The Parable of the Good Augustinian

The Good Samaritan. We’ve heard the parable countless times. What does it mean? Modern interpreters know for a fact that it is simply an illustration of the lawyer’s sin and failure to keep the law, which—I dare say some would teach—if he does, he will inherit eternal life. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Ancient expositors of the New Testament thought very differently about this popular passage. Augustine gets picked on for his exposition of it by several modern manuals on the craft, but Augustine’s reading did not begin with himself, and was certainly no attempt at novelty. We may well call it the patristic reading, for we find it in men who went before him, such as Origen (some of my readers were instantly triggered just now) and Irenaeus. Their interpretation was simple: Jesus is the good Samaritan in the parable.

What can we say about the parable? Perhaps a bit of context. It is an illustration of the second table of the law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27). A lawyer asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ answer was that he must keep the commandments: “Do this, and you will live.” (Luke 10:28), a clear expression of the principle of works given to Adam and echoed in the Mosaic law. The lawyer then asked, “Who is my neighbor?” (v. 29).

Jesus went on to illustrate the commandment with the parable of the good Samaritan. He proves to the lawyer, who wants to work his way to heaven, that he does not love his neighbor and therefore will not inherit eternal life—at least if he means to rely on his own works to do so (and we think he means to do just that: “desiring to justify himself” v. 29). The foreign Samaritan in the parable does, however, love his neighbor.

I’m reading a book on hermeneutics right now called The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: From the Early Church to Modern Practice. In my reading today the author explored Augustine’s interpretation of this parable, which I read intently, with a thought here or there about the outlandish nature of all that the old saint saw in Jesus’ words. But, if you follow me on social media, you may know that this morning I posted a picture of this book with the comment that in three sentences this guy convinced me of the patristic reading of the parable of the good Samaritan. It all clicked for me. Many other sentences have done mightily, but they did not attain to the three. They are as follows:

“Second, although Jesus could have illustrated the command of neighbor love in a number of ways, the parable that he presented is clearly a rescue story, a story about salvation. This choice carries significant consequences for interpretation. In a day when all Christian interpreters agreed that the scope of Scripture is Christ, it would not require a great hermeneutical leap to imagine the rescuer, the savior, in this story as Christ.” (p. 88)

Well that took me straight to glory and I do believe I love the Lord Jesus more now than I did this morning when I opened that book. He is indeed the eschatological good Samaritan who kept God’s law perfectly, attaining eternal life, and did so in a marvelous saving act of love for his dying neighbor—me!