Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Thursday, July 08, 2004

Augustine the Lector, Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 

This Sunday we hear Jesus propose the following well-known parable to an inquisitive lawyer (Luke 10:25-37):

"A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn, and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, 'Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.'"

Most commentators are inclined to interpret this passage according to the 'moral' sense, which most adequately suits the immediate context of the dialogue into which it fits. In this way, Jesus would simply be widening the lawyer's illegitimate restriction on the obligation towards charity, making the law of charity universal in scope. And this, no doubt, is exactly what Jesus is doing. But St. Augustine points to a deeper, you could say 'mystical' meaning of the passage. For St. Augustine, the entire parable becomes an allegory for man's salvation, and every person and object have a place in this allegory. Since his exegesis of this passage must be compounded from a number of sources, let me summarize:

The 'man' for St. Augustine is none other than Adam, representative of all of humanity; 'Jerusalem' is the heavenly city, representing his original state of justice and free-will; his falling into the hands of robbers represents his falling into sin, under the persuasion of the devil, and his resulting forfeiture of immortality and condemnation to death. The priest and Levite represent the priesthood and ministry of the old covenant, which proved unable to remedy his fallen condition. The Good Samaritan, of course, is Christ Himself, who alone is able to save: His binding of the wounds, the forgiveness of sin; the oil and wine, the comfort of hope and the encouragement to work. The beast upon which man is hoisted is the Incarnation, the enfleshment of the Word, by which man is raised up to share in the divine nature. The inn - you guessed it - is the Church where man recovers from the sickness of sin under the influence of the medicine of grace, and the innkeeper is - you didn't guess this - the Apostle Paul. The two silver coins are the dual commandments of love of God and neighbor (which Christ affirmed immediately before giving this parable) (cf., Quaest. Evan. 2.19; Hom. 31; Hom. 81).

Now, the casual reader will initially, no doubt, suspect some contrivance here, and the work of more than a little fanciful imagination - though even the harshest critic is bound to be impressed with both the inner coherence and theological depth of St. Augustine's exegesis, which is developed enough to challenge even Origen, the master of such methods.

St. Augustine, however, was far from giving free reign to exegetical fancy. His allegorical method is rooted soundly in the concrete text and its historical context, from which he never departs. A close reading of his De doctrina Christiana will leave the reader deeply impressed with the scholarly demands he makes of exegetes - attention to punctuation and pronunciation, regard for literary expression and genre, the interpretation of more obscure passages by those less obscure, wariness of synonyms and multiple meanings, a demand for fidelity to the original texts, etc.

Yet for St. Augustine, a blind allegiance to the literal 'word' of the text represents the bondage under which the Jews labor, and from which Christians are freed by the Spirit of Christ. Those who possess the Spirit which inspired the Scriptures are thus enabled to look beyond the signs (i.e., 'words') to the realities signified by them: "Accordingly the liberty that comes by Christ took those whom it found under bondage to useful signs, and who were (so to speak) near to it, and, interpreting the signs to which they were in bondage, set them free by raising them to the realities of which these were signs" (8, 12).

The ultimate standard for such interpretation, for St. Augustine, is once again the law of charity. An interpretation is useful (n.b. he does not say 'correct,' but 'useful') inasmuch as it inclines the reader to the love of God and neighbor. "The tyranny of lust being thus over-thrown, charity reigns through its supremely just laws of love to God for His own sake, and love to one's self and one's neighbor for God's sake. Accordingly, in regard to figurative expressions, a rule such as the following will be observed, to carefully turn over in our minds and meditate upon what we read till an interpretation be found that tends to establish the reign of love" (15, 32).

As J. J. O'Donnell notes, "In the practical order, what matters is the effect of exegesis. If an interpretation of scripture builds up caritas or (what amounts to the same thing) attacks its opposite, cupiditas (selfish desire), then it is, absolutely speaking, a good interpretation. (3.10.15) As long as it is in accord with the rule of faith . . . conformity to some external, but purely human standard, of correctness is immaterial . . . What counts above all is the life of the believer who reads the scriptural text in the light of the interpretation."

# posted by Jamie : 4:15 PM


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