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Who’s In Charge Here? The Good Samaritan and the Innkeeper

Written by Gary North on February 27, 2016

But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, and I will repay thee (Luke 10:33-35).

The parable of the Good Samaritan raises some serious theological questions. The main one, “Who is my neighbor?”, is the one that the skeptical lawyer raised, and Jesus answered it with this parable. It raises questions such as Jew vs. gentile, law vs. charity, and the question of personal responsibility. It raises the whole question of evil: Why does God allow such bad things to happen to law-abiding people? And why do other supposedly law-abiding people do nothing to help?

Neglected by all commentators, however, is the fact that this parable illuminates a fundamental economic principle — indeed, the fundamental economic principle: the question of sovereignty. Until the question of sovereignty is answered, it is impossible to do economic analysis, just as it is impossible to do theology until the same question is answered.

To discover the answer to this question, we must first consider the setting of the parable. The Samaritan, considered a gentile by the Jews, was in the land of Israel, walking along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. He came upon a wounded man whose race and religion are left unstated, but who presumably was a Jew. The parable would have far less impact if the robbers’ victim was also a Samaritan or a gentile. In any case, he was in no condition to talk theology. He was so close to death that the priest and the Levite who had passed by thought that he was dead, and they refused to touch him, for to have touched him, had he actually been dead, they would have become ritually unclean for a week, and this would have necessitated a ritual washing on the third day (Num. 19:11-13). Better, they both concluded, to avoid the inconvenience. Walk on by!

The Samaritan did not worry about the inconvenience of Old Testament law’s required rituals. They did not bind him. He approached the victim, saw that he was alive, and did what he could to restore him to health. He poured oil and wine on his wounds, carried him to the inn, paid for a room, and promised to return to pick up the bill for any additional care he might require.

We know what was wrong with the priest and the Levite: they were too concerned about the potential costs of obeying the details of Old Testament law. Those costs were minimal. We know what was right with the Samaritan: he was generous. But no one ever mentions the innkeeper. Yet it is the innkeeper who is the center of the economist’s analytical interest.

The Innkeepers of This World

While someone, unfamiliar with Old Testament law might not initially understand exactly what had motivated the priest and the Levite, a reference to the details of the Old Testament law eventually throws light on their lack of charity. They made a cost-benefit analysis, and both decided that it was cheaper to walk on by. But no one thinks deeply about what motivated the innkeeper. The innkeeper is ignored by the expositors because everyone understands his motivation: money. This needs no explanation in any culture. It is assumed.

Consider, however, what is being ignored for the sake of the assumption. The innkeeper also made a cost-benefit analysis. Presumably, he was a Jew. He now had a sick man on his hands. If the man died, the innkeeper would have to move the body, and then he would come under the same ritual requirements of the law that threatened the priest and the Levite. Also, he could not be certain that the Samaritan would return and pay the accumulated bill. There were obvious risks associated with caring for an injured, penniless man.

Nevertheless the Samaritan had little concern that the innkeeper might refuse to carry out his instructions; Why did the Samaritan think he, a despised gentile foreigner, could trust the innkeeper, an average fellow, to care for the injured man, when the injured man could not trust his fellow countrymen, leaders in the community, the priest and the Levite? Why would the innkeeper obey the instructions of a Samaritan?

The answer is simple: because the innkeeper was a businessman. Innkeepers are in business to care for people: They go to great personal expense to buy or build a comfortable place of rest and recreation. They serve people food. They carry out the garbage. They make the beds after the guests have departed. They sweep the floors. They are in business to attend the desires of weary travelers. They bear all the marks of servants. But no one praises them for their faithful service, nor do they expect praise. They expect payment in full, not from God but from men.

(For the rest of my article, click the link.)

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