Parable of the Good Samaritan – an exegesis
Pericope: Luke 10:25-37
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to
inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you
read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your
heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind;
and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right
answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus
replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the
hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half
dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him,
he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place
and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came
near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and
bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on
his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he
took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him;
and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of
these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of
the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go
and do likewise.
One of the most influential stories recorded in Christian scripture is found in Luke’s account of a parable that has come be known as the “Good Samaritan.” Luke 10: 25-37 records a conversation between a lawyer (likely a scribe affiliated with the Pharisees) and Jesus about loving God and neighbor. Some scholars see variant records of this conversation in Mark (12:28-34) with the scribes question “Which commandment is the first of all?” and in Matthew (22: 34-40) with the lawyer’s question ” Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Only in Luke is there the inclusion of this parable with its two questions and two answers.
The Parable appears in the context of what Jesus has already said in chapter 10 of Luke:
At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
The parable of the Good Samaritan draws its contextual strength from this verse as it presents itself in two movements tied to questions: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?” In explicating these ideas, Luke employs (amongst other literary devices) a highly specialized vocabulary when discussing the motivating impulses that may have caused the Good Samaritan to behave the way he did towards the naked, concussed man in the parable.
A Brief Survey: History of Interpretation of The Parable of the Good Samaritan
In closely examining the Parable of the Good Samaritan for meaning, one joins an almost two thousand year tradition of interpretation of a text that continues to offer multiple possibilities. Early church writers focused on the concept that, through allegory, Gospel writers weaved symbolic strands, often embedded in hidden meaning, throughout scripture and particularly in parables. Influenced by contemporary methods investigating Greek literature to interpret, for example, Homer, early allegorists would read texts to find their “. . . hidden meaning, a conjectural or suppositious sense, buried under the literal surface.” This search for hyponoia, or “under-meanings,” influenced Iranaeus (130-200AD) as he interpreted the Parable of the Good Samaritan by way of allegory. Iranaeus concluded, for example, that the two coins paid to the inn keeper represent God the Father and God the Son:
. . . the Lord commending to the Holy Spirit His own man, who had fallen among thieves, whom He Himself compassionated, and bound up his wounds, giving two royal denaria; so that we, receiving by the Spirit the image and superscription of the Father and the Son, might cause the denarium entrusted to us to be fruitful, counting out the increase thereof to the Lord.
Origen (185-254AD) posited that just as humans are comprised of three senses – body, soul and spirit – it followed that scripture would be comprised of three meanings – literal, moral and spiritual. No element in Origen’s exegesis of the Parable of the Good Samaritan went without allegory: Jerusalem represents heaven; Jericho, the world; the robbers, the devil and his minions; the Priest represents the Law, and the Levite the Prophets; the Good Samaritan, Christ; the ass, Christ’s body carrying fallen man to the inn which becomes the church. Even the Samaritan’s promise to return translates into Christ’s triumphant and millennial return. To this very day, for better or for worse, it is not uncommon to read sermons that rely heavily on Origen’s allegorical interpretation.
Augustine (354-430AD) continued to favor the allegorical model with some modification: the beaten traveler represents man in his fallen state; the binding of his wounds represent Christ’s binding of sin; the inn-keeper represents the Apostle Paul.
Ambrose (339-397AD) uses allegory to interpret the Parable of the Good Samaritan to great detriment. He sees the oil as a symbol of the church’s balm used so that ” . . . the wound may not harden and spread deep” (Library of Christian Classics, vol. 5, p. 246). In a previous section, Ambrose postulates that Jews have no such oil. If they had, he argues, they:
. . . would surely by now have softened [their] own neck [but] they cannot apply ointment or oil or bandage…and the Lord told how the Levite and the priest passed by, and neither of them poured oil or wine upon the wounds of the man who had been beaten by robbers. They had nothing to pour. If they had had any oil, they would have poured it upon their own wounds.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274AD) continues to employ allegory when he sees the parable as a discussion of sin and its effects: “A certain man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho (that is, incurring the defect of sin) was stripped of his raiment and wounded in his natural powers. It follows that sin diminishes the good of nature”
The Reformers continued to see this parable as allegorical. Martin Luther (1483-1546AD) uses the Good Samaritan to contrast grace with law. John Calvin (1509-1564AD) continued to see the Samaritan as Christ.
