Almost everyone is familiar with this story, told by Jesus of Nazareth something like two thousand years ago. So far removed are we in time from that day, and so familiar is this story, that we have lost sight of how utterly shocking a proposition he is making.

We think of it as a heartwarming tale of human kindness, reminding us to always help out a stranger in need. When we understand a bit of the cultural context though, we begin to see why Jesus' words had such a violent effect on his audience. Upon reflection we may even come to feel somewhat unsettled ourselves; and it is then, I believe, that we are closest to the truth.

Deborah909 has given us some of the context below. It is also helpful to know that at this time the Jews and the Samaritans were bitter enemies. His listeners would still recall the horrifying incident when some Samaritans defiled the holy Temple in Jerusalem by scattering the bones of a dead man in the courtyard.

Even at this point, we still may not get it. So try this as an exercise: retell the story to yourself, only change the Samaritan into the person who most pushes your buttons, whom you would normally see as irredeemably evil. The Good Republican. The Good Liberal. The Good Fundamentalist. The Good Atheist. The Good Homosexual. The Good Nazi.

This, Jesus says, is your neighbor. This person, when showing kindness to another, may be a more faithful servant in the eyes of God than the people you most admire, maybe even more than you are.

If you find yourself getting angry, you're probably on the right track.

Luke 10:25-37 (King James Version):

And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, "Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"

He said unto him, "What is written in the law? how readest thou?"

And he answering said, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself."

And he said unto him, "Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live."

But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, "And who is my neighbour?"

And Jesus answering said, "A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

"And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

"But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

"And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.

"Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?"

And he said, "He that shewed mercy on him." Then said Jesus unto him, "Go, and do thou likewise."

A little religious/cultural context here: the priests and the levites had duties at the Temple in Jerusalem that they would have been ineligible to perform if they had been in contact with a corpse. Not that I endorse the choice to exercise prudence about ritual purity when a stranger is lying dead or dying in the road, but that's the subtext.

I have recently come to suspect that this parable is somewhat poorly stated.

Traditionally, the interpretation of this parable is that everybody in the world is your neighbour, even your worst enemy (such as a Samaritan might be a Pharisee's worst enemy), so you have to love everybody in the world as you love yourself in order to get into heaven. Something I am bang alongside, regardless of my personal beliefs about heaven.

But that's not what the passage says. In the story, this guy gets mugged, and gets ignored by a priest and a Levite, but the Samaritan helps him. And it's made clear from the quick follow-up Q&A that Jesus has with the Pharisee that it was the Samaritan who was the muggee's neighbour; NOT the other two guys who ignored him.

Which implies that your "neighbours" are in fact only those who act neighbourly towards you. A different lesson entirely.

What conclusions can we draw from this? Either 1) the story was told wrongly, 2) the story was written down wrongly, or 3) the story is consistently being interpreted wrongly. But certainly also 4) when studying religion, keep your brain turned on.

    A parable may have a specific meaning not only for its original situations of Jesus but also for that of the evangelist… Parables are seen as autonomous works that posses multiple meanings and power in themselves, completely apart from their author. Although it’s important to appreciate the aesthetic quality of the parables, the parables of Jesus have been treasured and loved primarily because they are the parables of Jesus.
    -Robert H. Stein, professor of New Testament at Bethel Theological Seminary

Quizro gives us the traditional interpretation of the parable, one that is typically taught in Catechism and Sunday Schools. Deborah909 illuminates and touches on the Jewish laws of the era while Rat Salad brings into the picture that God is omnipotent asking, “Why does God see the humanity of suffering and pass us by? Finally sam512 brings up some important observations of the parable when he suggests that the “story is consistently being interpreted wrongly. But certainly also when studying religion, keep your brain turned on.”

In the Tanach, the word parable can pass as a proverb, taunt, riddle or allegory. 1 2 3 4 It’s no big surprise that the parables of the New Testament include a wide semantic collection because the term parabolE was used to convert masal in the Septuagint in all but two instances. In the Gospel it can be passed on as a proverb, aphorism, metaphor, story parable, example parable, or allegory. 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 In contrast to Aristotelian tradition, no clear division is drawn in the Bible among simile/allegory and metaphor/parable. This is also true in the Rabbinic convention.

