One of Jesus’ best known stories is the story of what we have come to know as The Good Samaritan. It’s one of those ways in which a Bible phrase has made its way into everyday language: mention the word Samaritan to someone and they are likely to think of the organisation that provides help, through phone conversations and other means, to people in need of emotional support at a time of crisis.
To be strict about it, neither Jesus nor Luke ever described the story as a parable. Yet it is generally labelled in this way as one of “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning”, as the old Sunday School definition used to put it. We could probably improve on this by thinking of a parable as an everyday example or story which Jesus uses to teach a spiritual lesson.
Sometimes the example or the story needs to be interpreted. The parable of the sower and the seed is very like an allegory, where each element of the story has a corresponding meaning and the listeners and readers need to discover the key to interpret what is being taught. Sometimes the story is just that: a story, albeit one that packs a powerful punch in terms of its application. For example, the parable of the rich farmer – whose bumper harvest led him to make great plans for his future retirement, at least until God told him that his time was up – requires no interpretation. The power of the story’s conclusion is all it needs.
And the story of the Good Samaritan is similar: a story with a powerful lesson for the listeners. No allegory, and no need to find the key to unlock the true meaning. Simple.
Or is it?
There is a very old approach to the story which views it as an allegory of the bigger story of the gospel. Every detail in the story represents some aspect of the unfolding story of God’s plan to rescue us from the damage of sin. Maybe you have heard (or preached) a sermon along the following lines:
- The man who falls victim to robbers is Adam. Adam represents the human race and that includes us.
- Jerusalem is paradise. It’s from here that Adam has fallen, dragging every other human being with him.
- Jericho is the world. You will notice the detail that the man in the story was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.
- The robbers who attack the man and take everything from him, leaving him half dead at the side of the road are the hostile powers of sin.
- The priest and the Levite who see the man but choose to walk past on the other side of the road represent the Old Testament: the law and the prophets. In God’s scheme of rescue, the law is powerless to save.
- The hero of the story, the Samaritan, is none other than Jesus who comes to where we lie in our fallenness and brokenness. Just as the Samaritans of the first century tended to be despised by the Jews, so Jesus has come as one who is rejected.
- The animal – probably a donkey – on which the Samaritan transports the robbers’ victim, represents the body of the Lord.
- The inn is the church and the innkeeper is either the Apostle Paul, or, by extension, the leaders of the church.
- The two coins that the Samaritan leaves with the innkeeper are variously the two great commandments of the Law (love God, love neighbour), or the two millennia that pass between the first and second comings of Jesus.
- The Samaritan’s promised return points us to the promised return of Jesus.
It’s a very interesting approach and one to which we will return. But we need to be aware of two problems with it.
In the first place, this reading is not consistent with the reasons Jesus had for telling the story of the Good Samaritan in the first place. To read the story as an allegory is to fail to pay adequate attention to the setting of the story.
The background is a discussion between Jesus and an expert in Old Testament Jewish law. Jesus told the story specifically to answer the man’s question about the identity of his neighbour: if he was to love his neighbour as himself, who did that include? In addition, the story ends with Jesus telling the man to go and follow the example of the Samaritan. Jesus told the story in order to challenge the expert in the law to action.
Any reading of the story has to take place in a way that makes sense of that setting.
Secondly, an allegorical reading of the story is not only in danger of missing the setting, but of missing the point. A listener or reader who is too busy trying to work out the symbolic meanings of all the details may well end up sidestepping some of the very forceful implications of the story.
Part 4: It is easier to avoid people than to love them.