In Pope Francis’s latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, the parable of the good Samaritan serves as the guiding image for the pope’s account of fraternal charity. Amid the dark shadows of the present age, the good Samaritan illuminates the love we owe to everyone, regardless of who they are or where they come from. Parochialism and nationalism are figured in the priest and Levite. Meanwhile, the Christian’s calling—our own calling—is pictured in the Samaritan: “In the face of so much pain and suffering, our only course is to imitate the Good Samaritan.”
Among the many “shadows” of our culture, the encyclical mentions two in particular that are worth pondering in relation to how we read the parable: first, a loss of “historical consciousness,” which untethers us from the rootedness of traditions; and second, an embrace of globalization and progress that nevertheless leaves us “without a shared roadmap.” Both of these grievances—the loss of historical memory and the loss of a shared “map”—uniquely condition the presentism of our age, uprooting us from history and catapulting us into new and uncharted territories without any solid guides.
While Francis mentions in passing patristic commentary on the good Samaritan, he does not mention the well-known allegorical reading of the parable—an interpretation that runs through Irenaeus, Clement, Origen, Ambrose, and Augustine, among others. By pondering the patristic reading of this parable, we just might find in the church’s memory a trustworthy map for these murky times—a discarded treasure trove that, when dusted off, shows us a well-trod path to loving our neighbour.
The parable of the good Samaritan is a journey story. “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho” (Luke 10:30). Like all good journey stories, there is action and adventure—Robbers! Peril! Rescue! But it is also about a journey of another kind. As a parable Jesus is telling this “expert in the law,” it is also a journey in which someone is asking for directions: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In other words: How do I get where I want to go? At the end of the parable, Jesus instructs the wayfarer, “Go and do likewise.” The parable of the good Samaritan, we could say, is the map.
But what kind of map is it? Or, as Jesus asks his interlocuter, “How do you read?” That really is the question, and it is one that the church fathers asked too.
Augustine’s Map of the Good Samaritan
Many of the church fathers charted this parable in a distinctive way—a way that many Christians today find strange. Like some ancient treasure map in a dusty museum, the patristic allegory of this parable looks exotic and wild, drawn with lines that seem out of proportion with “real life.” There are many small variations in the cartography, but throughout early Christian reflection, a common pattern emerged.
Here, for example, is Augustine’s map of the parable, taken from his Questions on the Gospels:
The traveler is Adam, that is, humanity—you and I. Jerusalem represents the heavenly city. Jericho, because of its etymological relation to the Canaanite word for “moon” (Yareaẖ), represents the waxing and waning of our mortality. The thieves represent Satan and the fallen angels, who strip Adam of his clothing—that is, they deprive him of his immortality—and beat him by persuading him to sin. This leaves the man “half dead”—only half dead, that is, because although he is “wasted and oppressed by sin,” he is not rendered completely incapable of knowing God. The priest and the Levite represent the Old Testament and its ritual dispensation, which could not provide salvation.
So far, so fun—but it gets even better: The one who can provide salvation is the Samaritan, Jesus Christ, since Samaritan means “guardian.” The binding of the wounds is the restraint of sin, oil the comfort of good hope, and wine the exhortation to work with a fervent spirit. The beast on whom the sinner is laid is “the flesh in which God deigned to come to us”—that is, belief in the incarnation. (Chesterton would, I think, approve.) The inn is the church, “where travelers returning to their heavenly country are refreshed after pilgrimage.” The “next day” signifies the resurrection of the Lord. The two denarii could be one of two things: either the twin commandments of love or the promise of this life and the life to come. Last of all, the innkeeper is—you guessed it—the apostle Paul, and the “extra payment” is either his counsel of celibacy or the fact that he worked with his own hands lest he burden any weaker brethren.
Reading the Parable Today
To the modern mind this interpretation is perhaps charmingly pious at best, but surely not “serious” exegesis. Most young seminarians are taught precisely not to do this. In their widely assigned book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, for example, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart single out Augustine’s interpretation of the parable as Exhibit A of the fanciful, historically rootless, arbitrary exegesis of the darkened premodern mind. How could Jesus’s listeners have possibly thought the donkey was a sign of the incarnation, or the innkeeper the apostle Paul?
But there’s something even more potentially troubling about the patristic allegory. Doesn’t making this parable an allegory about salvation history actually evade the ethical challenge of the text? Does it not soften the radical challenge to extend compassion to “the Other” in our midst?
We’ve grown accustomed to reading this parable in ways that highlight its radical social implications. We read it more simply than the Fathers did. Drawing parallels between contemporary prejudices and those between Jews and Samaritans, we find the meaning obvious, if challenging: Don’t be like the priest or the Levite. Be like the Samaritan. Love your neighbour, even if—or especially if—your neighbour is not like you.
Occasionally commentators today still read this parable christologically, noticing, for example, that in Luke’s Gospel other appearances of the verb “to have compassion” (splanchnizomai) refer to divine—and indeed resurrection—mercy. Jesus “has compassion” on the mother of a dead son before raising him to life (Luke 7:13). In the parable of the prodigal son, the father “has compassion” on the son who “was dead and is alive again” (Luke 15:20, 24).
All the same, while some may find Christ in the good Samaritan, they do so largely because it is compatible with modern methods of historical exegesis or postmodern notions of intertextuality. The rest of the patristic allegory, like the man on the road, can be left dying by the wayside. Can this old map still help us get around?
A Map or a GPS?
