“Let us be carried into the inn to be healed.”
One of the striking aspects of early Christian interpretations of Scripture is a tendency to understand the biblical text in relationship to the church. Whereas we are inclined today to read scripture in individualistic terms, early Christians were inclined to read Scripture in corporate terms. They were eager to discern what a particular text had to say about the nature of the church.
This ecclesial interpretation of Scripture is seen in St. Augustine’s comments on the story of the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10:25–37. While modern readers are likely to focus on the Samaritan’s heroic compassion, Augustine focuses on the role the church plays in the healing of the wounded man, prompted by the reference to the inn in verse 34. The Samaritan brings the wounded man to the inn and gives the innkeeper two denarii to continue looking after the man. These often overlooked details are no small matter for Augustine. Through figurative interpretation, they lead him to a reflection on the church.
For Augustine, the inn is a symbol of the church, for the church is the community where Christ the Physician heals wounded people. The two denarii given for the man’s healing symbolize to Augustine the double command of Jesus to love God and neighbor (see Matthew 22:37–40). Christ heals wounded people by giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit enables wounded people to love God and neighbor. In doing so, wounded people are healed.
The church is the place of healing. The church is where people who are wounded by sin can experience Christ’s healing grace.
Augustine’s comments on this famous story result in a powerful image of the church. The church is the place of healing. The church is where people who are wounded by sin can experience Christ’s healing grace. The church is where people receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and are thereby transformed into people of love.
One thing is certain about this image of the church: the church is not peripheral to salvation. Indeed, it is necessary for salvation. Without the inn, the wounded man would not be healed. Without the church, we would not experience Christ’s restorative power, nor would we be filled with the Spirit’s charity. Although Augustine was clear that the church is not perfect while it is on its earthly sojourn, he did insist, along with other Christians of his time, that the church is the community that God indwells and is thus the single place of salvation in the world.
The church was not an add-on to a personal relationship with God; it was, rather, the means by which human beings encountered God and participated in salvation.
The emphasis on the church in early Christian interpretations of Scripture demonstrates just how crucial the church was in the minds of ancient believers. The church was not an add-on to a personal relationship with God; it was, rather, the means by which human beings encountered God and participated in salvation. In a time when discussions of the church center primarily on pragmatic and programmatic issues, we would do well to consider this richer vision of the church as the community where the healing grace of God is made known.