a space of healing and hope.' "

Revolutionary, yes? Joseph Smith said, "Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of 'Mormonism'; [it is designed] to revolution[ize and] civilize the world, . . . to cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers."[14]

This Samaritan Justice approach can only be strengthened by further LDS insights to help people think more effectively about human nature, needs, and duties.

For example, in a clever double-reversal, Truman once said of the Declaration of Independence's pronouncement that all man are created equal, "Jefferson should have written that all men are uncreated unequal."[15] Truman's comment embraces several of Joseph Smith's teachings: that man is eternal (D&C 93:33) and thus in an important sense uncreated, and that premortal spirits were different in the beginning (Abraham 3:19) as they will be different in their degrees of resurrected glory (D&C 76). This view of man fundamentally inverts the way we think about each other. If every human being, like the traveler coming down from Jerusalem, can be seen in some sense as having been "in the beginning with God" and being with no end (D&C 93:29), then human needs and interests are literally indispensable, and no amount of ignoring, shunning, incarcerating, or mistreating is ever going to make less desirable people evaporate. Human beings are not accidents on the road of mindless permutations of molecules equally destined for a pointless disintegration into lowly oblivion, no matter how much any self-absorbed personality might want to wish them away. Sensing this permanence turns daily trivialities into matters of eternal consequence, either for better or for worse. And when we recognize that human differences are not all bad—and how could they be if they are of eternal essence?—this helps all humans to deal less judgmentally or disparagingly toward others who are somehow unlike themselves. The objective of society is not to be indifferent to those differences or to remove all those differences, but to recognize wherever possible the usefulness of differences and to assist all people to progress within their several or individual capabilities, whatever they may be. That attitude alone would recast the entire human drama.

In addition, since differences are inescapable and always with us, how can we break social stalemates, all of which come from seeing the world in terms of differentiation, in terms of an us/them or a right/wrong? Here too, as Truman often said, Mormonism does not see things as an either/or but as a both/and. And what did he mean by this? Mainly, I think, he wanted people to see human nature and human existence non-dualistically, for dualism untempered usually leads to dueling, competition, and strife: a thirty-years war, trench warfare, overzealous advocates, those who champion long range needs vs. others focused on short range needs.

Academically, where it is said that emotions are so high precisely because the stakes are so low, proponents of science square off against advocates of religion; we pit publishing against teaching, reason vs. revelation, realism vs. idealism, grace vs. works, the "ought" vs. the "is," spirit vs. matter, or a metaphysic of oneness and moral order vs. a metaphysic of multiplicity and moral relativity.

Unfortunately, these battle lines are often drawn with an attitude of winner-take-all. While it certainly will not be easy to reduce these perplexing tensions, Truman passionately believed that all could grow beyond two-dimensional arguments. In 1989, he wrote:

Is there a religion in the world where the stronger the conviction of its truth and goodness, . . . the stronger the commitment [to the compatibility of] ideals heretofore thought to be theoretically and practically impossible, . . . of pluralism and [of] freedom that recognizes the individual in full and total richness, [while] at the same time [recognizing] the common ground of divine birth, divine nurture, and divine potential, [with] the prophetic promise of divine reunion for all men[?][16]

When faced with a choice, I believe that Mormon thought will always promote fullness over barriers, completeness over consistency, and the search for all that the Father has, even if that means that life appears to be overloaded, rationally unprovable, and torn by competing values and obligations that pull, stretch, and expand our souls in many ways.[17]

Constructive progress toward a both/and solution begins by thinking in the face of gridlock that there must be another way. For example, the priest and the Levite might not have stopped to help the wounded man, thinking they didn't have time or because they lacked courage.[18] But in actuality they simply passed by, not even bothering to think, "Maybe I could wait here a few minutes and recruit someone else to help who might be coming this way and together we could do what none of us individually could do."

Desiring to find a Samaritan solution opens the mind and heart. I sense that a person who is open to the idea of seeing the parables of Jesus in multiple ways will be more likely to be sympathetic to the idea of dealing with the difficult problems of life and society in a greater variety of ways. This engenders a view that sees life as complex and multifaceted and a desire to create unity within plurality coexisting within a network of beneficial tensions. Try making music on a violin without tension on the strings! Parties may be necessary for elections, but partners are essential for governance.

To dwell another moment on this point, common sense, the American spirit, and Mormonism often find ways to break through frozen road blocks by introducing a third dimension to avert deadlocks, just as boards of directors benefit by having an odd number of voting members.

