The parable of the good Samaritan is probably the best-known of all the parables. The story is so familiar: the traveller mugged, the clergy hurrying by, the outcast Samaritan doing the work of God. It is clear from the context of the story that the narrative has one primary purpose, namely to answer the question: “who is my neighbour”? “Neighbour” of course here refers to the summary of the law in Leviticus that one should love one’s neighbour as oneself. Yet, there have been many other ways used by the fathers and others to interpret this parable, some quite fanciful, some more plausible. In the early Church there were two main schools of biblical interpretation. The first at Antioch preferred the plain historical meaning in its original context. The second school based in Alexandria preferred to explore deeper meanings within the text, using allegory and other symbolical interpretations.
St Augustine, who was from North Africa, chose to apply the Alexandrian method to this parable and he used a rather elaborate allegorical scheme to bring out these alleged deeper meanings. So, for example, the man going down to Jericho represents Adam, Jerusalem the city of heavenly peace, Jericho the moon, (which is a Hebrew verbal pun and signifier for mortality), the robbers were the devil and his angels.
By stripping him the demons were taking away human immortality, by beating him they were persuading him to sin and by leaving him half dead he was alive in his knowledge of God but dead in his sins. St Augustine went on to explain how the priests stood for the Law, the Torah, the Levites, the prophets and the Good Samaritan, Christ. When our Lord bound the wounds of the traveller He was restraining his sin. By applying oil He was giving him the comfort of good hope and with wine He was exhorting him to spiritual works.
By putting the wounded man on a beast Christ was placing him within the body of Christ, practically speaking this was synonymous with the Inn which St. Augustine took to be the Church. The two denarii in payment represented the two Commandments of love. The innkeeper was identified as the Apostle St Paul and the return of the good Samaritan, not the second coming, but rather the resurrection of Christ.
The Antiochian fathers protested against this method of interpretation, rightly in my view, seeing it as subjective and contrived. Using allegory you can make the biblical text mean just about anything you like, which is clearly a dangerous enterprise. Fathers like St Isidore of Pelusium, St Basil the Great and St John Chrysostom - whose feast we celebrate today - all took this view. The latter even said that it was neither wise nor correct…
“to enquire curiously into all things in parables word by word, but when we have learnt the object for which it was composed, to read this, and not too busy one’s self about anything further.”
I must, therefore, ask the saint’s forgiveness today, since although I will please him by not following St Augustine in using allegory to understand the parable, nonetheless I will seek to make the meaning more personal by opting for a more inward, psychological and spiritual approach. I don’t think Antioch ever condemned this method since it does not interfere with the plain meaning of the text. Briefly, my approach is to suggest a practical and personal exercise, what Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos calls the transformative level because it’s the whole intention is to change us for the better. In this method we shall examine each of the players in this drama of redemption in turn as representing different aspects of our own character in both their nobler and less attractive dimensions. The other details of the story also illuminate our own spiritual state and what we might need to do to make some improvements. Personal transformation would then lie in addressing those deficiencies and sins which tear us away from our neighbour and serving him in his need.
First, let us contrast the Good Samaritan and the Priest or Levite who walk by on the other side of the road. We know that the Priest and the Levite would not help the traveller because to have done so would have involved extensive ritual cleansing after having had contact with wounds or blood. In other words, they put their religious duties before compassion. There are times when we do the same, when we justify our laziness or our selfishness in not doing good works by sticking to religious rules and commitments. Christ never taught that we should abandon those, which is what some do, but rather that we should do both. There is then no choice involved between loving God and loving our neighbour. Both flow from each other and both need each other for their realisation.
Secondly, the demons - now God forbid that we should compare ourselves to those! - but on the other hand, insofar as we yield to temptation without a fight, we allow the devil to strip us of salvation, blow by painful blow. The remedy for these painful wounds lies in the Church; in other words the place where God ministers to us, where he comforts us, heals us, feeds us and makes every provision for our recovery.
We, the wounded-made-whole, are then taken forward by our Lord to share in his work as He ministers to our neighbours through us, in whatever needs they present to us. However, if we should protest that we have other things to do or that our neighbour is unworthy of our help, then we shall be judged as we have chosen.
In truth there is not much difference in this parable between the clergy and the robbers. The robbers sin by action but the clergy sin by inaction. So, even if we avoid occasions of sin whereby we hurt others, if we do not respond to the heartfelt cry of those who have been wounded by those other than ourselves, we still sin by omission.
If, however, like the Good Samaritan we act with compassion in the light of that which is nobler and Godly within us, then our loving will grow stronger and we shall attain by God’s grace even to that blessed state whereby, in our humanity, we shall in turn become indistinguishable from Christ. When this happens the world will come to know its Saviour most clearly in the saints; that is in you and I who serve him, the God of infinite mercy and compassion, the God of the Good Samaritan.