Saint Augustine on the Parables

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  • Topic: Jesus, Augustine of Hippo, Parable of the Good Samaritan
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Interpreting the Parables

Saint Augustine on “The Good Samaritan Parable”


August 2, 2009

The early Christian understanding of this allegorical interpretation of the Good Samaritan is clearly depicted in the famous 12th-century cathedral in Chartres, France. One of its beautiful stained-glass windows depicts the story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden at the top of the window and, at the bottom of the window, the familiar New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan, "thereby illustrating a symbolic interpretation of Christ's parable that was popular in the Middle Ages."[1] Even more explicitly allegorical windows are found in two other French cathedrals at Bourges and Sens. Seeing these windows led me to wonder: What does the parable of the good Samaritan have to do with the Fall of Adam and Eve? Where did this association of these scriptures originate? And how did St Augustine view this parable? I will attempt to answer the above questions in this paper.

Through research I soon discovered many answers.[2] The roots of this allegorical interpretation reach deeply into the earliest Christian literature. Writings in the second century a.d., Irenaeus and Clement each saw the good Samaritan as symbolizing Christ saving the fallen victim from the wounds of sin. Origen, only a few years later, stated that this interpretation came down to him from one of the elders, who understood the elements of this story allegorically as follows:

The man who was going down is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers. The priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience, the beast is the Lord's body, the pandochium (that is, the stable inn), which accepts all who wish to enter, is the Church. And further, the two denarii mean the Father and the Son. The manager of the stable is the head of the Church, to whom its care has been entrusted. And the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Savior's second coming.[3] This early text shows that the allegorical reading of the good Samaritan was known and taught by early followers of Jesus. The attribution of this interpretation to "one of the elders" strongly associates it with the earliest Christians.[4] Moreover, this interpretation was virtually universal throughout early Christianity, being advocated by Irenaeus in southern France, Clement in Alexandria, Origen in Judea, Chrysostom in Constantinople, Ambrose in Milan, Augustine in Africa, and Eligius in northern France, to name only a few. I will focus on Augustine.

Saint Augustine, who described himself publicly as a great sinner in his “Confessions”, was bishop Augustine, one of the greatest fathers of the Church, who shaped theology, from the fifth century on. He was born, Aurelius Augustine in Algeria, in 354. His father was a pagan, but his mother was a devout Christian. She was Saint Monica, who converted her pagan husband later, and by her care and tears saved Augustine, the prodigal son. She delayed his baptism until his penitence. Augustine grew less interested in religion, and more interested in flesh desires. From intrusion, stealing the pears from neighboring gardens, to immerse in sex with typical friends, he ran his life in the fast lane. He took a concubine at age seventeen, after his formal education in law and rhetoric in Carthage, and had a son, named Adeodatus, to mean ‘given by God’. After about two years he started reading Cicero, and became interested in philosophy of Plato. He taught rhetoric for a short time in his hometown Tagaste, and then he moved back to Carthage in 376, to run his own school. Saint Augustine was a Christian at 33, a priest at 36, and a bishop at 41.[5] Many people are familiar with the biographical sketch of Augustine of Hippo, sinner turned saint. There had quickly surfaced the intensity with which he...
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