The idea of a triadic presidency—a president with two counsellors, which is the LDS model of leadership—offers an example of a remarkably effective triangular order that echoes leadership principles found in the unity of the three members of the Godhead. Wisely, the American Constitution set up three branches of government—the executive, legislative and judicial—all three of which are equally important in enabling government to stand stably, like a tripod, even on uneven ground. Any economy benefits from the triangularity of three sectors—the governmental, commercial, and voluntary non-profit sectors—all cooperatively performing their essential parts. The idea of covenant marriage envisions a three-way configuration involving God, a husband, and a wife: "Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 11:11). Seeing marriage as a three-party covenantal arrangement protects it from the all-too-frequent break ups due to two-party breakdowns.

How are these threesomes, and all people, going to navigate their way through perilous contemporary waters? Without wanting to diverge too far off my main subject tonight, let me simply suggest that the answer to this question lies in better understanding the inalienable relationship between rights and duties; here we are again in the arms of the parable of the Good Samaritan, which raises head-on the question of moral duties. Who had a duty to stop and show compassion to the one who had fallen among the thieves? What factors gave rise to that duty? As I have written recently in the Law School's Clark Memorandum,[19] I am concerned that modern society sees the relationship between rights and duties backwards, but perhaps the Good Samaritan offers ways to correct that shortfall.

Briefly stated, my point is that the idea of duties has fallen on hard times lately as the rights trajectory of the twentieth century has taken center stage. While I certainly applaud these important steps forward in strengthening rights, I hope that the twenty-first century will see a reciprocal emphasis on duties, to bring this disparity back into balance.[20]

Implicit in this balancing act lies a crucial point. The world usually thinks that because I have a right, someone else has a duty, namely, for them to fulfill my right. Classical contract theory,[21] for example, which describes the relationship between two parties to a contract, says, "If I have a contractual right, then you have a duty. If you have a right, then I have a duty." And that is true as far as it goes. But duties and rights are not polar opposites. Indeed, because every right confers some power, either to act or to prevent someone else from acting, and because every power is innately laden with some sort of duty—for all power is necessarily used either for good or ill—and finally because it is intuitive that people have a duty to do what is good, therefore with every power-conferring right comes some duty. The world is not a duty-free shop! Consequently, as I see it, in every right, power, or privilege that I have, I have some duty. And the greater the power a person has, the higher the duty. This is most evident in cases of high-level fiduciaries, but in cases of weaker powers, obligations also exist but at lower levels. Thus, if I have the right and therefore the power to drive, with it I have the duty to obey the traffic laws, to drive carefully and respectfully. Because I have a right and power to speak, others have a duty to let me speak, but I also have the duty to speak honestly and fairly, and to reciprocate by listening.

I believe it will lift society and strengthen core institutions if people realize that rights and duties go hand in hand, if they read and talk more about duties and responsibilities, tell stories about people who did their duty even under difficult conditions, and encourage students to write more about the interconnectedness of rights and duties.

Joseph Smith sensed this as well. He was wary of rights without duties.[22] He championed the guarantee of freedom but only so far as the use of freedom "aids in the fulfillment of duty," and he opposed what some were calling "human rights" when their use was intended to "foment divisions" and detract from civic unity.[23] Beginning in 1948, Mahatma Gandhi insightfully insisted that to go together with the famous Universal Declaration of Human Rights,[24] there should be a Universal Declaration on Human Duties.[25] Perhaps the Preamble, at the beginning of the Constitution, might come to be seen as our Bill of Duties, going hand in hand with the Bill of Rights, at the end of the Constitution.

All of this brings us, again, back to the parable of the Good Samaritan. As mentioned above, the early Christians understood the priest and the Levite as representing the Law of Moses and the Hebrew prophets, and so the medieval window makers surrounded this stage of the parable with images from the life of Moses. Thus, while the priest and Levite fell short in their duty to be of physical assistance to the fallen man, helping as far as their capabilities allowed, they should not be vilified for not saving fallen man, for they did not have the power to do that.

And at the same time, think about the willingly compliant innkeeper who collaborated with the Good Samaritan. Why did this innkeeper undertake the responsibility to care for the wounded man, perhaps even for a long time? While he may have hoped that the Samaritan would actually come that way again, what Jewish innkeeper would have trusted a Samaritan to return to make good on that promise? And didn't he realize that it might adversely affect business if he took this bleeding, groaning, wounded man into his inn? As the parable is set up, the innkeeper had a power, a fire, a loaf of bread, and shelter overhead, and thus he had a duty to give.[26]

There are many answers to the question, why should and do we serve? Each of these reasons should be examined and articulated.

