When I was in the 8th Grade, I attended Robert Fulton Junior High School in Van Nuys, California, which is in the San Fernando Valley area of the Los Angeles metroplex. At some point during the year, Mrs. R. Smith, who taught English, gave my class an assignment to memorize and interpret a poem; we had to get up in front of the class, recite the poem, and then give our interpretation. When it came to be my turn, I recited my chosen poem, said what I believed it meant, and explained my interpretation. Mrs. Smith responded, “Your interpretation is wrong,” to which I replied, “I can interpret a poem any damned way I please!”

Well, as you might expect, she immediately ordered me to the Vice-Principal’s office, where I sat for about an hour and a half waiting for my mother whom the Vice-Principal called, to come from her office in another part of Los Angeles. I missed two other classes because of my rejection of Mrs. Smith’s one-right-interpretation approach to poetry and, while I remember the punishment, I no longer remember the poem nor the lesson she was trying to teach.

I tell you this story because that one-right-interpretation approach is the way the church has looked at the Parable of the Good Samaritan for most of its existence; for the first 1500 years that one right way was a lot different than the way most of us hear the story today.

The earliest theologians, those folks we call the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, treated the parables and, in fact, most of Scripture as allegories. With regard to the Good Samaritan, they taught that it was an allegory of the saving mission of Christ himself. St. Irenaeus of Lyon and St. Clement of Alexandria, Second Century bishops, both preached sermons portraying the wounded traveller as fallen humanity wounded with sin but saved by the Samaritan symbolizing Christ himself. Clement’s pupil Origen of Alexandria developed this further:

The man who was going down is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers. The priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience, the beast is the Lord’s body, the [inn], which accepts all who wish to enter, is the Church. … The manager of the [inn] is the head of the Church, to whom its care has been entrusted. And the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Savior’s second coming.[1]

This allegorical reading of the parable is said to teach us of God’s plan of salvation, of the healing love of the Redeemer, and how “the nurture of His Church can rescue us from our present situation.”[2]

The parable was interpreted in this way with slight variation by St. Augustine of Hippo, the 4th Century North African bishop whose influence on the theology of the Western Church cannot be overstated.[3] Augustine’s version was, in turn, adopted by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th Century, St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century, and Martin Luther in the 16th Century. Luther’s contemporary and fellow reformer, John Calvin, however, had no liking for these interpretations saying, “The allegory . . . is too absurd to deserve refutation. . .”[4]

For Calvin, the meaning of the parable was ethical, that “compassion, which an enemy showed to a Jew, demonstrates that . . . man was created for the sake of man . . . [and] that there is a mutual obligation between all men.”[5]

Calvin anticipated the scholarship of a 19th Century German New Testament professor named Adolf Jülicher who insisted that “the parables as told by Jesus . . . are always straightforward discourse in clear language that is ‘meant to inform, clarify, and persuade’.”[6] Although he utterly rejected the earlier tradition of allegorical reading, he shared with that tradition a belief in Mrs. Smith’s one-right-interpretation principle. For Jülicher, a parable had a single point of reference to the real world intended to teach a moral or spiritual lesson.[7]

Jülicher categorized Jesus’ parables in three types: similitudes, fables, and exemplary tales. Similitudes are short analogical present-tense statements using “a typical or recurring event in daily life”[8] to illustrate an external spiritual reality: “the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed,”[9] or like a woman mixing yeast and flour,[10] or like a treasure buried in a field,[11] or a like net thrown into the sea.[12]

Fables are also analogical, but are longer and more story-like than similitudes, typically not describing something recurring in real life, but a one-time fictitious event set in the past.[13] They have been called “once upon a time” stories.[14] Examples include the parable of the workers in the vineyard,[15] the prodigal son,[16] and the parable of the sower,[17] all meant to illustrate some aspect of life in the kingdom of Heaven.

Jülicher’s third sort of parable is the exemplary tale. These also narrate a typical event from real life which the audience would recognize. Exemplary tales are neither allegorical nor metaphoric and, while they may be fictitious, “they never indulge in the fanciful or fantastic, but remain true-to-life.”[18] Their object is to encourage adherence to a moral principal, an ethical obligation, or a religious duty.

Jülicher identified only four parables as exemplary stories: the rich fool,[19] which depicts a negative example of believing that wealth can secure prosperity; the rich man and Lazarus,[20] another negative exemplar teaching us not to be indifferent to the poor and suffering; the Pharisee and the publican,[21] which gives us two examples contrasting the sin of pride with the virtue of humility; and today’s story of the good Samaritan.[22]

Jülicher’s methodology, his three-type categorization of the parables and his insistence on a “one-point of reference” interpretation of each, was adopted by influential 20th Century bible scholars, notably C.H. Dodd in England and Joachim Jeremias in Germany, and has become, until recently, the dominant contemporary method of studying the parables in the Western Protestant churches. The allegorical understanding continues to predominate in the Eastern Orthodox churches and, along with Jülicher’s method, is still utilized in Roman Catholic teaching.