Imagining the parable of the good Samaritan as a certain kind of map reminded me of an insightful passage from technology critic Nicholas Carr’s book The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us, in which Carr describes the difference between a GPS and a paper map. On the surface, they both seem to do the same thing: get you to your destination. A GPS just makes it a lot easier.
But when we look more carefully, there is a continental rift between the way a map orients you in the world compared to a GPS. A map is an aid that helps you know where you are in a particular place. As you navigate the world with a map, your memory forms its own “cognitive map,” as neuroscientists call it, which helps you in the future find your way without having to consult the map. You come to imagine and indeed know yourself as a member of an environment, one who moves on a certain, fixed terrain.
A GPS, however, works differently. You, the traveller, become the stationary point of reference, while your surroundings “move” around you. GPS receivers still help you get where want to go, but, Carr says, “they’re not designed to deepen our involvement with our surroundings. They’re designed to relieve us of the need for such involvement.” With this disburdenment comes a different relationship with the world. “In this miniature parody of the pre-Copernican universe, we can get around without needing to know where we are, where we’ve been, or which direction we’re heading.” You do not need to know the landmarks or other physical objects of your surroundings. You need only punch in the destination, allow the algorithms to do their work, and there you are: Turn left in five hundred feet. Turn right in four miles. The destination will be on your right.
A paper map and a GPS, then, are not just two different tools that help us get from one place to another. They also teach us, as Carr says, “how to think about space”; they form our memories. For the user of maps, it takes more cognitive effort to figure out where one is. But in making this effort, says Carr, paper-map users form stronger memories of routes and landmarks than those relying on satellite devices. “It may well be that the brain’s navigational sense—its ancient, intricate way of plotting and recording movement through space—is the evolutionary font of all memory.”
Perhaps, then, maps and memories are more related than we thought. How, then, does this help us think about loving our neighbour?
Sharing in the Good Samaritan’s Charity
If the parable of the good Samaritan is a map to eternal life, the church fathers’ allegory functions like a paper map, while the historical-critical reading changes the metaphor to a GPS. The Fathers agree with modern interpreters about the moral implications of the story. Both are concerned to help you arrive at the destination of loving your neighbour. But the patristic understanding of this map invites us to navigate the terrain differently, having to work harder to consider who we are in the story, where we are going, and whence our help should come.
The difference between the Fathers’ map and the modern GPS is not unlike C.S. Lewis’s wonderful quip in The Abolition of Man: “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality. . . . For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.” Reading the parable allegorically asks us to conform our souls to reality, not the other way around. This is why, for the Fathers, we do not first identify ourselves with the good Samaritan but with Adam. Like Adam, we are on a journey—a journey to Jerusalem. And though we’ve been robbed of our immortality, we have been rescued by Christ, the true good Samaritan, whose healing ointments we find in the church.
The map of the good Samaritan, then, is not only an ethical story, a story about what we are to do. It is not like a GPS churning out moral precepts: “Turn left in five hundred feet. Your destination will be on your left.” The church fathers approach the parable more like the paper-map navigator, seeking to be oriented within the biblical world. We may have to work a little harder to figure out where we are, but when we do—when our cognitive maps become more clearly inscribed—we have a much better sense not only of what to do but also of who we are and why we do it.
The Fathers’ allegory of the good Samaritan, finally, is about much more than just different ways of reading. The Fathers’ map provides a way beyond the false choice between love of God and love of neighbour, between christological conviction and radical social ethic. When asked whether this parable is about Christ or us, the Fathers help us understand that it is both. Our acts of charity are only possible because we know what it is to have first been picked up off the side of the road, tended, bandaged, and healed by the compassionate love of Christ.
The patristic map locates the parable’s radical ethic of compassion firmly within the life of Christ. The map of salvation history imprinted on our memories becomes the way by which we navigate the world, even if we don’t have the map always at our side. This map enables us to better become, through the grace of Christ, the kind of people who love their neighbours in the way the good Samaritan does.
There is, it seems, quite a difference between identifying myself first with the half-dead man versus the good Samaritan. When I see myself as the good Samaritan, I take the place of moral superiority—dispensing or withholding charity as I please. It’s up to me to give to those in need, but I may not. The truth is, however, that I am the one lying “half dead,” whether I know it or not. My only chance at charity is to be flung onto the back of the beast—to believe in the incarnation—and to be carted off to the inn where I can find the healing medicine of the sacraments.
This reading of the parable calls us to a no less demanding ethic: to love and show compassion to our neighbour, no matter the person, no matter the cost. But this act of mercy is situated within a richer theological topography. It is not the charity of the moral do-gooder that corrodes into smug self-righteousness or the privileged bestower of useful goods and services that hardens into human-resources quotas. Rather, this is the charity of those who give what has first been received from the infinite mercies of Christ. This is the mercy of those who have been shown mercy. Compassion flows not from self-sufficient pride but a graced participation in the compassion of Christ, the good Samaritan—the true neighbour. In this map, at last, we can know where we are and where we are going.
The Fathers’ allegory of the good Samaritan is not just a fanciful reading but a considered reflection on the “roadmap” that offers us both memory and direction. It provides an orientation in the world that, while recognizing the shadows, gives sight of the true light. We are not at the centre of this world but at the margins, attendant to Christ, whom we find there. In recognizing our de-centredness, however, our own poverty, we find that we are co-sharers in the suffering of our fellows and of Christ. Here, we may begin to find our way again, on the road back to Jerusalem, in the company of a great cloud of neighbours.