The teachings of Jesus Christ introduced a call within the human family for mercy, compassion, and universal charity. Of all his parables and sayings, few emphasized these points as beautifully and succinctly as the story of the Good Samaritan.
While the story is a shining example of love and concern, it also has an interior theological meaning. What’s the basic storyline on this notable allegory? What is the deeper meaning for Christian believers?
Of the four gospel books, only Saint Luke’s Gospel contains the parable. The context in which the story is given is helpful to us in understanding the meaning of the allegory. The Lord is in the midst of his public ministry and a lawyer approaches him and asks what is needed to gain eternal life.
The Lord reverses the question and asks him how he would answer the question. The scribe answers that salvation is given by loving God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves.
The Lord confirms the answer, but the scholar goes on to ask who is his neighbor. To this question, the Lord replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The narrative is a simple one: A man falls victim to robbers and is left for dead. Both a priest and a Levite pass by him but neither offers any help.
Meanwhile, a Samaritan – who were considered sell-outs by the Jewish community of their day – comes by and helps the man. He places him on his own animal and takes him to an inn. At the inn, he gives coins to the keeper and tells him that he will pay any additional costs that might occur above what he’s left.
It’s an amazing act of kindness by an unexpected person from a suspicious people. We can only imagine the reaction of the innkeeper or of the wounded man himself once he recovered and heard who it was that helped him along the way.
In one sense, therefore, this parable displays the Lord’s teaching about loving God and neighbor. It instructs us that anyone we come into contact with is our neighbor and that we are to offer compassionate assistance and selfless service to those in need, regardless of who they are or what their race, color, or creed might be.
According to the early teachers of the Christian faith, the parable also has a deeper theological meaning. The story was interpreted as an allegory of our redemption.
The general thought was that the humanity is the victim attacked by bad spirits, who are thieves and steal goodness. They wound humanity by sin and leave us for dead. The priest and Levite are seen as symbols of the Law and Temple. They are present but they cannot save us.
The Samaritan – the rejected one – is Jesus Christ. He comes with a human nature, represented by the beast of burden. The inn represents the Church, the keeper is a symbol of the shepherds of the Church, and the coins are the sacraments. And the promised return and balancing out of expenses is seen as a reference to the Lord’s Second Coming.
In this spiritual reading of the parable, Christian believers are able to discern the Lord Jesus as the first Good Samaritan. In this way, the Lord becomes not simply a member of the historical Jewish people, but also an outcast, a reject, and a gentile himself.
This perspective of the Lord as a gentile allowed the early Gentile Christians to feel an extraordinary association with him. It was a rapport that would have paralleled and balanced the natural association that Judeo-Christians would have felt toward the Lord.
This understanding of Jesus would have empowered and emboldened Judeo and Gentile Christian believers to imitate the Lord and seek to be Good Samaritans themselves. As the parable was helpful to the early Church in its call to serve both Jew and Gentile alike, so the parable calls and convicts any believer today to be a universal brother or sister to every man and woman, of every class and race, of every tribe and tongue, and of every creed.
And so, while the parable is for all people of goodwill, it holds a deeper, inner significance for the followers of Jesus. As the parable is proclaimed in the Catholic Mass this weekend, we are all once again invited to take it to heart and to actively put it into practice.
Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby
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