The Parable of the Good Samaritan[1] is an enduring life lesson used for the ages.  There are  many players in the story making it relatable to everyone.  There is  the Victim, the robbers, the Priest, the Levite, and the innkeeper besides the Good Samaritan.[2]  Readers can identify with or be repulsed by one or more of the characters.  As a deacon, the actions of the Levite offended me because he ignored someone in need.  Yes, he may have been worried about ritual impurity,[3] but at a minimum he could have sent for help.[4] Others may see themselves as the Good Samaritan, always willing to help those in need, or the innkeeper who provides a place of sanctuary for the Victim.

The Church Fathers  saw this parable through a different lens.  They attached an allegorical meaning to the parable instead of a literal interpretation, seeing the Good Samaritan as Christ and the Victim as Humanity.  Allegorically, this is a story of how Christ  provides needed assistance to a fallen mankind. [5] One indication this was the prevailing interpretation is a peculiar gap in the tradition of Eastern Christianity. The Victim does not have a name. [6]

The Eastern Church has developed a vast repository of pious legend.  It often put a name on anyone not named in the Bible.   For instance, the unnamed Samaritan Woman at the Well[7] became Photini, or “luminous”, recognizing her role in bringing enlightenment to her people. The nameless soldier who pierced the side of Jesus with a lance at his crucifixion became known as Longinus, a name derived from the word lance.  The Penitent Thief [8] became Dismas, a name derived from the  Greek word for sunset or death. Tradition expanded to include names of people who are not even mentioned in the Bible.[9]  Veronica and Thecla are examples of this expansion. 

Yet, in all of tradition and the works of the Church Fathers, the Victim in the Parable of the Good Samaritan has remained nameless.  Hold on you say.  Most of the characters in the parables do not have names  recorded in the Bible or provided by tradition. The lone canonical exception  is the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. I suggest this is a very important exception.  It is human nature  to empathize with victims.  It is precisely because of this Jesus puts a name on the poor beggar. He wanted us to empathize with this man. Yet, in the two millennia since Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the  Victim still remains “the Victim”, a nameless person who suffered tragedy.   What is the difference between the two parables? One plausible explanation is the Victim was always considered a type of humanity, and was never representative of an actual person.  The main interpretation of the parable by the Church was always allegorical rather than literal, perhaps because the institutional Church was represented in the parable as the Inn (the Church) and the Innkeeper (the bishops and priests of the Church).

 Notwithstanding the allegorical interpretation, the parable can still be read as a moral lesson. Jesus clearly challenges the lawyer with this teaching, painting the actions of the Priest and Levite in an unfavorable light .[10] Parables are timeless lessons particularly because there are layers of interpretation. Even after all this time, the image of the Victim still remains an unforgettable and relatable moral tale.

[1] Gospel of Luke 10: 25-37

[2] Incidentally, the Samaritan is never labeled as “Good” in the parable. That appellation has been used so many times over the ages it has stuck to the parable.

[3] Touching a corpse could cause ritual defilement. Even worse than ritual defilement is moral defilement something the Priest and Levite could have considered.

[4] Of course, perhaps the priest and the Levite did send for help.  The parable doesn’t make mention of this so it is safe to assume this didn’t happen.

[5] Not everyone agrees with this interpretation.  Augustine and Origen were proponents of this interpretation.  Protestant theologians in general tend to have a much dimmer view of the allegorical interpretation.

[6] Another interpretation is he could be any one of us, but the resulting interpretation is not materially different than the allegorical one presented by the Church Fathers.

[7] Gospel of John 4:4-42

[8] He is also known as the Good Thief, something of an oxymoron but that is how he has been labeled in tradition.

[9] Well, at least not the canonical Bible…

[10] It might be worth noting the Priest and the Levite are not rewarded with names in tradition.  It is not just eventual saints who are rewarded with names.  For example, the unrepentant thief eventually acquired the name Gestas.