The parable of the “Good Samaritan” is so well-known that the protagonist in the story has become a cultural icon for unsolicited charitable action. This is so, despite the fact that Jesus wasn’t recommending “random acts of kindness” that provide great personal satisfaction but require no long-term commitment. The conventional interpretation of this parable tends to obscure Jesus’ intentions. For that reason, I’d like to propose an alternate interpretation.
In the early third century, there was a theologian named Origen of Alexandria who allegorized the parable of the Good Samaritan.* In Origen’s allegory, the man who fell victim to robbers represented all of fallen humanity; the Samaritan represented Jesus the Christ. The inn to which the robbers’ victim was carried represents the Church. The two coins given to the innkeeper represent knowledge of God the Father and God the Son. The promised return of the Samaritan represented Jesus’ return in glory on the last day.
According to Origen’s allegorical interpretation, the Samaritan (Jesus the Savior) bore the wounded man (sinful human nature) to the inn (the Church) in order to restore the wounded man to full health by granting him a saving knowledge of God. The Savior promised to return (the day of general resurrection) in order to assure that the wounded man was fully recuperated.
Origen’s allegory focuses on the message that Jesus intended to communicate through this parable. Jesus did not answer directly the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” (Lk. 10:29) Rather, Jesus said that admittance into eternal life results from acting like a neighbor to anyone in need. The Samaritan had acted mercifully to the robber’s victim. (Lk. 10:36-37) Jesus told the lawyer, “Go and do the same.” (Lk. 10:37) According to Origen’s interpretation of the parable, all the baptized have a sacred obligation to bring the morally frail and spiritually wounded to the Church for healing. All believers would agree that this is a good idea; there is, of course, one practical matter to overcome.
There is little value to trying to bring sinners and the lost to the Church unless the Church first can give credible witness to the belief that healing can be found within its walls. Or, as the old theological dictum goes, “One cannot give what one does not have.” In order to imitate the neighborliness of the Good Samaritan, the baptized must first accept the Lord’s command that mercy and compassion are to be given to others, with no expectation of recompense.
Here, we are confronted by the biggest problem facing the Church today: everyone agrees about the value of mercy and compassion, but few are willing to be the first to be merciful and compassionate. The idea of giving something of great value to another person (particularly, to a stranger), with no expectation of repayment, is radically counter-cultural in the United States.
Everyone in our culture expects to be paid or rewarded for their actions. Laborers expect fair compensation for their work. Owners of capital expect to rewarded for investing their wealth. Even church-goers expect to be rewarded; most Catholics attend Sunday Mass with the expectation that their time in church will merit favorable consideration from God at the Last Judgment. The suggestion that one should give unsolicited help to anyone in need without expecting any reward or repayment is abhorrent to us. As I said above, we are confronted here with the biggest problem facing the Church.
For quite a long time, Christianity’s predominant image of God is one of a god who dispenses favor to an elite few, and not necessarily in any predictable fashion. Still today, in the minds of many Catholics, God is stingy with Grace, slow to pardon, and reluctant to be reliable. This image of God perdures despite the fact that the Scriptures say the opposite, namely, that God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving-kindness.” (Psa. 103:8)
The predominant image of God as being very selective about to whom mercy is shown is actually a reflection of the hearts of the people who espouse that image; it is not a reflection of the heart of God. Jesus was not speaking in abstract terms when he said that he had come to call sinners to a change of heart. (Lk. 5:32) All people, not only the unchurched, need to come to a change of heart about God’s nature. In Origen’s allegory, God’s nature is described as infinitely solicitous, anticipating human nature’s spiritual wounds, endlessly generous, and not limiting Divine Favor to those who believe they merit it. The God whom Jesus preached was a God who graciously bent down to reach fallen sinners; this image of God is incompatible with an attitude that casts a sanctimonious glare at those judged to be outsiders or undeserving. In fact, viewing anyone as an outsider or contemptible is a rejection of Jesus’ teaching, namely, that there ought to be no bounds to the mercy one shows to others.
The biggest problem facing the Church is the idolatrous selfishness of the baptized. The only solution to this soul-deadening estrangement from our neighbor is to repent and accept God’s call to be the Church, the People who need both to receive and grant forgiveness.
The Good Samaritan did not blame the robber’s victim for his injuries, nor did he expect the man to heal himself; he expected no repayment and went so far as to commit to an indefinite term of care for the victim. The Good Samaritan acted entirely unselfishly and for no other reason than to promote the healing of an unfortunate person. Jesus says, “Go and do the same.” (Lk. 10:37)
*Origenous, “In Lucam Homilia XXXIV,” in Patrologia Cursus Completus, Series Graeca, Vol. 13, ed. J.-P. Migne (Paris: Imprimerie Catholique, 1862), 1886-1888.