The analytical thinking of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries began to strip the Parable of its symbolism and mystery and focused on scientific and historical settings. Adolf Jülicher contends that parables can have but one original point of comparison between the story and what it represented. To his mind, all allegorical interpretations of the parables, whether by late church fathers or in the gospels themselves, must have come from sources other than the historical Jesus. In the Good Samaritan, he finds a story grounded in realism that has at its center a single educational function, something he identified as an “exemplary story,” moral instruction for the church.
In the twentieth century, Charles Dodd and Joachim Jeremias interpreted the parable with special attention to its “setting in life.” With a lifetime of research on Palestine and Judaism, Jeremias, a keen researcher on Palestine and Judaism, began to set the parables within their historical context of first century Christianity. Dodd suggests that the parable, in its simplest form “. . . is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”
Contemporary scholars, such as Robert Funk, mark yet another transition to what has come to be known as a “language event” where the literal sense of the narrative draws readers into the parable as participants. Funk argues that this parable “. . . does not suggest that one behave as a good neighbor like the Samaritan, but that one become the victim in the ditch who is helped by an enemy.”
Who wrote the parable?
The author-compiler, as is typical in the genre of Gospel writing, does not reveal himself in the text. (I say “himself” in this case sensitive to the reality that scripture writing is not the sole product of men. There is substantial agreement, though, that the author/compiler of Luke was probably a fairly well-educated male.) The author/compiler reveals that his written contribution comes after a careful investigation and review of other available sources (1:1). The opening lines of Luke (1:1-4) and Acts (1:1-11), however, reveal a common authorship. Second century convention among the copiers and reciters of these traditions required titles to distinguish them from one another. Such tradition attributes these books to Luke, and modern tradition further identifies him as a traveling companion to Paul. The arguments are indecisive. The responsible conclusion is that we do not know who compiled Luke / Acts, nor can we know if the Lukan compiler was a traveling companion to Paul. Similarly, scholars are in disagreement over whether the author was a Jew or Gentile.
What are the source materials for Luke?
Many scholars posit that the writer of Luke / Acts uses at least three likely sources when compiling this Gospel. The clearest source, many argue, is to be found in the Gospel of Mark. Another source, with much less certainty, known as the “Sayings Source,” (Q) is said to have provide Luke and Matthew with original source material. A third source, intriguing to many scholars, may point to source material found only in Luke. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is an example of the material some scholars believe is unique to Luke. It is a good example of Luke’s literary skill: he takes material from Mark and uses it as a device for introducing a parable unique to Luke.
When was this written?
The last three hundred years or so of debate as to when this Gospel was written has resulted in very little new information about the Gospel’s date. Luke does identify himself as not far removed from those who witnessed events and those who handed down the ideas and writings he reviewed and compiled; most scholars agree that Luke was written after the Gospel of Mark and after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. A current date range for the writing of Luke is 74 AD – 100 AD.
Where was it written?
There is no convincing evidence as to what part of the Roman Empire Luke was writing from.
Why was it written?
Many scholars see in Luke a form of catechesis informing the early Christians how they were to live out the good news of Christ. The story of Luke’s Good Samaritan is an integral part of Luke’s entire narrative account about what God has accomplished.
10: 25 Lost in the NRSV translation is the interjection of i˙dou\ (idou), “look!’ or “pay attention!” signifying that something of greater importance is about to be recited. A lawyer, an expert in the Law of Moses, stands up (perhaps as a sign of courtesy or respect) with the intent to either test Jesus’ knowledge or tempt Jesus into a debate. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks.
10:26 Jesus answers by engaging the lawyer to employ his skill as a lawyer to answer his own question: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
10:27 The lawyer answers by paraphrasing two Hebrew Biblical sources: Deuteronomy (6:5) and Leviticus (19:18) which differ significantly from the Septuagint:
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” And You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” The lawyer paraphrases and conflates these laws into: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
10:28 Jesus says he has answered correctly and tells him to do or make poi÷ei (poiei) this law and “you will live zh/shØ (zese).” Jesus does not reference the eternal living ai˙w¿nion (aionion) the lawyer had asked about.