Many efforts to pigeon hole the parables have been made. Several entail using sequential periods in Jesus’ ministry, distinguishing subject matter, as well as, “literary, theological, and existential categories.” For example some scholars note that this parable was probably told during his early Judean ministry. None of these endeavors have worked well because like the code breakers of World War II who were not concerned with personal thoughts or what the codes convey to them, Jesus’ audience was focused on what he was attempting to communicate.

In his parables, Jesus uses illustrations from daily life over and again. Frequently they posses uniquely Palestinian qualities and include a flavor of Galilean. The object was to make the parables more understandable for the spectators Jesus was addressing and today it serves to authenticate them. For example the references to a priest, Samaritan, a road going from Jerusalem to Jericho as well as a Pharisee, publican and Temple indicate that the Good Samaritan parable originated in Palestine. 12

Even though the parable is taken from the every day life of a Palestinian, it does not voluntarily represent any ordinary day by day events. Conversely, at times the listener was met with hyperbole and bizarre behavior for the times, and it is this artistic nature that makes parables like the Good Samaritan memorable. The imaginative quality and graphic power of the parables frequently called for a single hearing for them to be eternally committed to memory. Such parables are obliged be recognized by any standard as literary masterpieces.

If one studies the history of the Biblical era and practices the Xian faith then over time the reasons that Jesus taught in parables becomes patently obvious: he used them to illustrate. One cannot find a better depiction of the love of God for the outcast in the Prodigal Son and many of his parables are without a doubt “example parables” which require no explanation. However it is in Mark 4 (10-12) where one can read about a different reason entirely. Jesus taught in parables in order to conceal his message as a Messianic secret with the deliberate intention being to hide the message from those who were hostile towards him. Through his parables he was able to teach openly about the kingdom of God without generating the ire of the government of the Roman empire since nothing in the parables could be determined to be seditious. Another reason Jesus did this was to disarm his audience and permit the reality of the divine message to break through their opposition. Frequently hearers would be tested by passing judgment on a story only to later discover, that in doing so they had in fact condemned themselves. Additionally the use of parables was to aid memory because the customary oral tradition of storytelling. Jesus’ teachings were preserved through memorization and this unforgettable quality of parables was very useful. 13 14 15

The early church viewed the parables at three separate levels of understanding, the literal, the moral, and the spiritual. Sometime during the Middle Ages theologians added the heavenly, meaning that these deeper levels of understanding are discoverable by allegorical interpretations. The classic example of this, though there many variations, is Augustine’s (AD 350-430) famous treatment of the parable of the Good Samaritan is one where each detail could be seen as meaningful. '...the wounded man stands for Adam; Jerusalem, the heavenly city from which he has fallen; the thieves, are Satan and his fallen angels who strip Adam of his immortality and leads him to sin; the priest and Levite, the Old Testament Law and ministry which was unable to cleanse and save anyone; the good Samaritan who binds the wounds is Christ who forgives sin, the oil and wine; hope and stimulus to work.' Other interpretations add that the Samaritan’s beast is the body of Christ making God’s humanity the Good Samaritan by bearing the consequences of sins.

Even though God is omnipotent it is mankind that chooses to employ its free will to go to war, refuse to spend its resources on ending famine and disease in the world. Jesus' message is that God loves humanity beyond all understanding, that He does not pass humankind by, but carries it to the inn which is the church. The two denarii represent the commandments of love and the innkeeper is the apostle Paul. The return of the Good Samaritan is the resurrection or Second Coming and so on.

One might imagine that behind the delight of a “beautiful and touchingly sweet example of human compassion” many in Jesus’ audience would have been taken aback and quite angry that God’s servants, the priests and Levites, were vilified and sullied while the literally “damned” Samaritan was lauded. Later on it would be the incongruousness of his teachings that would eventually lead to the startling realization among the Pharisees of exactly what Jesus was saying leading up to their motivations for the crucifixion of Jesus. Of course this interpretation has lost sight of what it means to be a neighbor and interpreters of the Refomation attempted to end allegorical analysis of scripture, still the parables continue to be allegorcalized.


The Interpretation of Parables: Exploring “Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads”:
Accessed March 20, 2006.

The Oxford Companion to the Bible (edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan,
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, pages 567-570, Robert H. Stein's article on "parables")

The Parables of Jesus in Recent Study:
Accessed March 20, 2006.

Survey of Jesus' Parables:
Accessed March 20, 2006.

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