Who is My Neighbor?

Throughout Church history, faithful Christians have interpreted Scripture in an array of different ways. Allegory was a dominant interpretive approach in the Church’s first few centuries, and its influence endures today. A hallmark of the allegorical mode of interpretation involves reading the details of the text as representations of a deeper, spiritual reality.

Origen, a 3rd century theologian and bishop, is known for his allegorical approach to interpreting Scripture. The example below is Origen’s allegorical reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan from a collection of his homilies on the gospel of Luke. Here, Origen sees in nearly every detail and character of the parable a corresponding element in the larger story of redemptive history:

"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 inn which accepts all who wish to enter is the church. 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. The fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the savior's second coming.”

Although Origen’s insistence upon assigning a deeper, spiritual meaning to the parable’s minutiae might sound odd to our modern ears, this method of interpretation reveals some truths worth contemplating. For instance, with the benefit of being able to look back on the scope of Jesus’ earthly ministry, how might the Samaritan’s kindness in the parable accurately portray the character of Christ? Could it be helpful to conceive of the church as an inn accepting those most in need of care? If the Church were to adopt this as part of her self-understanding, who stands to benefit?

In addition to raising some questions worth pursuing, allegorical interpretation also invites us as readers to pause and look closely at familiar texts that we might otherwise be tempted to brush past. Pentecostal theologian and professor Chris Green offers his own allegorical reading of the parable that both builds upon Origen’s approach while also departing from it in significant ways. Green’s reading, which takes the form of the poem below, invites us to ask of ourselves the same question that gave rise to the parable in the first place, namely, “Who is my neighbor?”

God is not our neighbor
by Chris E.W. Green

We suffer, we seethe, 
Protest, invoke, fester, beg. 
Pray and pray and wait.

And wait and wait and -- 

In the dark, God wonders why
We wait, why we ask
For him--
you have each other!

God is not our neighbor

I am the man good as dead
In the road, the lurking 
Brigands and the hasty priests.

You, you are the stranger, showing
An alien kindness, the weary keeper
Waiting like my brother at the inn

God? Well, God is Jerusalem and Jericho,
And the treacherous road that binds them;
the ass that bears us, the inn 
(in which there's always room), 
and the coins that buy our stay.

God is the binding that binds all wounds.
God is the oil and the wine.

God is not our neighbor, and cannot be,
Waits and prays for you, for me--
Samaritan, scapegoat, sinner, saint--
To find each other
In the dark

You are the one to bind my wounds.
Yours is the oil and the wine.

As the poem’s title indicates, well-meaning Sunday School answers to the question, “Who is my neighbor” might not be sufficient. Instead, like the lawyer in Luke 10, we are confronted with the (perhaps disorienting) reality that God’s gifts of provision to us come through one another, even those whom we might least expect. Or, as Green has said elsewhere, “God promises not only to provide for us, but also that we will ourselves be the provision.”