In the last essay we studied 10:1-24. Verses 1-16 told us about the mission of the seventy, which was similar to the earlier mission of the Twelve. In verses 17-20 we saw that the seventy “returned with joy,” because their mission had been a success. In verse 21, we found Jesus rejoicing over the fact that the Father had revealed things to “infants,” that is to the disciples, that he had not revealed to “the wise,” meaning the educated and the religious professionals. In verse 22 Jesus told the disciples two things. One, he told them that the Father had handed all things over to Jesus, the Son. And two, he told them that the Son, who is the only one who knows the Father in an intimate sense, has the authority to bring them (and all human believers) into an intimate relationship with the Father.
Finally, in verses 23-24, Jesus blessed the disciples, because what they had seen and heard was not possible even to prophets and kings in previous ages.
This essay, covering verses 25-37, still deals with discipleship, but in an entirely different way. 10:1-24 had to do with the meaning of permanent discipleship. Now we see a shift to how we are to live as disciples. This section contains an inquiry by a lawyer and Jesus’ answer, which includes the famous parable of the Good Samaritan.
As you can see in verses 25-28, a lawyer approached Jesus, addressed him as “teacher,” and asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Interestingly, later on, we will see the rich, young ruler the same, exact question (Lk. 18:18). Notice that Luke tells us that the lawyer’s intention was “to test Jesus,” which means he was not sincerely seeking eternal life.
Matthew and Mark do not record the parable of the Good Samaritan, but they do record a story about a lawyer asking Jesus a question (Mt. 22:34-40; Mk. 12:28-31). Some scholars suggest that Matthew and Mark’s story is a parallel to Luke’s, but that isn’t the case. There are similarities, but the differences are much more significant. Matthew and Mark’s story takes place in Jerusalem, fairly close to Jesus’ passion, and not on the way to Jerusalem. Furthermore, the discussion is different. In Matthew and Mark’s story, the lawyer asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is, and Jesus answers that it is to love God and your neighbor. And of course, in Luke’s story, the lawyer asks what he needed to do to inherit eternal life; and Jesus answered with a question, “What is written in the law?” And then the lawyer said to love God and your neighbor (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18). Thus the two lawyer stories are not parallel.
Now it appears that the “test” the lawyer had in mind was a test of Jesus’ theological ability. But Jesus turned the tables on him by answering with a question. And the lawyer answered correctly. Then Jesus told the lawyer that if he actually did what he had just said, he would inherit eternal life. In other words, practice what you preach.
But the lawyer wasn’t satisfied. He hadn’t really gotten an answer from Jesus to his “test” question. And he wanted to justify himself. So in verse 29, he asked Jesus a second question. “And who is my neighbor?” This is an important question, because Jews would not have considered non-Jews like the Samaritans to be their neighbors. Indeed some “high class” Jews would not even have considered uneducated, low class Jews to be their neighbors, let alone Samaritans. And Jesus, recognizing the importance of the question, replied by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan (vv. 30-37).
Notice that Jesus does not identify the victim in his story. He is just “a man.” But a Jewish audience would have naturally thought of him as a Jew. The man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. That road was, and still is, rather narrow and treacherous. It descends 3,300 feet through desert and rocky country for a distance of 17 miles. When a colleague and I took a group of students to the Holy Land in 1988, we drove up that road from Jericho to Jerusalem, which of course was the opposite direction from the man in Jesus’ parable. There were no guardrails, and I remember a couple of places where the front of the bus stuck out over the edge of the cliff as we went around turns.
In Jesus’ day, that road was an ideal place for bandits to ply their trade. And robbers attacked the man in the parable. They stripped him, beat him until he was half dead, and left him there (v. 30). Then a priest and a Levite respectively, both good religious folk, came by. But they passed by on the other side (vv. 31-32). Next a Samaritan came by. The Samaritan was moved with compassion and helped the man. He tended to his wounds, took him to an inn, and paid in advance for his care there (vv. 33-34).
That is the story. Next Jesus made his application. He asked the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answered, “the one who showed him mercy. Then Jesus told the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” Thus the lawyer was caught in the web of his own question. He was obligated to love his neighbor.
Hearing this story we are forced to ask ourselves, “Who is my neighbor?” Actually the story cuts two ways. On the one hand, my neighbor is anyone in need. And on the other hand, my neighbor is anyone who helps me when I am in need.
It also is significant that Jesus made the hero a Samaritan. Jews despised Samaritans. They considered Samaritans beneath them and looked down on them. But it was the Samaritan who demonstrated that he loved God and his neighbor.
There is one other matter that I want to mention in relation to this parable. Because Jesus gave allegorical interpretations to a few parables such as the parables of the sower, the wheat and tares, and the net, the church for many centuries assumed that this meant all parables should be interpreted allegorically.
For example, the church father, Augustine, interpreted the parable of the Good Samaritan as an allegory on the plan of salvation, as did Church leaders both before and after him. We will use Augustine’s interpretation as a typical example of the allegorical interpretation of parables that was common until the nineteenth century.
Augustine identified the man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho as Adam, Jerusalem as “the place of heavenly peace,” that is, paradise, Jericho as our sinful human life, the robbers who attacked him and left him for dead as the devil and his angels, the Good Samaritan as the Lord Jesus, the return of the Good Samaritan as the return of Christ, the inn as the church he innkeeper as the Apostle Paul, the two pence as the two love commandments to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. And he went on and on, giving every detail an allegorical meaning. Obviously, the only limit to this type of interpretation is the limits of one’s imagination. But this was the standard method of parable interpretation for centuries.
What the church failed to realize was that Jesus’ allegorical interpretation of the parables of the sower and of the weeds, and a couple of others, were exceptions to the rule rather than the rule. The normal use of parables (and Jesus did not originate their use by the way) was to make a single point; and that is generally the case with the parables of Jesus.
To come back to our illustration of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus told that story not as an allegory on the plan of salvation, but to make a particular point. And as we have just seen, Jesus’ point was that anyone who is in need is our neighbor; and to help a person in need is to act as a neighbor towards that person. That was the point of the story. To turn the parable into an allegory on the plan of salvation is not a legitimate interpretation.