10:29 The lawyer asks an additional question specific to the law: “And who is my neighbor?” The Greek adverb plhsi÷on (plesion), does not translate fully into the modern English sense of “neighbor.” plhsi÷on (plesion) connotes a tribal proximity – nearness – implying relatedness. Its modern use in the cladistic , biological classification of relatedness is interesting: here, plhsi÷on (plesion) connotes a distinctive genus which does not fit in well in any particular family, but has not been named a separate family yet either. Sometimes careful study, especially when additional biological material is found, will make it possible to assign that genus to a particular established family. This meaning of relatedness is inherent to the Greek word plhsi÷on (plesion) and informs an understanding of Luke’s concept of “neighbor.”
10:30 Jesus answers with a terse parable: A man – a certain tiß (tis) man – was “going down from Jerusalem”, the center of the Levitical priesthood, to Jericho.” The Lukan writer leaves this certain man’s religion, social class and status undefined. This rhetorical device leaves reader / listeners to presuppose who this certain man is. Many scholars suggest that Luke’s intended audience may have presupposed the man be Jewish. The ethnicity of the man may have been important to the lawyer who may have been interested in determining his obligation under the Law.
Luke’s “certain man” was “going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” This specific reference may have immediately increased the anticipation of those listening for high drama; this specific road may have evoked an immediate image shared in first century popular culture. Much has been written about the road to Jericho: it’s steep decline through desert and rocky outcrops over seventeen or eighteen miles, it’s reputation for danger and disaster, it’s designation by Jerome as a “bloody way.”
The reference to this particular road may serve as a geographical literary device to heighten the expectations of the listeners for action in a place that could be readily imagined either from experience of from folklore. Luke’s “certain man” was likely to come to no good end. As foreshadowed, the man is ambushed by robbers who strip him of his clothing, beat him and abandon him for dead – or at least “half dead.”
The robbers are not described. Their intent, allegiance and identity, it is assumed, are beside the point Luke’s Jesus wishes to make. The man presumably lies in the road naked and concussed. The man’s nakedness offers an additional connotation to this parable: he is stripped of any identification of social stature or position one might make based on his clothing habits. His state of being “half-dead” strips him further of his speech and any identification of his mother tongue or dialect. Luke’s man becomes every man. This “every man” never speaks. There is no appeal for help; there any expression of gratitude.
10: 31, 32 Much has been conjectured about the priest and the Levite who happen upon Luke’s “every man” in the road: ritual purity codes, which required complex and time-consuming remedies if broken, may have constrained them from approaching or touching what they may have assumed to be a corpse. What is important to the narrative is that both are presented with an opportunity to assist and both choose to pass by “on the other side.” It also affords the writer to repeat the phrase “passed by on the other side,” an obvious and effective device for underscoring the point in this short story. Regardless of these unnamed reasons which stir the imagination, another story-telling device, neither the Priest nor the Levite engage the wounded man; the narrative tension may have been heightened for listeners who imagined why they had “passed by” and, perhaps more importantly, anticipated who might come to the rescue. Luke may have intentionally created a hierarchy in his presentation of the neglectful religious characters in this parable. If a Temple priest failed to stop and help, and if a priest’s assistant – a Levite – failed to stop and help, then perhaps an ordinary lay person, might save the day? Perhaps, expectant listeners would presuppose, an ordinary Jew?
10:33 The moment Luke has Jesus utter the word “Samaritan” one can almost imagine the shock and disdain many listeners may have experienced. This is the important moment of heightened tension in Luke’s parable. No one should have anticipated the possibility of a Samaritan coming to the aid of the wounded traveler. Comprehension of this parable is sensitized when one comes to understand the connotations of presenting a Samaritan, the hereditary enemy of the Jew, as hero. One of the challenges for modern readers is to comprehend the gravity of the role of the Samaritan in the Parable. Earlier in Luke 10: 25-37 Jesus’ conflict with the lawyer is underscored by the memory of Jesus’ declaration to the crowds of John the Baptizer and Luke’s depiction of the refusal of the Pharisees and the lawyers to be baptized by him as a rejection of God’s purpose for them (7:30)
10:34 Amplifying his unexpected role as hero, Luke’s Samaritan is motivated and moved with a deep e˙splagcni÷sqh (esplagchnisthe) “compassion” to action. The Greek verb splagchnizomai is rendered as “moved with pity” in the NRSV. Other translations render the Greek as “took pity” (NIV), and “was moved with compassion” (KJV). None of these translations satisfies the connotations of the rare Greek word splagchnizomai: a visceral, deep-set “moving in the bowels.”
