In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“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… But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion…”
The story of the Good Samaritan is one of the most famous of our Lord’s parables. It has been the subject of endless exhortations to compassion and kindness and love of neighbor. And that’s as it should be. For indeed the Lord, as elsewhere, admonishes us to have compassion on those who suffer, because in so doing our acts of compassion actually find their object in HIM: Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.
Compassion is a very good thing. Corporal works of mercy are very good things. We SHOULD feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the imprisoned, visit the sick, and bury the dead.
But there is more to the parable of the Good Samaritan, just as there is more to the Christian life. I have spoken before about how, in the Church’s liturgy, we see the material creation as it were cracked open, and the divine light welling up through the cracks. When we set aside otherwise common, physical elements for God’s purposes, they convey to us by grace the goodness, beauty, and truth of God. They become sacraments and sacramentals. So water is no longer JUST water in Baptism, but the revelation of Grace, and the effecting of forgiveness of sins and rebirth in Christ. And the elements of the Mass are no more common bread and wine, buy by grace they reveal to us the suffering and death of our Lord and apply his merits to our lives. At the Mass, we stand mystically at the foot of the Cross, with our Lady and St. John.
The same thing happens with the TEXT of the Holy Scriptures. I have occasionally spoken about the various LEVELS of scriptural interpretation set forth by the Church Fathers. Most of the fathers said that there are three or four levels of truth in Scripture. At the uppermost level of meaning, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is about Jesus telling a story to a lawyer who had come to test him. On this historical / narrative level of meaning, the information conveyed in this text of Scripture is historical data, about what and where and when Jesus did and said what he did and said.
The academy is primarily interested in this level of meaning. Its what the “Jesus Seminar” is all about, and its most of what they teach in seminaries. “Biblical scholars” you hear on programs like “Fresh Air” or the “Discovery Chanel” are typically interested in this level of meaning. These scholars are forever producing documentaries and books asking, and attempting to answer, questions like “Who was the ‘historical’ Jesus?” And they tear apart the Gospels in an attempt to figure out whether Jesus was married, and to whom, and whether he spent his formative years in Tibet studying under Buddhist Lamas, and whether he preferred Shredded Wheat or Lucky Charms. Its also interest in this level of meaning that generates works of fiction like The da Vinci Code.
But this kind of interest can carry us only so far. It mainly leads to endless debates and to more and more unanswered and unanswerable questions. This is also the level of meaning at which the debate between the creationists and the evolutionists takes place. To remain at this level, to be perfectly honest, is pretty BORING. To me at least.
The second level of interpretation is the MORAL level. I call this level of meaning the “Sunday School” level. And this is the kind of reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan that we have are accustomed to. The passage of Scripture is not just about what Jesus said and to whom he said it, and when, and so forth. But its also a message TO US about how WE SHOULD BEHAVE. Here the Bible becomes the WORD OF GOD, and its no longer simply by human authors on this level – the surface narrative cracks open ever so slightly, and divine light begins to glow: the Parable conveys truth FOR US, from the mind and heart of God. At this level we learn that WE should have compassion for others – God teaches us something about what it is to love our neighbors, and he tells us that we ought to love them in this way. The text at this level takes on a hortatory or imperative character. It becomes NORMATIVE. We SHOULD help those who are suffering and afflicted, because Jesus told us to.
But we can’t stop there. There’s more to biblical interpretation, and there’s more to this parable… and there’s more to the Christian life. Things get more interesting the deeper you go, and you find that there is a kind of causal connection that wells upward from the depths of the Scripture’s significance: the surface levels mean what they mean because of the deeper meanings. The third and fourth levels of interpretation are often called spiritual or anagogical or mystical levels. And these are the levels of the Bible’s most profound truths, where the Bible is most assuredly inerrant and infallible, and correct interpretations on these levels are usually concerned with our individual souls, and our relationship with Jesus. This is where God speaks not just to US collectively, but to YOU and to ME individually, not just by means of generalized moral principles or some such, but by speaking to each of us in our particularity. At this level God’s heart calls to MY heart.
Whereas we are used to taking the parable of the Good Samaritan as hortatory dialogue about how to be neighborly and compassionate, at the ANAGOGICAL or SPIRITUAL level, this parable is about what Christ does FOR ME. Origen of Alexandria, for example, writing in the early 200’s, identifies JESUS as the Good Samaritan, and ME as the one who was set upon by robbers. (We’re used to thinking of this parable as being about what WE SHOULD DO, identifying the Good Samaritan with our ideal selves, but the deeper meaning is about what JESUS HAS DONE for us.) Jesus is the Good Samaritan; I am the man set upon by robbers. The wounds are what I suffer through disobedience and sin, which have left me half dead. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho represents the in-between state where Christians live – somewhere between this world and Paradise. The Priest who comes along is the Law of the Old Testament, which does not help me in my half-dead condition, and the Levite stands for the Prophets. But the Good Samaritan is Jesus, who comes and binds my wounds, and pours the oil and wine of his grace onto the wounds of my disobedience, and who carries me, placing me on his beast, which stands for his physical Body, which he assumed when he left Paradise and came to us on earth – the vehicle of the Incarnation. And the Lord picks me up and carries me to the Inn, which is the Church, where I may rest and become healed through living a sacramental life, learning to love God within the Church by keeping the precepts of the Gospel and the commandments of Christ, which the Church keeps and ministers to me. And there I stay, nourished within the Inn, at the expense of my Lord, who gives the two denarii, that is his Grace, to the Church on my behalf. And here I must stay until he returns – that is at the Second Coming. Here I must stay to continue the healing process that began when I first met the Lord on the road. Here, by the grace of God, I will be made healthy enough to meet him joyfully when he comes back.
This is the truest meaning of this parable. And it seems so to me because it resonates most with what I know of myself. Of course I know the moral level to be true as well: I should help others in need; I should be compassionate. And I believe the historical data of this passage too: some two thousand years ago, Jesus of Nazareth DID meet a lawyer, who DID ask him this question, and who DID receive this answer. But what’s truest yet is that I NEED HELP and HEALING, and that I’ve found it – or rather it has found me – in the person of Jesus. The truth is that I was half dead through disobedience – that I needed, and that I NEED (now) the saving grace of Jesus Christ. I need him to carry me, to deposit me safely in the bosom of the Church, that HERE I may be healed, and made fit to meet him when he returns.
And this truest meaning of the parable, that I know in my heart to be about ME, sheds light on the moral meaning as well. I must be compassionate to the poor and the suffering because my Lord showed a compassion infinitely deeper FOR ME. And I must now spend my life learning to be like him, for his sake, out of a heart full of thanksgiving, humility, and love.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.