If you are a fan of the old Seinfeld show (a sitcom that earned eternal life in rerun heaven), you probably quote lines from your favorite episodes. Although its creator called this a show about nothing, something always happened to Jerry and his friends that real people could relate to. In a bizarro way, the character flaws they revealed can serve a purpose similar to Christ’s parables. Jesus perfected the art of showing us our imperfections so we can more easily absorb important lessons.
The parable in this Sunday’s gospel reading from Luke (Lk 10:25-37) is a good example. It features a scholar of religious law who seeks to test Jesus’ knowledge. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. Jesus turns the tables and asks him a question: “What is written in the law? The scholar answers “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
But Luke writes that this scholar goes beyond simply testing Jesus with this question; he also tries “to justify himself” by his own answer, asking Jesus “who is my neighbor?” The implication here is that non-neighbors may not be eligible for the benefits that come with this scholar’s love. Jesus quashes this man’s effort to ration his love by telling him the parable of the Good Samaritan.
A man is attacked by robbers and left for dead. Ignoring the opportunity to help this man are people as respected and honorable as this scholar: a priest and a Levite. The twist to this story is that it’s a Samaritan—the enemy of most devout Jews of Jesus’ time—whose built-in compassion guides him to follow God’s programming to love his neighbor. He does this by taking the time to nurse this victim back to health.
Listeners to Jesus’ parables are similar to Seinfeld fans on the secular side in their ability to identify with the characters in these stories. In the case of the Good Samaritan, we can imagine the priest and the Levite going through a mental justification process to clear their consciences for not helping: “I don’t know this person,” they might have thought when witnessing the mugging, “surely someone else will soon come along and help this poor stranger.”)
The Seinfeld connection to parables is not that farfetched when you realize that the series finale was based on the tale of the Good Samaritan. Jerry and his friends run afoul of the Good Samaritan Law of a town they pass through on the way to a vacation. They see a man getting carjacked. Not only do they not help, and not only do they not go through a mental justification process to rationalize not getting involved, but they actually amp-up their amorality by mocking the poor victim while the man is being accosted. For this they are arrested, tried by a jury of the people they’ve wronged during the course of the Seinfeld series, and sentenced to a year in prison.
Not even the scholar who tested Jesus, or even the priest or the Levite of Jesus’ parable, were as low as these characters turned out to be by the end of their series. Who could be? Even the worst criminals in history found a way to justify their own evil actions. Who could relate to the evil Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine display as they fail to even attempt justifying their inaction so they can stay on the right side of their conscience? That’s the moral coding that has been central to humanity’s mental software since Moses’ time, as documented by our first reading (Dt 30:10-14):
For this command that I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you … No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.
This moral code became flesh in the form of our Master of parables, who is, as St. Paul describes him for the Colossians in Sunday’s second reading (Col 1:15-20), “the image of the invisible God. … He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Before concluding that you wasted your time reading a blog about nothing, please realize that all good parables are based on truth. There really are Good Samaritan laws on the books of most states, as well as “duty to act” laws requiring people to help someone out of a dangerous situation (by calling 911, for example) as long as such an act doesn’t endanger the rescuer. However, these laws are superfluous as long as we stay true to our moral coding to love our neighbor without justification.
The Seinfeld characters were not true to this coding when they reached their series finale. Let that not be said of us when we reach ours.
Postscript: Please pray for our police. Right now they need all the Good Samaritans they can find.