‘The Snake’ vs. ‘The Good Samaritan’: Two Diametrically Opposed Teachings and a Choice of Discipleship
‘The Snake’ vs. ‘The Good Samaritan’: Two Diametrically Opposed Teachings and a Choice of Discipleship
Stories are powerful because they draw us in. Stories engage our imaginations, evoke our emotions, and motivate us to take action. We’re often told cherished stories by trusted teachers, even parents, to communicate to us moral lessons or values we should hold. But stories aren’t just for children; stories are what drive almost all entertainment: books, movies, television. Humans live on stories.

The Snake

“The Snake” is a favorite story of Donald J. Trump, the current president of the United States. He has told this story dozens of times at his political rallies, both when he was campaigning for president and since becoming president. He read the lyrics to “The Snake” in Iowa in January of 2016, and he’s read those same lyrics as recently as a few weeks ago in New Hampshire. Here are the lyrics:
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 oh tender woman Take me in, for heaven's sake Take me in oh tender woman,” sighed the snake She wrapped him up all cozy in a curvature of silk And then laid him by the fireside with some honey and some milk Now she hurried home from work that night as soon as she arrived She found that pretty snake she'd taken in had been revived “Take me in, oh tender woman Take me in, for heaven's sake Take me in oh tender woman,” sighed the snake Now 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” Now she stroked his pretty skin and then she kissed and held him tight But instead of saying thanks, that snake gave her a vicious bite “Take me in, oh tender woman Take me in, for heaven's sake Take me in oh tender woman,” sighed the snake “I saved you,” cried that woman “And you've bit me even, 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 ”Take me in, oh tender woman Take me in, for heaven's sake Take me in oh tender woman,“ sighed the snake
The lyrics are from a 1968 song by a R&B artist named Al Wilson. But President Donald J. Trump doesn’t want his hearers to miss the interpretation he intends; he’s explicit about relating the lyrics of the song to his views on immigration. After reading the lyrics to “The Snake” to an adoring crowd at CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) in 2018, Trump commented,
“And that’s what we’re doing with our country, folks. We’re letting people in. And it is going to be a lot of trouble. It is only getting worse.”
Trump then tied the street gang MS-13 to his views on immigration and said about them both,
“These are animals. They cut people. They cut them. They cut them up in little pieces, and they want them to suffer. And we take them into our country. […] We pick out people. Then they turn out to be horrendous. And we don’t understand why. They’re not giving us their best people, folks [...] I don’t want people who drive a car at 100 miles an hour down the West Side Highway, and kill eight innocent victims and destroy the lives of 14 more. […] All they understand is toughness […] we have the toughest guys you’ve ever seen. We got tough. They don’t respect anything else.” (Source)
Donald J. Trump uses the lyrics of “The Snake” as a parable to teach fear and hatred of the Other—the person or people who look different than you, worship differently than you do, or are from another culture or country. Donald Trump is teaching you and me to fear immigrants, to prejudge them as dangerous, and to deny them aid or asylum. That’s the point of the story for Donald Trump and why he tells it.

The Good Samaritan

Jesus of Nazareth was also a story-teller. He is famous for telling poignant short stories called parables to engage crowds with his revolutionary, prophetic message. Many people who know little about Jesus are yet familiar with a parable attributed to him commonly called “The Good Samaritan.” In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus is tested by an expert of the Torah (the Law of Moses). This “lawyer” asks Jesus what a person must do to “inherit eternal life” (10.25). Jesus responds with a combination of two paraphrased commands from the Hebrew Bible—one from Deuteronomy 6.5 (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”) and one from Leviticus 19.18 (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). This prompts a follow-up question from Jesus’s interlocutor: “And who is my neighbor?” Luke adds a bit of commentary to this question, somehow reading his motivation: “he wanted to justify himself.” (10.29) To answer this follow-up question, Jesus uses his famous story-telling method. The parable of “The Good Samaritan” goes like this:
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10.30-37 NIV)
Have you ever noticed that Jesus doesn’t really answer the man’s question? Instead of defining which kinds of people are “neighbors” and who aren’t, Jesus instead defines the character of a neighbor and prescribes neighborliness. Jesus, like Luke, could read this man’s motivations. He wanted to justify his prejudice against those who he did not deem “neighbors” so that he was well within the bounds of the Leviticus command. But Jesus saw through this man’s thinly veiled attempt to obey the letter of the law while disobeying its spirit. It’s well known that Samaritans were an ethnic group that Judeans like Jesus would have been taught to steer clear of. Not only were Samaritans thought to be ethnically impure, having their Jewish heritages intertwined with Gentiles, they were also thought to hold religious views that were considered heretical. Rather than viewing the Jerusalem Temple as the center of right worship, they viewed Mount Gerizim as the proper site of worship. This meant they were considered doubly different and doubly wrong to Judeans like the man who tested Jesus. And yet, Jesus centers his parable around a Samaritan man who acts in a neighborly way toward someone who is a victim of violent and unjust circumstances. The Samaritan acted righteously while both the Judean priest and the Levite failed to keep the Levitical command to love their neighbor. Jesus of Nazareth wants his disciples (followers) to treat all people, regardless of what they look like, how they worship, or where they are from, in a neighborly way—especially if they are in need. That’s the point of the parable for Jesus and why he told it.

The Snake vs. The Good Samaritan

For nearly 2,000 years, disciples of Jesus have held this teaching of Jesus in high regard. So normative has this teaching become that Western societies like the United States, that have a large population of Christians and have absorbed many Christian teachings, literally have what are called “Good Samaritan laws”. In the United States, people can be prosecuted for a crime for failing to provide reasonable assistance to someone in desperate need. And yet for millions of professing Christians today the “Good Samaritan” ethics of Jesus have been eclipsed by “The Snake” ethics of Donald J. Trump. Instead of having compassion on families fleeing violence and war, providing them aid and asylum, millions of Christians are convinced that the right thing to do is to protect themselves against refugees as if they were snakes. The ethics taught by the parable of the snake and the ethics taught by the parable of the good Samaritan are diametrically opposed. A person cannot adhere to one without rejecting the other, cannot obey one without disobeying the other. A person has to choose which teaching they will follow.

Discipleship and Obeying Jesus’s Teaching

The choice as to which teaching a person will follow is not merely a question of which immigration policy one prefers or considers wisest. The choice as to which teaching a person follows determines of which teacher one is a disciple. For a disciple is one who obeys their teacher’s teaching. Jesus is unequivocal on this point:
“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8.31-32)
In fact, Jesus ties obedience to his teaching to love for him:
“Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.” (John 14.23-24)
Those who follow the teaching of Donald J. Trump and the ethics of his snake parable are his disciples. They obey the teaching of the one they love. Those who love Jesus, obey Jesus’s teaching and the ethics of the good Samaritan parable. Whose disciple are you?