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Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan revisited

The 'hidden message' interpreted by early Christians

Printed image of The good Samaritan in Grace Church Chiangmai, Thailand (Photo: Shutterstock)

Every Christian has encountered the renowned parable of the Good Samaritan at least once in their life. This impactful story, found in the Gospel of Luke 10:25–37, is a widely recognized symbol of charity and compassion.

In response to a question from a Jewish expert of the law regarding the concept of "neighbor," Jesus shares a poignant parable that transcends mere acts of mercy. In this narrative, a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is ambushed by robbers and left wounded. Despite the presence of a priest and a Levite who pass by without assisting him, it is a Samaritan who shows compassion. The Samaritan tends to the injured man, using oil and wine to treat his wounds, and ensures his care at an inn, covering expenses for his recovery.

Throughout history, many scholars claimed that this parable had a hidden message of the divine plan for the redemption of the world, and it is an idea that had already been expressed by the first Christians and the very early fathers of the church.

Origen, an early Christian writer from the 3rd century A.D., interpreted the parable allegorically: The wounded man represents humanity, Jerusalem symbolizes the lost paradise or Eden, and Jericho represents “the world.” The robbers signify dark powers, the priest symbolizes the law, the Levite represents the prophets, and the Good Samaritan embodies Christ. The wounds symbolize disobedience and the consequences of sin, the beast represents Christ's body, the inn symbolizes the Church and its manager symbolizes its head. The Samaritan's promise to return symbolizes the Lord's future second coming (Origen, 1996, p. 136, Homily 34, para 3). This interpretation is also upheld in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Prof. John Welch, a scholar, states: “This allegorical reading was taught not only by ancient followers of Jesus, but it was virtually universal throughout early Christianity, being advocated by Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen, and in the fourth and fifth centuries by Chrysostom in Constantinople, Ambrose in Milan, and Augustine in North Africa. This interpretation is found most completely in two other medieval stained-glass windows, in the French cathedrals at Bourges and Sens."

Various interpretations of the parable have been proposed throughout history. One suggests that it conveys a message against religious hypocrisy or establishment, represented by the priest and the Levite. Another interpretation posits that Jesus compared his Jewish audience to the wounded man, with the Samaritan symbolizing unexpected grace, particularly significant as Samaritans were not on good terms with Jews. This interpretation underscores the challenge of accepting salvation through faith in Jesus Christ rather than attempting to justify oneself through adherence to the law and personal actions.

In Jewish tradition, contact with a deceased person was considered impure. Priests were specifically instructed to steer clear of contamination. Consequently, the priest and Levite might have presumed the fallen traveler to be deceased and avoided him to maintain ritual purity. Alternatively, the downward journey from Jerusalem to Jericho might suggest that their temple obligations were fulfilled, reducing the likelihood of this explanation, though it's debated. As the Mishnah provided leeway for neglected corpses, the priest and Levite could have cited the law to rationalize either touching or disregarding the body. In any case, passing by on the opposite side prevented them from determining whether the traveler was alive or dead. Their concern seemed more focused on potential defilement than on assisting someone in need.

In Jesus' time, Jews and Samaritans held deep animosity; Jews even destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. This mutual enmity echoes in the Good Samaritan parable, emphasizing universal compassion despite divisions. Modern interpretations often highlight strained social relations, emphasizing historical tensions. Despite negative portrayals, Jesus showed compassion towards Samaritans, as in Luke's account. The Samaritan's actions may reflect northern Israelites' behavior towards Judean enemies in 2 Chronicles 28:8–15, underlining universal compassion and neighborly love's importance.

The route from 1st-century Jerusalem to Jericho, known as the "Way of Blood," was notorious for frequent robberies and violence. This perilous path, winding from an elevation of 2,474 feet (754 m) to approximately 846 feet (258 m) below sea level, posed significant challenges for travelers. In Jesus' time, the journey, now 20 minutes by car, likely required an overnight stay at inns due to its length on foot.

Jesus, as usual, grounded his parable in tangible realities. Archaeological findings reveal the existence of inns along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, offering safety for travelers. The "Inn of the Good Samaritan National Park," situated midway, includes a 6th-century Byzantine church and monastery/hostel remains. Jerome mentions a citadel at this spot, although few remnants remain. The Byzantine hostel likely operated until 720 A.D., with Islamic-era evidence discovered. Beneath the church lie remnants from the 1st century (walls, firepits, and a small water cistern), alongside a nearby Herodian palace from Jesus' time (including a Roman bath, and mosaics), believed to have later functioned as an inn.

In the same vicinity, Crusaders erected a fortress known as "Castrum Rouge," or the "Reddish Castle," along with an inn between 1168 and 1172 A.D. This structure served as an inn through the Mamluk period (13th–16th centuries A.D.), with a renovated hostel persisting into the Ottoman era.

These details indicate that from Jesus' time until the Ottoman period, this location remained an ideal site for an inn midway between Jerusalem and Jericho.

In conclusion, the early church fathers and Christian writers comprehended the profound significance of Jesus' parable. Based on their understanding, the parable of the Good Samaritan can be interpreted as follows:

The wounded man's journey from Jerusalem to Jericho symbolizes humanity's descent into sin and suffering, instigated by the devil (with Jericho representing darkness and sin). In ancient Hebrew, "going down" has negative connotations, contrasting with the positive ascent, such as ascending the mountain of God (Psalm 24:3). The priest's descent underscores his alignment with perdition: Indeed, Christianity believes the old covenant law cannot save alone. The Good Samaritan mirrors Jesus, embodying his compassionate nature and being the world's savior. Being rejected because he is of Samaritan descent, he also reflects Jesus’ rejection at the cross. The Priest and Levite represent the old covenant's limitations; their rituals and blood sacrifices cannot fully redeem humanity's sins. In contrast, Jesus, portrayed as the Samaritan, offers healing and redemption. He treats the man's wounds first with oil and then with wine. In normal life, it is customary to first use antiseptic liquid before pouring healing oil on wounds. Oil symbolizes the Holy Spirit, first convicting of sin and providing the filling of the Holy Spirit, while wine represents the cleansing and healing power of Jesus's blood on the cross that follows. This sequence may suggest that purification is preceded by conviction by the Holy Spirit. Bringing the man to the inn symbolizes Jesus saving believers and placing them securely within the church. The innkeeper may symbolize the Holy Spirit, caring for believers during Jesus’ absence. The Samaritan's payment of two denarii until his return, equivalent to one denarius per day's wages as in the 'Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard' written in Matthew 20:1-16, hints, perhaps at the timing of Jesus' return: In the Bible, a day can symbolize 1,000 years (Psalm 90:4, 2 Peter 3:8), suggesting Jesus' potential return for his bride after two millennia.

Aaron Goel-Angot is a Belgian-Israeli archaeologist with an expertise in antiquities identification. He is an enthusiastic numismatist and a licensed tour guide. He holds a BA degree in archaeology from the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He joined the ALL ISRAEL NEWS team as an Archaeology and Tourism correspondent. Aaron is married, father of three young children and lives in Jerusalem.

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