For anyone who has grown up in the Christian tradition, the Good Samaritan is a familiar story. Even in mainstream culture, the concept, if not the story itself, is pretty well embedded. And so you might find a lot of people who know something of what a “good Samaritan” is even without knowing anything about the parable as told in the Gospel of Luke.
The meaning of the mainstream concept sticks pretty closely to the literal meaning of the parable. The man asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor”—seeking, perhaps, some excuse to limit the concept. The answer is classic Jesus, if we can put it that way. It’s not just that the category of “neighbor” includes people like the Samaritans—a people that any pious Jew in the first century would take great pains to avoid—but such a person, a heretic and a schismatic, is proposed as an example, above even a priest and a Levite, of someone who understands and practices the true heart of the Law.
The Lord is not here suggesting that heresy or schism don’t matter. It’s quite clear elsewhere in the Gospels that the Samaritans are in fact wrong, and they are in fact outsiders to the covenant. Doing good deeds in no way cancels out all those problems, so we should never read this parable as some kind of progressive tale about how religious differences are meaningless and we should all just be nice and get along. But the story does caution us against invoking boundaries in self-defeating ways. The boundaries that we have—whether we’re talking about the social-ethnic boundaries of ancient Israel or the sacramental and religious boundaries of the contemporary Christian landscape—are supposed to promote the authentic truth and goodness and beauty of divine revelation. They should never be an excuse from rationality or a mere cloak for petty sectarianism.
In other words, if a Samaritan can have mercy on a Jew, we should certainly be able to have mercy on a Samaritan—whoever that is for us. I don’t think this is meant to be very complicated, even if it remains challenging for people in every age.
But the sheer difficulty of this proposition—the fact that we so often do find excuses to avoid loving our neighbor as ourself—gives us a little opening into the spiritual meaning of this parable that has been long recognized in the Tradition. How, if the priest and the Levite fail to follow the spirit of the Law, do the rest of us stand a chance? Who is this Samaritan?
When you’ve heard all your life, as many of us have, that the Good Samaritan is supposed to be a role model for us, it can be a bit shocking to realize that for the vast majority of Christians in history, our place in the story is not as the (potential) Samaritan, but as the semivif, the half-dead man on the road. (Indeed, if you have a pew missal from any time prior to 1970, you’ll likely see just this interpretation summarized in the notes on the Mass propers for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.)
The Samaritan, then, is Christ himself. The priest and the Levite are the ministers of the old Law—or perhaps the Law and the Prophets—who are unable to help. As St. Paul says, the Law is good at offering condemnation, but it does not provide the power to save, the power to heal us and elevate our nature. Christ, the Good Samaritan, heals our wounds—with wine and oil, pretty obvious symbols of the sacraments—and puts us in a hostel, that is, the Church, to provide for all our needs until he returns. He promises to pay for everything from his own resources.
I first encountered this classic interpretation in William Langland’s great fourteenth-century English poem, Piers Plowman. In that version, the priest and the Levite represent faith and hope. The Samaritan—you guessed it—is charity. But again, Langland emphasizes the inadequacy of the old covenant, represented by faith and hope, to heal the wounds of sin and death.
Here are the words of Langland’s Samaritan:
“Have them excused,” quoth he,“their help may little avail:
May no medicine under molde the man to health bring—
Neither Faith nor fine Hope, so festered be his wounds,
Without the blood of a bairn born of a maid.
And be he bathed in that blood, baptised as it were,
And then plastered with penance and passion of that baby,
He should stand and step—as stalwart worth he never
Till he have eaten all the barn and his blood y-drunk.
(Piers Plowman B-Version, Passus XVII)
It’s a rather graphic image—no doubt a bit much for modern ears. Bairn in Middle English means a child, but otherwise I think the lines are pretty clear. The child is Jesus, and it is only through his blood, which in some sense “bathes” us in baptism and nourishes us in the Eucharist, that we shall ever be able to stand on two feet again.
The wounds of sin are simply too “festered” to be aided by mere faith and hope. I think the lectionary is quite direct in asking us to think about this relationship. We heard the lesson from Deuteronomy where Moses insists that the word is “very near” to us. It’s a beautiful description of what the Catholic tradition has often called the natural law. In other word, the moral law is not some arbitrary imposition from on high; it is embedded in the very structure and reality of creation.
Even in the Old Testament, though, people need God’s help to know this law. It may be written on their hearts, but that writing is hard to read when the heart is weighed down and corrupted by sin. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we see that that even having an accurate understanding of the moral law is insufficient. It is only through grace—that is, through the intervention of Christ our Good Samaritan—that we can be healed. And it is only in holy Church, his halfway house between the world and our ultimate home, that this healing can continue until he returns.
Having understood this, though, we can return at last to the literal meaning of the parable, which is a lesson about loving our neighbor. If we have been so loved by God, if Christ has laid down his life for us, surely part of the healing and the power that he gives is the ability, in and through his grace, to ourselves act as neighbors—to risk ourselves on the dangerous highways of this world for the sake of the people that God created and loves and wants to bring home. As we receive his gifts of grace, his own body and blood, may we also share in his love for his people and his passionate desire to carry them home by way of the hospital that is the Church.