Prior to the two great fasting periods that prepare Christ’s Nativity (Christmas) and His Resurrection (Pascha), the Sunday lectionary invites us to read the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). This passage offers one of the best examples of the way the early Church Fathers moved from a literal to a spiritual reading of the text, from consideration of the biblical author’s basic message to an allegorical interpretation that sought to draw out from the text a higher or deeper “hidden” meaning. They relied on allegory in an attempt to discern behind the words of the passage symbolic allusions to Christ, the Church, and Christian life in general.
Modern commentators, from Creed to Fitzmyer, stress what they consider to be the literal or historical sense of the passage: the meaning St Luke understood as he sought to transmit and interpret Jesus’ message. Most find that meaning in the final words Jesus addresses to the Jewish lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” He admonishes him to be a neighbor to others, regardless of their ethnic origin or other circumstances, and to do so by performing gratuitous acts of mercy.
The ancient Fathers, on the other hand, looked beyond the most apparent meaning of the passage, in order to discern what they took to be its hidden yet fuller spiritual sense. This sensus pleniorthey understood to have been incorporated into the passage by St Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And it is this same Spirit, they held, who inspires the reader or interpreter of the passage to discern that hidden, symbolic meaning.
This is not to say that they found two distinct and disassociated meanings in the text, one literal and one spiritual. Fundamental to their hermeneutic or interpretive approach is the conviction that the spiritual meaning of a passage is rooted in and flows forth from the literal meaning. There is total continuity between the two; the passage is essentially characterized by a “double meaning,” at once literal and spiritual. Historical and allegorical exegesis, then, are not to be understood as two different and even conflicting ways of uncovering the meaning of a given passage, as many scholars today hold them to be. Rather, they are complementary and equally necessary for drawing out the message Godseeks to convey, through the writing of the biblical author.
Origen, following St Irenaeus (Adv. haer. III:17:3), alludes to an ancient interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable which sees in the beaten Jew, Adam; in Jerusalem, an image of Paradise; in Jericho, the fallen world; in the robbers, demonic enemies; in the priest, the Hebrew Law; in the Levite, the prophets; and in the Samaritan, Christ. In typical fashion, Origen continues to draw symbolic (hyperbolic?) meaning from the text, seeing in the man’s wounds an image of human disobedience; in the Samaritan’s beast of burden, the Body of Christ (in what sense is not clear); and in the inn where the man was welcomed, the Church (Hom. 34 on the Gospel of Luke, PG 13:1886-1888). Pressing his interpretation to allegorical excess, he finds in the two denarii a symbol of the Father and the Son (why not of the “two natures”?); in the innkeeper, the episcopal authority of the Church; and in the Samaritan’s promise to return, a prophetic figure of the Second Coming.
How are we to assess this kind of interpretation? Most exegetes today would dismiss it out of hand as a radical and fanciful departure from the “real” meaning of the passage. And in fact, Origen’s brilliant interpretations of the Bible are often marked by an exaggerated use of allegory, and this homily is no exception.
If many of the ancient Fathers followed this approach, however, they did so for a theologically sound reason. Despite the distortions that an allegorical reading can inject into a biblical passage, that approach has the merit of underscoring a fundamental truth. If we are to take seriously the notion of “inspiration,” this means that behind and beyond Scripture as a whole there is transcendent meaning to which those Scriptures point. While neither Jesus nor the evangelist Luke might have intended that others see in the person of the Samaritan an image of Christ Himself, a legitimate extrapolation can be made from the literal sense of the parable to a “fuller” or “higher” sense, by recognizing that many details of the story actually invite us to see in it allusions that can be properly termed allegorical.
Is it pure coincidence, for example, that the Samaritan, like Christ the true Priest, fulfills the moral obligations of the priest and Levite, who are, presumably, reluctant to do so out of an exaggerated concern for ritual purity (avoiding the wounded man’s blood, refusing to touch a corpse)? Is it unreasonable to see in the Samaritan’s gestures allusions to Jesus’ own healing and saving activity (the Physician of the sick and suffering; the Shepherd of the lost sheep, which is taken on His shoulder and returned safely to the flock)? Or to see in the inn and innkeeper allusions to the Body of believers, called to continue Christ’s healing, saving work within the world? Or even to perceive in the Samaritan’s promise to return and repay the entire debt, an image of Him who will come again to fulfill His redemptive work for the world’s salvation?
If such connections were not present to the mind of the evangelist as he composed his Gospel, using elements from oral and written tradition (his so-called “L” source), could they not have been present in Jesus’ own mind, as He spoke the words of the parable both to the lawyer and to the multitudes, including those of later generations? Or could connections such as these not have been present to the Risen Christ, as He continued to speak His Word through the evangelist, by means of the inspirational activity of the Spirit?
Again, rhetorical questions of this kind will be dismissed by most commentators as exegetical heresy: allegorical fantasy imposed on an otherwise straightforward narrative that admits only a literal interpretation.
Yet the Church Fathers saw beyond the letter to the core meaning of the Gospel. Allegory for them was a tool that allowed them, despite frequent exaggerations, to perceive and convey a fundamental truth. Every passage, every word of the canonical Scriptures is filled with the Spirit of God, who speaks through those thoroughly human words, to reveal to us the presence and purpose of the Risen Christ within our life and within His world.
“These things are written,” another evangelist declares, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (Jn 20:31).