The Good Samaritan
Prayer 14: The Good Samaritan
In Prayer 14 of the Book of Lamentation, St. Gregory of Narek presents an account of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This is perhaps one of the best-known parables in the Gospels. Modern exegetes have focused on the moral lesson: the good neighbor is the one who helps people in need even if doing so may be dangerous. And there are good people in all nations, even the Samaritans, against whom Jesus’ audience would have harbored strong prejudices. But Gregory’s approach to the parable is different. His portrayal is based on the ancient tradition of Christian interpretation that reads the story as an allegory. While this allegorical approach does not exclude the moral reading, it also understands the characters and figures of the story as symbols. As usual, although Gregory follows this allegorical tradition, he also displays his originality. Instead of simply presenting a breakdown of the symbolism, he asks us to imagine ourselves in the place of the traveler who has been severely beaten and left for dead:
There is no indication that he cried out to You
When he was pierced by the robbers’ sword, For he was petrified;
He could not even let out a groan,
For he was unable to speak;
Nor with trembling fingers
Could he point out to You who see all
The vicious assault he suffered,
For he had been badly bruised.
But just as our compassion for the victim builds, we are told that he is an unrepentant sinner:
He could not fix his eyes,
Filled with plaintive tears of sadness
On You, Beneficent One,
For he was a sinner;
Nor did he try to move your compassionate heart
By showing you his crushed body,
His blood-stained clothes,
For he was without hope.
Does that change our attitude toward him? Do we try to justify the violence done to him or blame the victim? We might think: he was traveling on a dangerous road; he should have known the risks; he should have known better. We may think this way when we hear about someone in trouble and needing help, but the Good Samaritan does not. He does not judge but simply acts to help the beaten man and restore him to health. The difference between us and the Good Samaritan is like the difference between sinners, judging others and perhaps blaming them for their misfortunes, and Christ, who simply aids those who are downtrodden even though He knows that may never repent of their sins. Indeed, Gregory makes it very clear that the Good Samaritan symbolizes Christ:
But You, Benefactor of myriad gifts,
Without fault, Giver of all life,
Not only did you not keep a memory
Of his wicked, sinful deeds,
But you did not even reproach him;
You did not trample him with your feet
When he fell,
But you ran to him with affection,
Showing him the utmost care.
The connection between the Samaritan and Christ is not new. It predates Gregory by more than 700 years. It is first found in the writings of the great Christian exegete and theologian Origen of Alexandria (c.185-254). Gregory probably did not read Origen’s books himself. Origen’s theology had been condemned at the Second Council of Constantinople held in 553. The Armenian Church was not represented at this council nor did it ever officially adopt its conclusions. But the condemnation of what was called “Origenism” certainly would have made it harder for scholars to read Origen’s writings, even though it was his theological theories, not his biblical interpretations, that were doctrinally suspect. More likely, Gregory knew about Origen’s allegorical reading from an earlier Armenian scholar and theologian, Step‘anos (c. 680-735), the metropolitan-bishop of the large and important diocese of Siwnik‘. Here is what Stepanos wrote in his commentary on the Gospels:
The man who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho signifies Adam and all those who sin in imitation of Adam’s transgressions. Jerusalem signifies the paradise from which they were expelled and Jericho this world which he entered after leaving paradise. The robbers signify Satan and his legions…The priest and the Levite signify, it seems to me, the prophets and teachers who came before Christ. The Samaritan is Christ, for He was called both a Samaritan and a demoniac (John 8:48).
[Step‘anos of Siwnik‘, Commentary on the Four Evangelists, 17.14]
Not only was Christ accused of being a Samaritan, but also the question “Who is my neighbor?” that occasioned the telling of the parable brings to mind the Song of Songs in the Old Testament. Gregory wrote a commentary on the Song when he was still a young man, and again following the traditional approach of the ancient Church, Gregory reads this love song between a groom and bride as an allegory of the love of Christ for His Church. The bride and groom refer to each other periodically as ‘neighbor.’ In Song 5:16, the bride lovingly describes her groom and exclaims to her attendants, “this is my beloved, my neighbor, O daughters of Jerusalem!” Readers of English translations will miss this, because most English translations render the word for ‘neighbor’ as ‘friend’ (as does the NRSV). But the word in the Song that the bride uses to describe her groom is exactly the same word in Greek (and Armenian) in the lawyer’s question to Jesus ‘Who is my neighbor?’ Thus there is already in the Old Testament a symbolic prefiguring of Christ as the true neighbor.
The allegorical reading that the ancient interpreters preferred does not obviate the moral reading. For the vocation of Christians is to live like Christ and ultimately to unite ourselves with Him and become like God. So the parable is not only an allegory about Christ and the unfolding of salvation in history, but also about how we are to live. We are called to be like the Good Samaritan, not the priest or Levite, because the Good Samaritan acted as Christ. We should not think of these two interpretations as mutually exclusive. They are in fact perfectly complementary since Christ, as perfect man, exemplifies what we as humans are meant to be.
Later in the same poem Gregory continues to reflect on the Samaritan. He states that the word ‘Samaritan’ means guard, and he alludes to the biblical account of the Samaritans’ origins:
Like the pagans of Assyria whose name means ‘guard’
Because they received the Law from the Jews,
And did not forget it as they did,
But guarded it in its entirely.
You have come to unite Yourself with us.
Here Gregory is referring to the passage in 2 Kings 17:24-28 in which the inhabitants of Samaria are said to be the descendants of Babylonians settled there by the king of Assyria. Because they were not pious, the Lord sent lions that devoured some of them. As a result, the king of Assyria sent a priest from among the exiled Jews who taught them the Law. According to the Samaritans, at least, they guarded the Law while the Hebrews deviated from their own traditions. This reference to the Assyrian origin of the Samaritans and Gregory’s affirmation that they are the true guardians of the traditions of Israel has a special significance because Narek, Gregory’s monastery, was located in the Armenian kingdom of Vaspurakan, whose ruling dynasty, the Arstruni, claimed descent from the Assyrian king Sennacherib. The Artsruni were always interested in bolstering the prestige of their house, especially in relation to the rival Bagratuni dynasty that reigned in the northern Armenian kingdom of Ani. The Bagratuni kings claimed descent from King David. Gregory no doubt was aware that by implying a relation between the Artsruni and the Samaritans (and thus at least symbolically, with Christ) he would be understood as enhancing the standing of his Artsruni rulers over the Bagratuni.