I was reflecting this last week on Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan. The parable is a beautiful and surprising call to act on behalf of those who are in need, irrespective of race or creed. What I especially like about the parable is that when the expert in the law asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus completely changes the frame of reference. Rather than answering who, Jesus tells the expert how. The Samaritan exemplifies love of neighbor in his unfettered and extravagant care for a person in need. He transcends historic prejudices to bring healing, at no small expense to himself.

Augustine offers a curious interpretation of this parable. He allegorizes nearly every detail in the story—the man is Adam, the three robbers are the devil and the devil’s angels, the man is left dead in sin, the Samaritan is Christ, the inn is the Church (and Paul is the innkeeper!) and so on. I’ve always felt that Augustine’s elaborate interpretation revealed more about his brilliant mind than the intent of the parable. In fact, I wonder if his theological bent actually mitigates the force of the story—instead of hearing the call to “go and do likewise,” our attention is drawn to the activity of God. While reflecting on the goodness of God is not a bad thing, I worry that an interpretation like that of Augustine could lull us into complacency and inactivity.

But perhaps Augustine’s interpretation is not so sinister. The reality is that it is difficult to truly love and serve even people that we like, let alone those for whom we don’t have a natural affinity. Augustine reminds us of the grace of God revealed in the Christ event, that transformative power that enables us to live out the call to love our neighbors, both near and far, in the same way that we love ourselves.

David Creech