King Benjamin's masterful oration gives many reasons why we, like this innkeeper, should do our duty to serve. Reasons include, because it gives us joy, because we have been commanded to or have covenantally agreed to and will be judged on how we do, but more compellingly because we have received benefits from God and others, and can repay those debts only by serving in return. And more essentially because, when we are truly converted, we cannot do otherwise, and we should be true to whom we really are; and in the end because when we serve with the Master, we come to know the Master's voice, which we should hear, know, and follow.[27] As President Monson has said, when we contemplate the words of King Benjamin, that "when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God" (Mosiah 2:17), "an entire vista of opportunity is unfolded to our view."[28]

Surely part of that vista is the realization that the world today is more like an interconnected village than an open frontier sparsely populated by unrelated people. Much wisdom is to be found in John Donne's famous meditation that begins, "No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."[29] Which brings us to another, final truth I find revealed in the parable of the Good Samaritan. This parable teaches us that, permanently and inevitably, life is not a solo operation. Every person is inevitably our neighbor whom we are commanded to love as ourselves, even if it is inconvenient to do so. Other people in need will always co-exist with us in each stage or sphere of our eternal existence. The end of all of life's journeys, therefore, is communion with other people. Embracing this reality transforms who we think we are and what we ought to do. Through the system of pipelines and lifelines that connect us all with all other people flows this clear and revealing truth that other people are always with us.

Unforgettable for me was Truman's demolition of the foundation of Sartre's Existentialism of extreme individualism. Whereas Sartre had said, "Hell is other people," Truman happily countered, "Heaven is other people!" His proof: we cannot be saved without our kindred dead.

And what would heaven be without other people? Joseph Smith boldly taught, "The same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory" (D&C 130:2). A few weeks later, on May 21, 1843, Joseph Smith said, "I do not wish to be a great deal better than anybody else. If a prophet was so much better than anybody else was, he would inherit a glory far beyond what anyone else would inherit and behold he would be alone, for who would be his company in heaven?"[30] No one, and who would want that?

In a strong sense, every human being here on earth is a spirit child of the same heavenly parents. And this invites us to rethink the spurious Western notion of self. Normally people think that morality is doing what is best for "oneself." But Polonius's line, "To thine own self be true and then thou canst not be false to any man," begs the question, what is this self to whom I should be true? If one's self is more than just one's body, as it surely is, then why should the self not include other people, all of whom are inescapably a part of our eternal selves? I for one would feel that I had lost more of my self if I were to lose Jeannie than if I were to lose my hands, my feet, my eyes, or my ears. Thus, helping other people paradoxically turns out to be helping our selves, while ignoring others harms our selves.

This ethic of other people is concisely stated in the Golden Rule, which is found in the Sermon on the Mount and in various forms in most religious traditions.[31] Jesus said, "Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them" (Matthew 7:12); Hillel, the compiler of the Mishnah, said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor, that is the whole Torah." God himself epitomizes this rule in affirming, "This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39), basically meaning, as he wants immortality and eternal life for himself, so he will do unto us so that we can have the same and become like him, so we can all belong to each other.

As Truman was wont to say, "How can we know who we are until we know whose we are?"[32]

Understanding the self in this expansive way makes morality not just a matter of drawing a circle large or small enough to include or exclude certain other people. The parable of the Good Samaritan countenances no such malleability of morals. The man who had fallen among the robbers, whoever he was, was a part of the self of every priest, Levite, or Samaritan passing on that road, whom they needed to love so that they could love that part of their selves.

Even Jesus understood that he was not alone. Truman liked to wander amidst the gnarled olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, where we are confronted by a small sculpture etched into a wall. It depicts Jesus kneeling at what appears to be a rough-hewn altar. Seeing this Truman wrote,

We are gripped by a sense of total exhaustion. Christ's body not only kneels but stretches out under the weight upon him—drawn, spent, limp, anguished, writhing under the strain. . . . Even with his inherent gifts of divine intrusion, he still could not turn this oppressive grinding millstone alone. A moment came, the record says, when 'there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him.' And then 'he prayed more earnestly' (Luke 22:43-44). Out of all the panoply of heaven, who would be sent as a celestial Samaritan on this mission of mercy? Someone he knew? Someone who knew him? And how was power transmitted on that awful and tormenting night?"

