The Good Samaritan

Everyone knows Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37). In this story, the Samaritan represents how a Christian ought to behave towards his neighbor – right? Maybe. Here’s a hint: Nazareth is a city in Samaria. People from Nazareth are Samaritans. Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah, but he lived His life in Nazareth. So, Jesus would be classified as a (fill in the blank).

First, the context:

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read?" And he answered, "You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have answered right; do this, and you will live." (Lk 10:25-28)

We have “a lawyer,” that is a rabbinical teacher of Torah – the Law of Moses, asking Jesus about what he needs to do to gain eternal life. Jesus asks him what the law says about such a thing, because this is an expert of the law who believes the law has the answer to everything; the rabbi replies with the two greatest laws: love God and love thy neighbor. Jesus says if he does these, he will live. This is a problematic answer, as we Christians believe that there is nothing we can do morally that will gain us eternal life. Eternal life is received through grace, specifically baptism. We don’t earn grace and we don’t gain it by following the law (Torah). So how can Jesus say that if we just obey these commandments, then we will enjoy eternal life? Because no one can obey these two commandments; it’s impossible. This is the basic teaching of St. Paul and the entire history of Christianity bears witness that Christians cannot obey these commandments very well. It is intrinsically against our nature to love God and neighbor more than we love ourselves. Jesus is saying, yes, you could theoretically have eternal life if only you could do these two things.

So what’s the point of the parable, then? First, a note about parables, in general. Most people misunderstand parables; we think they are home-spun folk-tales to help ordinary people remember a teaching. Nothing could be further from the truth: parables are the immanent judgements of God. This is true throughout the entire bible. They “hide” relevant truths under parabolic teaching and they are normally told to people who are about to experience God’s judgement, who do not deserve to hear the clear truth because they have so ignored it. In this case, it is a teacher of Torah who is testing Jesus in an adversarial way.

The lawyer then continues to test Jesus, asking to clarify the meaning of neighbor in Torah. Jesus replies to that question with a parable.

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. (Lk 10:29-30)

Who is this unfortunate man? According to various Church Fathers, it is Adam, representative of the human race. The Fathers furthermore interpret his "going down" from Jerusalem to Jericho as the fall of Adam, which was instigated by Satan; Satan and his demons are here described as robbers, who stripped Adam of his immortality, leaving him spiritually wounded through original sin. They left Adam - and all of us - half dead, that is alive in the flesh, but dead in the spirit.

Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. (Lk 10:31-32)

Who is the priest? At that time, the only known priests were those of the Temple. They could not cure the wounds of Adam, of the human race. Likewise the Levite. But even deeper, all Jewish priests were descendants of the proto-priest, Aaron. He and his brother, Moses, were Levites. What is Jesus saying here? That the Law has no ability to save fallen mankind. (Other interpreters say the priest represents the Law and the Levite represents the Prophets; but the same conclusion results.)

But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.' (Lk 10:33-35)

Well, whoever this Samaritan is, he certainly seems able to help fallen Adam. The Fathers identify him as Jesus Himself, of Nazareth in Samaria. He journeyed "to where he was," that is, taking on our humanity, having compassion on us. He binds our wounds, the wounds of original sin, with a healing balm of oil and wine, images of our sacraments. Then we are carried on His beast; what beast does Jesus have? Well, His own body, his own flesh. We are taken in to His Mystical Body, which carries us through the troubles of life. This Body that carries us is also called The Church, here described parabolically as an inn, a place of rest.

Now it says, "the next day;" so far, Jesus was describing His work of redemption and salvation. Very technically, He did that work on the cross on Good Friday. "The next day" would be Holy Saturday, where two denarii - that is, two days' wages -were given to the innkeeper. From a chronological point of point of view, this takes us through Holy Saturday and into Easter Sunday, the Resurrection. We call this period of the death & resurrection of Christ the Paschal Mystery, which is the historical source of all grace. Who is this mysterious innkeeper? Well, who takes care of the Church? The bishop! Jesus pays him the two denarii, the two days wages, representing the Paschal Mystery which is the very foundation of our sacraments. Jesus tells the bishop to take care of us and spend whatever is necessary (from the wellsprings of sacramental grace). Jesus will repay when He comes back, at the consummation of the world, when all will be restored, all debt repaid.

This is all a very elaborate answer to a simple question: Who is my neighbor? Answer: The economy of salvation, explained in full. But remember the context: the man is a lawyer, he believes deeply that the answer to everything - including eternal life - is in the Law, Torah. Jesus came to introduce the fulfillment to the economy of salvation; the lawyer needs to learn this in order to fully understand the Law and therefore arrive at his answer.

Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed mercy on him." And Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise." (Lk 10:36-37)

And here is the answer. From the point of view of the victim, who is his neighbor? The Good Samaritan was his neighbor. Who was this victim? Us, even the lawyer who asked Jesus the question. Who is the Good Samaritan? Jesus, the One who shows mercy to us. Therefore, who is my neighbor? Jesus is my neighbor. Therefore I must love him as I love myself, per the second great commandment.

“Wait a minute!” We’ve always heard the lesson from this parable is that all in need are our neighbor. This interpretation is completely different. And we already have the first greatest commandment, to love God; is the second commandment also to love God? This seems redundant. We should notice Jesus’ last words to the man: “Go and do likewise.” That is, go and be merciful, even as God is merciful. Jesus had already taught such an admonishment.

Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful (Lk 6:36)

If we are followers of Christ, we must become Christ-like. Note that this parable follows on the heels of the preceding story in Luke (Lk 10:1-24), the sending of the seventy disciples. These disciples delivered the gospel, the Good News, of the new covenant of mercy to God’s people. These missionaries are the heir-apparent of the old teachers of the Law; the Church is the heir-apparent of the Temple. And we, the Church, bring the message of God’s mercy to the world. To those who hear and accept, the Good Samaritan will do as he said and apply healing sacramental balm to their wounds of sin. In doing so, we are doing the work of the Good Samaritan. As explained in other posts, Christians are united with Christ as members of His body, sharing in His nature. So, we should see in this parable the law to love God as our “neighbor” and allow Him to show merciful love to us, but we should also see that we are united with Him and we have a duty to carry out His work of mercy as described in this parable. And this mercy is not only in sharing the gospel message, but in living it too. So, this mystical interpretation of the parable, so favored by the Church Fathers, does not null the moral interpretation. If anything, it strengthens the moral meaning and demands mercy from all who call themselves Christian.

Lastly, note this parable is immediately followed by the story of Mary and Martha, wherein we see such Christian mercy in action. Interestingly, Jesus seems to prefer the spiritually good work of Mary, who merely sits at the Lord’s feet listening to Him, over the pragmatic good works of Martha’s service. Food for thought.

The patristic interpretation of this parable is well known, but I used this source: Catena Aurea, St. Thomas Aquinas, (trans. John Henry Newman), John Parker, London, 1842, v3, pt 1, 366-377.
It can be found online here: Catena Aurea