Modern Households and the Good Samaritan

In the book Sex and Love in the Home by David McCarthy “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:29-37) is interpreted anew and prolifically provides an alternative vision to the more narrow “face-to-face” hermeneutic. To give you some context for his interpretation I will give you a brief summary of the book. He structures the book around two concepts of the family: a closed household and an open household.

The closed household is one that is typified by an attitude of self-reliance, self-sufficiency, autonomous and complete in itself separate from social and public life. It views domestication and practical concerns antithetical to passion and romance. Therefore marriage is seen as an escape or retreat from ordinary life where spontaneity and freedom are valued. In order to keep sexual desire aflame we participate in the consumer market to provide novelty and new possibilities of enjoyment. The closed household is founded on love between husband and wife rather than social alliances. It is typified by the dream of the suburban nuclear family inhabiting its own exclusive social sphere where there are clear boundaries distinguishing the inside and outside of the private and isolated household. This is further exaggerated within the home where rooms are segregated private spaces and we can decide to come out into public spaces if we freely choose to. In summary, the closed household is considered a self-contained whole and the marriage as a complete union.

The open household in contrast values the risk of interdependency within a network of community. Passion is set within a larger story of shared life and family is overlapped by the complexity of social life where household boundaries are porous. Furthermore, informal and uneven reciprocal neighborhood exchanges take place (such as helping one another fix things, watch each others kids, remove snow, and exchange hand-me down clothes). These asymmetrical gifts come through a web or relations that can be painfully casual at times and cultivated through partnership in ordinary duties of neighborhood and home. Common endeavors and activities are enjoyed together and “falling in love” is set within this larger context of practices. Household and neighborhood roles are also complex, fluid, imbalanced and evolving rather than rigid and pre-defined. This follows Paul’s idea of community where our roles are varied but overlapping and valued for contributing to the good of the whole body. Neighborhood reciprocity also gives all adults a parenting role. In summary, the family should be fit within a broader network of relationships rather than the self-contained free-floating dyad of husband and wife. 

It is in this context that McCarthy brings up the parable of the Good Samaritan. He argues that most readings of the parable are limited by interpreting the Samaritan’s love to be unilateral in that it is a singular compassionate act given towards a passive neighbor in need. Instead of this disinterested unilateral conception of neighbor-love the author argues that we need to broaden our conception of love to include mutual and reciprocal neighborly exchange. In theological terms, no love is without communion just as God’s Trinitarian love is communion. “So- called altruism, as giving purely without return, does more to undercut the agency of the recipient than to empower him or her. Altruism is an isolated focus on the giver’s own purported selflessness. Receiving the gift, in contrast, entails the risk of being transformed by another.” McCarthy reasons that we usually value unilateral love because we set God’s altruism as a prototype for love given without return, when in reality “God’s intra-Trinitarian love of Father, Son, and Spirit is a communion, which is expressed outward in the world through the biblical history of salvation. God’s love is an invitation to common life.” He concludes that Christian love is realized when we provide hospitality to the hungry and thirsty, the sick and imprisoned and receive them as though they are Christ, which is a privilege to those receiving them.

Here are a couple other quotes that help encapsulate what McCarthy is getting at:

The Christian tradition has emphasized communal love outside of the practices of marriage, particularly love within troublesome contexts, not exotic or heavenly places, but among the poor and amid disagreements and sin. Modern romantics set the meaning of love in the face-to-face wonder of wedding vows, but the Gospels use the image of the wedding banquet, as a place to deal with themes of hospitality and hope for the downtrodden (25)

On a local level, networks of households can create a complex and interesting texture of social life, but it is not the role of family to transform the world. It is the social role of family to be dependent upon a larger social body… In theological terms, family is called to be part of the social adventure we call the church (111)


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