It is very likely that most of us were taught an ethical exemplar understanding of the good Samaritan story. Even if not raised in the church, we know of the good Samaritan through secular culture: laws which protect those who render aid to the injured are known as “good Samaritan laws” and, as Australian nun Sister Patty Fawkner notes, “Calling someone a Good Samaritan is part of our lexicon and a standard cliché for headline writers, news bulletin presenters and commentators alike.”[23] Evangelist Franklin Graham heads up a billion dollar international relief charity called “Samaritan’s Purse,”[24] and when a gunman killed 26 people at a church in Sunderland Springs, Texas, a few years ago and was himself shot by a member of the public, that “good guy with a gun” was haled is a “Good Samaritan.”[25] The term has simply come to mean “do-gooder” even if the good done is somewhat questionable.

“The persistence of the Good Samaritan,” says former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in a book review for The New Statesman, “suggests that our culture, for all its secularity, is not comfortable with an ethic that is completely rationalist in its rhetoric; we use language that carries echoes of the sacred, however confused and semi-audible those echoes [may be].”[26]

So, when we hear this parable in the context of a larger story about a lawyer asking Jesus “What must I do to be saved?” and then his follow-up question “Who is my neighbor?” we take it as an illustration in answer to these questions: that we should recognize everyone as our neighbor and emulate the neighborly actions of the Samaritan. Some folks, heeding Jesus’ admonition elsewhere to reserve the adjective “good” to describe only God,[27] prefer to call this the story of the “compassionate Samaritan.” This highlights that character as an ethical model. Whatever we call it, the parable is so well-known and its treatment as an exemplary tale so familiar, and we are so steeped in Jülicher’s rule of one interpretation only, that we are tempted to believe that we already know its ethical teaching, assume we have nothing more to learn from it, and tune it out when we hear it.

But as Archbishop Williams noted in that book review, different writers have drawn many other interpretations from this parable:

It’s about ethnic prejudice; or religious conflict; or the conflict between law-keeping and spontaneous ethical behaviour; or about the transcending of Israel’s historic significance as uniquely the people of God; or the need for ethical creativity; or the imperative to stop asking who is the neighbour to whom you have a duty and start behaving as a neighbour to anyone and everyone you encounter. * * * One thing that emerges from this bewildering range of interpretation is that it isn’t just a story telling us to be nice rather than nasty to people in need, or even a story encouraging us not to “pass by on the other side.”[28]

It can be about all those things and have more than one meaning because, like a poem, a parable is a work of art, a self-standing creation with a life of its own, possessing a beauty and power in and of itself, and independent of its author (even so important an author as Jesus). In truth, we don’t even need to know the author’s purpose or meaning. “[P]arables . . . make their own impact upon the hearer in every new [setting] apart from the author’s original intent.”[29]

Parables “are not historical allegories telling how God acts with mankind; neither are they moral example stories telling us how to act before God and towards one another. They are stories which shatter the deep structure of our accepted world . . . [and] make us vulnerable to God.”[30] This is especially true of stories “told by a singularly cunning and surprising storyteller, who regularly leaves his listeners with a lot of difficult questions about who they are supposed to identify with.”[31]

The allegorical approach to today’s parable encourages us to identify with the wounded man whom we recognize as fallen Adam, rescued from sin by Jesus and in need of the tender ministrations of the church. The exemplary tale approach encourages us to identify with the Samaritan and learn from his example to care for our neighbors in need. But every parable, every poem, every spoken narrative is what scholars call a “language event,” a performance of which we are not merely a passive audience. This parable is an extended metaphor which invites us to identify with and learn from any one or all of its characters.

We might find our attention captured by the robbers. If we study the parable, we would learn that these are, in the original Greek, lestes, a term which can mean highwaymen who rob only for personal gain, but which might also designate guerrilla warriors fighting against the oppression of political authorities, like the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest, the Minutemen of colonial America, or the Rebeldes of revolutionary Cuba. “The term does not necessarily imply a lack of honesty or integrity.”[32] And we might ask ourselves how our own commercial or political activities contribute to the woundedness of others and what we might do to reform our own behavior or the conditions of our society so there won’t be more wounded people in the ditch.

