It was curious to me that the first Christians didn’t see the parable of the Good Samaritan as a purely ethical mandate. I’m talking about the oft maligned, rarely approved interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable that nearly every early church father embraced.

If you dabble in the waters of church history, then you know the early church fathers are heavy hitters, theologians who set the course of church and world history with their sermons and ideas. The first time we see their supra-ethical interpretation, it comes from Origen, who says he received it from his elders, who were only a generation or two removed from Jesus. But we also see it in Irenaeus, St. John Chrysostem, Ambrose, and Augustine of Hippo himself. While, yes, the parable of the Good Samaritan has something to say about how we should all be helpful to others, that wasn’t exclusively how the early church approached the parable. The scholars gave this famous school of interpretation the name “allegory,” and it refers to the early church’s ability to find symbolism in the story that is deeper than we might immediately see.

Here’s generally how the ancient church understood the parable of the Good Samaritan (the particulars can differ from thinker to thinker, but the gist is similar).

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.

The early church saw this not as mere circumstance, but as a metaphor for the fall of man. Jerusalem is the holy city, Jericho has a bad reputation. Falling among robbers is a metaphor for sin and actions contrary to God’s work. The robbers themselves are the devil and his demonic forces beating the man and stripping him bare of his immortality which was gifted prior to the fall. He is left half-dead in acknowledgement of the curse of Eden.

Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

The priest represents the Law of Moses, which is unhelpful and unable to save the man. The Levite represents the prophets, the Old Testament characters who called to the people of Israel for repentance, but they were also unable to save the man.

But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’

The Samaritan is God, who had compassion on the robbed man. The binding of wounds is the restraint of sin. The oil and wine are hope, exhortation to good works, and the Holy Spirit. The pack animal is Jesus, who bears our sins for us. The inn is the church, and the promise to the innkeeper of returning to settle the debt is the promise of Jesus’s second coming.

If you had my experience in seminary, you would have been given this outline along with the admonition, “Don’t interpret the Bible like this.” There were a number of “more faithful” ways one could interpret the text. One could talk about the racial prejudice that the Jewish people had against the Samaritans and how Jesus wishes to subvert it. One could examine how Jesus admonishes the priests and Levites for not caring to stop for the stranger. But the ancient church, saith the scholars, when they approached the parable, were prone to fancy and not very good at this whole reading thing.

Yours truly agreed with that assertion until I discovered what is among the most theological of social science experiments to ever be performed. In 1973, a number of sociologists ran an experiment on seminarians in training for ordination. These seminarians were surveyed to see what inspired their faith. They were then asked to come up with a sermon outline on this Good Samaritan parable, which they would deliver to another researcher in the study. Presumably, the seminarians were being tested on their faith’s inspiration and their sermon. After they composed the sermon, they were asked to meet for Part II of the study, the delivery of the sermon, in another building on campus.

The study was not, however, whether different faith inspirations impacted the seminarians’ preaching. The real study was about the parable itself. The researchers hired an actor to dress like a vagrant and sprawl out and look half-dead along the route between buildings. As the seminarians walked by, the actor was instructed to “moan and cough twice.” The seminarians, having just composed a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan, were tested to see whether or not they would stop to help the actor planted by the researchers.[1] Altogether, 40% of the seminarians stopped to offer some form of help.

The study helped me recall a time of deep embarrassment when I missed out on being the Good Samaritan. Some years ago, I was exploring running as a fitness routine. I was running my second 5k race, a local church fundraiser for the food pantry, and was hoping to improve my time. On my way to the finish line, I passed a parishioner of mine who was running the race with her toddler in a stroller. The toddler was having a meltdown and refusing to stay in the stroller. As I ran by, I wheezed an exasperated and belabored, “Is everything OK?” She shouted back a frustrated and disappointed, “Yeah, we’ll be OK.” I kept running.

At the finish line, I was catching my breath and replenishing my hard-burned calories with a cinnamon bun. Other friends were reuniting after finishing their runs as well. After sharing our disappointments and successes with our times, our thoughts turned to our friend with the stroller. We each shared that we had seen the toddler having a meltdown but hadn’t stopped to help. As we were sharing our concerns, we saw our friend round the corner, walking to the finish line. She was pushing the empty stroller, and walking next to her was the pastor of the church hosting the 5k, carrying and distracting the toddler, who was no longer having a meltdown. I was quite priest that day.

It’s never fun to embody the bad guys in one of Jesus’s parables. But with a 40% success rate among the seminarians and a bit of my own failure thrown in, I’m less assured that the Good Samaritan parable is strictly an ethical teaching. At least I’m questioning its effectiveness as a tool to that end. Maybe the early church fathers had something going with their allegorical interpretation. If the parable is law alone, it will only highlight our shortcomings. It won’t turn us into helpful heroes.

The ability to see God as the original Good Samaritan, and to see we humankind as half-dead and in desperate need of rescue, makes a lot of sense given the rest of the New Testament’s emphasis on grace alone, apart from works of the Law. I am less put off than I used to be about the early church fathers. Their wisdom is deeper than I imagined.


[1] The experiment also tested urgency, telling some participating seminarians that they were “running ahead of schedule” and others, “We’re running behind, please go to the next building quickly.” It turns out, there was a correlation between busyness and helpfulness — only 10% of those in a hurry stopped, while 60% of the participants stopped when they were told they had extra time to help. The study also concluded that different types of spirituality had no impact predicting helpfulness. I should also point out the study had limited participants (40). It’s an experiment that’s ripe for reproduction in 2019 with a larger sample size.