The Infamous Good Samaritan

January 28, 2012 | By | 1 Comment

(The following comprises Part Four of the Saturday series on Secondary Illuminations of Scripture.)

“Infamous,” you say?  “I thought he was a role model.”  Well, yes.  But the way some have read his story has disappointed many critics.  The Good Samaritan parable, more than most, has been allegorized by the Church down through the ages in ways which are now widely rejected as irresponsible hermeneutics.

Every detail of the story was given special meanings by the readers; indeed, these special meanings kept accumulating over time.  Here is a list of Augustine’s allegorizations taken from Robert H. Stein’s The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings (p. 46; see more):

The man going down to Jericho =Adam
Jerusalem, from which he was going =City of Heavenly Peace
Jericho =The moon which signifies our mortality (this is a play on the Hebrew terms for Jericho and moon which both look and sound alike)
Robbers =Devil and his angels
Stripping him =Taking away his immortality
Beating him =Persuading him to sin
Leaving him half dead =Because of sin, he was dead spiritually, but half alive, because of the knowledge of God
Priest =Priesthood of the Old Testament (Law)
Levite =Ministry of the Old Testament (Prophets)
Good Samaritan =Christ
Binding of wounds =Restraint of sin
Oil =Comfort of good hope
Wine =Exhortation to spirited work
Animal =Body of Christ
Inn =Church
Two denarii =Two commandments to love
Innkeeper =Apostle Paul
Return of the Good Samaritan =Resurrection of Christ

Perhaps you see some problems already.  Where is the literal meaning as Jesus’ contemporaries would have heard it?  Where are the applications of that literal meaning to today?  When approaching this parable we need to have in mind concepts like helping the unfortunate, discarding our prejudices, and not self-righteously putting our duties above love (the priest and Levite would have made themselves unclean for duties according to Old Testament law if this man proved to be dead and may have neglected him for this reason).

I think critics are by in large correct in their repudiation of Augustine’s allegorical conclusions, especially with the primacy of place that they took in the interpretation of this parable.  I do not find most of the allegorizations to have much scriptural precedent.  Of the list, however, oil and wine are symbols that recur in Scripture.  It might be appropriate, then, for us to find a secondary illumination in which we are unprejudicially, lovingly helping others (the primary interpretation) in a way that ministers the metaphorical oil and wine to our neighbors in distress (the secondary illumination).  Scriptural associations for oil and wine might include anointing, comfort, spiritual fruitfulness, and the power of the blood of Jesus.

The original word for “parable” actually references a wide variety of literary techniques.  As a poet I recognize that the line between having one extended metaphor and having a multiplicity of meanings is sometimes blurry in authorial intent.  In modern free verse, for instance, even a line break or a rather tangential word play is often meant to suggest an additional meaning.  Ancient approaches to reading a text are not devoid of similarly nuanced possibilities if different techniques.

We may want to think twice, then, about our claim to being more enlightened in our hermeneutical controls than these brilliant church fathers.  Can we acknowledge mistakes of the past without developing unnecessary prejudices in the present?  Our hermeneutical controls create a sturdy structure in which to house the faith, but let’s make sure that structure has enough windows.

Like most modern “conservatives” I’d maintain that the standard for approaching parables as a literary genre in Scripture is generally to find one point of intended comparison.  As a caveat for my own tendency to criticize Augustine’s interpretation of this parable, however, Kenneth E. Bailey makes a fine argument for a multiplicity of intent in parables.  He uses the same analogy I use of a house with many windows, but unlike my emphasis on the basic structure of the house as primary with the multiple windows as significant but secondary, he challenges us regarding the import of all the rooms’ and windows’ views.  He posits that if we can look out on the world and worldview of the original hearer, the historical scenery of the parable’s structure provides us with a “cluster” of legitimate interpretive attributions that relate to one another.

Specifically for this parable, Bailey sees ethical and theological interpretations as equally valid and equally available.  He establishes the ethical meaning in a way Augustine and his forbears did not but praises them for recognizing the Good Samaritan as a symbol for Jesus.  However, he acknowledges that, “Through allegory, interpreters were able to locate their favorite ideas almost anywhere, and confusion and finally meaningless conquered.   This is probably why parables ceased to be sources for Christian faith and were limited to ethics” (pp. 281-3, 294, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes).  [He neither addresses nor embraces the long list of allegorical details that Augustine found in the parable.]

Somewhere there is a balance of appreciating the Word as a reflection of a God whose voice is as many waters (Revelation 1:15) and recognizing the distinct directions and channels through which He has sent each stream and spring.  Certainly if we do not discern the primary point(s) of comparison in a parable or the primary interpretation of a theological letter, prophetic poem, or historical narrative accurately, we will misread any possible secondary “illuminations.”  I’ll get into this more in a few weeks when I talk about missteps in and guardrails for secondary illuminations.

Next week we’ll consider Aquinas as representative of the scholastic era of Church history.

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About the Author (Author Profile)

Deborah is a Yankee living in Tennessee—a sometimes-writer and poet with a smattering of eclectic publishing credits and a couple of books of Christian teaching in the editorial shuffle. She grew up in a housechurch and has been quite involved in the Vineyard. She's also had some protracted fellowship in UMC and PCA circles among others and tends to be rather fascinated by opportunities to glean from other camps.