So, even the Samaritan could use a Samaritan.

While we don't have answers to those questions, Truman continued,

One truth emerges. If he could not go it alone, neither can we—not without his strengthening us. To endure and overcome the world, our all is required. But our all is not enough. It must combine with his. Only he can lift us to the full reaches of our potential. Much in our secular society says, "Oh, yes I can. I can do it my way." But that is disabling vanity. . . . For those of us near despair who cry, "Oh no, even with him I cannot go through with this," he replies, "I can lift. I will heal." That night he was stretched to reach both human extremities— to the petulant and proud, and to the depressed and despairing."[33]

And now, let me draw this story to its conclusion by asking, who are you in this parable? What is our "reader response" to this story?

Are you the man who went down? Yes. Surely we have all come down; we are all injured, and are all in need of a rescuer, a savior. Consider this painting by Vincent Van Gogh, one of the very last he painted as he desperately hoped that someone would come to his rescue. As you can see from the profile of the face of the man being lifted up onto the Samaritan's horse, art historians believe—based on a sketch of his profile made right after he had died—that Vincent painted himself into this poignant scene in this ever-generative parable.

Or are you the rescuer who shewed compassion? Yes. We are that person too, for we are not just politely invited, but commanded to "Go and do likewise," to become, in effect, saviors with the Samaritan on Mount Zion (Obadiah 1:21). The Greek word here for "likewise" is homoi?s. It is a strong word, not just meaning "as, or something like" but "in the same way, of the same nature, of equal greatness or importance." With this moral mandate to do precisely likewise, a broad duty exists, not just to help people we happen to chance upon but also others we seek out. Since Luke's text does not say that the Samaritan just happened to be there, I like to think that the Samaritan was out looking out for people to help; he came prepared with oil, wine, and bandages. Perhaps this was not the first person he had rescued and taken to that inn.

And how about the priest and the Levite? Certainly, we are priests and Levites too, for there will always be things that we cannot do, as much as we might want to fix certain problems or to heal wounded or grieving souls. As much as we try, and as much as restorative, distributive, or social theories of justice should strive to make up all inequities or losses as possible, there will always be injuries that are beyond our ability to repair. For those, we all must look to Jesus Christ and wait upon him for the things that only he can do.

And what about the innkeeper: Are you an innkeeper? Most certainly we are. We are our brother's keepers. If you have any power, any station of trust in a family or society, or any sacred vocation or church calling, then you have the good fortune to serve those under the reach of that power.  

And don't forget the robbers. Aren't we sometimes robbers too? I'm afraid so. We beat up on each other, wounding and harming as we go.

So we are everywhere in the parable, and the correct answer to this exam question is "all of the above." I believe that it would it strengthen all social institutions if people saw the parable of the Good Samaritan this way, and cast themselves in all of its roles, realizing that we are not just role playing but are playing for keeps.

At the center of all that I have said tonight is the sacred heart of Jesus Christ, overseeing this all. He cast himself as the Samaritan. He binds us to himself. He brings us to the inn. He promises to come again, and he tells us to go and do the same as he did.

Although the world wishes to see human relations and social institutions in purely secular veins, it is the living water of Christ that flows through the connecting vessels, the channels of our souls, to bring these principles to real life. With apologies to Descartes, we can say, "I am a branch. Therefore I am." Relationships are the fundamental realities. "I am the vine, ye are the branches, . . . without me ye can do nothing" (John 15:5).

But not only does the Samaritan represent Christ as the rescuer, there are hints that the man who comes down from the Holy Place also represents Jesus, who–like us–became flesh. Yet another interpretation saw the man who came down as representing not only the first Adam, but also the second Adam or Christ. For as we survey the wondrous cross, Jesus too was beaten, wounded, stripped, had people cast lots for his raiment, and was passed over by Jewish and Roman leaders who did not come to his help.

Jesus knew that not everyone would be able to believe what he said when he declared, "I am the light and the life of the world." He still invited them in, saying, then do what you can. Do what I teach, which would be epitomized by his parables and especially the Good Samaritan. And if it works, you will know that whereof I have spoken I have spoken truth (John 7:17).

Under the feet of the Christus statute in the Copenhagen Cathedral, an inscription reads, "Come unto me." And a second below it promises, "And lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world" (Mt 28:20).