We may identify with the priest or the Levite, balancing the importance of their religious obligations and the performance of their work against the risks, inconvenience, and delay of aiding the wounded traveler and wonder about our own balancing of conflicting commitments. Perhaps we might see ourselves in the innkeeper and evaluate our own practices of hospitality and expectations of return or reward.

When my mother finally arrived at the junior high school office that day, she was ushered in and sat down next to me in front of the Vice-Principal’s desk. He explained to her why we there, quoting what I had said to Mrs. Smith. She glared at me with that steely gaze that only angry mothers have; then she glared at the Vice-Principal. After a moment of silence, she said, “He can interpret a poem any damned way he pleases.” Now, don’t get me wrong: I was punished, rather more severely than I thought warranted. But it was made clear that I was punished for being rude to a teacher, not for disagreeing with her, not for interpreting that poem in some way other than her one right way.

A poem, a parable, any narrative language event demands a decision: it “is not finished until the listener is drawn into it as an active participant, either implicitly or explicitly making judgments about the matter at hand.”[33] For every listener, the questions and the decisions will be different: I cannot, and would not even try to, tell you what your questions and answers might be. The one answer of allegorical interpretation or the one answer of the exemplary tale approach are not wrong, they’re just limited. But with God there are no limitations; our God is “the God of limitless possibilities.”[34] So I encourage you to read this parable again and then again and then yet again. Like all Jesus’ parables, it has limitless lessons to teach.

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This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on July 10, 2022, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, to the people of Grace Episcopal Church, Sandusky, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was supply preacher.

The lessons read at the service were Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; and St. Luke 10:25-37. These lessons are from the Episcopal Church’s version of the Revised Common Lectionary (see The Lectionary Page).

Illustration: The Good Samaritan (delivering the traveler to the inn), Rembrandt van Rijn (after 1633), The Wallace Collection, London, UK

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Notes:
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Origen, Homilies on Luke, Homily 34, para 3, tr. by Joseph T. Lienhard (Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C.:1996), p 138

[2] John W. Welch, The Good Samaritan: Forgotten Symbols, The Ensign online, February 2007, p 47, accessed July 2, 2022

[3] See Augustine of Hippo, Questions on the Gospels 2:19 as cited in C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (Collins, Glasgow:1978), pp 13-14

[4] Jean Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol. 3, tr. by William Pringle (Calvin Translation Society, Edinburgh:1845), p 54

[5] Ibid.

[6] Donald K. McKim, Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters (IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL:2007), p 586

[7] Ernest van Eck, Interpreting the parables of the Galilean Jesus: a social-scientific approach, HTS Theological Studies online, Vol. 65, No.1, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa, January 2009, accessed June 30, 2022

[8] David B. Gowler, Adolf Jülicher and the Parables (part 3), A Chorus of Voices: The Reception History of the Parables blog, September 11, 2015, accessed June 29, 2022

[9] Luke 13:19

[10] Luke 13:21

[11] Matthew 13:44

[12] Matthew 13:47

[13] Gowler, op. cit.

[14] Madeleine I. Boucher, The Parables in From Jesus to Christ, Frontline website, undated, accessed June 28, 2022

[15] Matthew 20:1-15

[16] Luke 15:11-32

[17] Matthew 13:1-9; Mark 4:1-9; Luke 8:4-8

[18] Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Mark 10:18 (NRSV)

[19] Luke 12:13-21

[20] Luke 16:19-31

[21] Luke 18:10-14

[22] Luke 10:25-37

[23] Patty Fawkner SGS, How power has hijacked the parable of the Good Samaritan, The Good Oil blog, July 2018, accessed July 1, 2022

[24] See Samaritan’s Purse website, accessed July 2, 2022

[25] See “Texas shooting: Hero Johnnie Langendorff on chasing Devin Kelley in Sutherland Springs”, USA Today online, November 6, 2017, accessed July 2, 2022

[26] Rowan Williams, The Good Samaritan: how politics transformed the meaning of a biblical story, The New Statesman online, December 25, 2017, accessed July 2, 2022

[27] Boucher, op. cit.

[28] Williams, op. cit.

[29] Timothy R. Sensing, Imitating the Genre of Parable in Today’s Pulpit, Restoration Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 4, 1991, pp 193-207, 196

[30] John Dominic Crossan, The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story (Argus Communications, Niles, IL:1975), pp 121-122

[31] Williams, op. cit.

[32] Social World of Bandits, American Bible Society Resources website, undated, accessed July 2, 2022

[33] Sensing, op. cit.

[34] Chuck Swindoll, quoted in Beyond the Broadcast, Insights Magazine online, No. 4, 2020, accessed July 3, 2022