The noun form splagchna was used in the earliest Greek literature to designate the inner parts of a blood sacrifice. If the heart was cut out during the ritual, for example, it was called a splagchna, still vital and moving, not a kardia, an organ. Later, it became a generic term for the inner organs, including the womb. It also was seen as the seat for the impulsive passions, such as anger or anxious desire. It was never used in the pre-Christian Greek world to mean “mercy” or “compassion” as it came to mean in the later Jewish-Christian writings.
The verb form in the earlier Greek literature is even more gruesome. splagchneuo meant to eat the inner parts at a sacrificial meal, or to use entrails in divination.
In the Septuagint and other later Jewish writings, splagchna began to be used to translate Hebrew words having the sense of the seat of feelings, including more positive feelings like mercy and compassion. The middle voice form (a grammatical category not really passive any more than it is active and difficult for English speakers to understand) episplagchnizomai is used in Proverbs 17:5 to mean “to be merciful.”
It is this grammatical middle voice meaning that came to have a specialized usage in the Synoptic Gospels, with that verb form found only there. It occurs twelve times: [Matthew 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 18:27; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22; Luke 7:13; 10:33; 15:20.] and it is only used either a) to describe an emotion of Jesus, or b) by Jesus in a parable to describe the response of compassion by a major character.
Mark’s four usages all occur before miracles: Jesus is moved to compassion and heals a leper in 1:41; he is moved to compassion by the crowd before both feeding miracles, 6:34 and 8:2; and the father of a possessed boy beseeches Jesus to have compassion for his son in 9:22. The five occurrences in Matthew begins with a remark about Jesus’ compassion for the crowd, “like sheep without a shepherd,” in 9:36; which is a precursor to his repetition of Mark’s use of the term before both feeding miracles, 14:14 and 15:32; Matthew also uses to describe Jesus’ compassion before healing two blind men in 20:34.
The fifth occurrence in Matthew is the first of the three synoptic occurrences in a parable of Jesus: the master has compassion on the “unforgiving servant” in forgiving his unpayable debt in Mt. 18:27. That leaves three instances in Luke: Jesus is moved by e˙splagcni÷sqh esplagchnisthe before raising the son of the widow at Nain, 7:13; and Luke has Jesus use the word twice of the two most time-honored characters of his parables: the Good Samaritan has e˙splagcni÷sqh esplagchnisthe when he sees the man lying half-dead in the road, 10:33, and the father of the Prodigal Son is moved by e˙splagcni÷sqh esplagchnisthe when he sees his son returning home, 15:20.
The Samaritan’s literary character is expanded as we see him pouring oil and wine onto the wounds, bandaging them, lifting him onto his “own animal” and transporting him to the safety of an inn where he tends to him further, apparently seeing him through the night.
10:35 The following day, Luke’s despised hero parts with a significant amount of money and places his patient under the innkeeper’s care. Before leaving, he promises to return and pay any additional expenses.
10:36 Jesus asks the lawyer which of the three characters in the parable – priest, Levite or Samaritan was plhsi÷on (plesion) – neighbor – to the man. The inclusion of the indefinite article “a neighbor” in the NRSV weakens the linguistic structure of the original Greek. Luke is using neighbor as more than just a noun when he asks “who was neighbor to the man?”
10:37 The lawyer is apparently unable or unwilling to articulate the word “Samaritan” and answers with the circumlocution “The one who showed him mercy.” The parable concludes with Jesus’ enjoining the lawyer – and readers – to “go and do likewise,” a succinct answer: i.e. “Go and do this kind of mercy — e˙splagcni÷sqh esplagchnisthe — to last person you can imagine as neighbor to you.”
Conclusion: Theological Significance
The Parable of the Good Samaritan communicates much more than arbitrary allegorical assignments, or platitudes about neighborliness and service. At the core of Luke’s writing is this story of what God has accomplished in the person of Jesus Christ and of a “great reversal” of the human condition: the distinctions between Jew and Gentile, male and female, poor and rich, esteemed and despised are continually blurred by the words and in the actions of Jesus.