And so it is that in and through the blood of Christ and through the restored and restoring gospel of Jesus Christ, we can be made whole—all of us, as a whole, reunited—and enjoy life eternal, which is what the good lawyer, whose questions triggered this timeless parable, thankfully sought. 


[1] Ola Gjielo, "Evening Prayer."

[2] See the convenient Wikipedia entry about him at

[3]Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1972), 98.

[4] Conference addresses in April 1977 and April 1992.

[5] As I have I have discussed in some detail in BYU Studies, 38:2 (1999).    

[6] See John W. Welch, "The Good Samaritan: Forgotten Symbols," Ensign 37 (February 2007): 40-47, and Liahona 31 no. 2 (February 2007): 26-33.

[7] Matthew 13:15; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 98. In Matthew 13:18-23, Jesus gives the symbolic meaning of the parable of the Sower; in Matthew 13:36-43, Jesus declared the meaning of the parable of the Wheat and the Tares. 

[8] See especially Christopher D. Marshall, Compassionate Justice: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue with Two Gospel Parables on Law, Crime, and Restorative Justice (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012), 13-176. Even if Marshall might reject the idea that the Good Samaritan was intended to be "a thinly veiled self-reference" to Jesus, he still insists that "the Samaritan in the story does what Jesus himself is portrayed as doing throughout his career, especially in the Gospel of Luke: he brings a divine like compassion to bear on abject human need, disregarding the conventional boundaries of ritual and religion to do so" (26). 

[9] Martin Luther King Jr., "A Time to Break Silence," Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967.

[10] By Emily Esfahani Smith, June 12, 2014.

[11] Truman G. Madsen Interview with David Fiske 1982 – Truman G. Madsen Journal Fall 84-85, Box 6, in possession of Barney Madsen.

[12] Truman G. Madsen, Why I Believe, 219.

[13] These quotations come from David Dominguez, "Samaritan Justice: Empowering Culturally Diverse Communities to Prevent Local Schools from Becoming Pipelines to Juvenile Prisons,", or from an email from him to me on November 13, 2014.

[14] DHC 5:516-518; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 316; Willard Richards Journal, in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 1980), 234 (July 23, 1843).

[15] Reported by Charles Randall Paul, "Four LDS Views on Harold Bloom: A Roundtable," BYU Studies 35, no. 1 (1995): 193.

[16] Truman G. Madsen, "Jerusalem the Branch," TGM Journal 1989, Box 7.

[17] John W. Welch, "Toward a Mormon Jurisprudence," Regent Law Review 21:1 (2008-2009), 95-96. Available at

[18] Martin Luther King Jr., "On Being a Good Neighbor," in Strength to Love (1963), quoted in Goodwin Liu, "Martin Luther and the Good Samaritan," Clark Memorandum (Spring 2014), 35.

[19] John W. Welch, "The 21st Century as the Century of Duties?" Clark Memorandum  (Spring 2013).

[20] Welch, Toward a Mormon Jurisprudence, 99.

[21] See the work ofWesley Newcomb Hohfeld, including Some Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Legal Reasoning, 23 Yale Law Journal 16-59 (1913).

[22] Of the twenty or so legal propositions advanced in the statement on governments and laws in general (D&C 134), over half of these assertions of rights are qualified, limited, or tempered by conditions, provisos, or exceptions. 

[23] As he stated in his 1844 presidential campaign brochure, Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States.

[24] See Richard L. Johnson, Gandhi's Experiments with Truth: Essential Writings by and About Mahatma Gandhi 185 (2006).

[25] See e.g. Declaration of Responsibilities and Human Duties, (2002) (an example of an attempt to realize Gandhi's idea); see also Press Release from the United Nations Economic Social and Cultural Organization, Declaration of Human Rights and Responsibilities , Written in Valencia, Presented to UNESCO Director-General (April 28, 1999) available at

[26] Hymn 219

[27] King Benjamin's profound ethical logic is discussed in John W. Welch, "A Masterful Oration," in John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., King Benjamin's Speech: "That Ye May Learn Wisdom," (Provo: FARMS, 1998), 77-82.

[28] Conference address, April 1990.

[29] John Donne, 3 Works of John Donne 574-75 (1839), accessed at

[30] Recorded by Willard Richards, in Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, 204.

[31] As my friend Howard A. Christy has especially taught me.

[32] Source needed.

[33] Truman G. Madsen, The Sacrament: Feasting at the Lord's Table,  8.

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