The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily those of the PThU.
Do you have a question or a good idea for the bible blog?

Who is my neighbour? The Good Samaritan in a different light

12 October 2023

Jesus’ parables are among the most beloved Bible stories. They seem simple and are easy to remember. At the same time, the interpretation of most of the parables is extremely controversial. The well-known story of the Good Samaritan is no exception. What are the standard Christian readings of this parable? And are they correct? 

Prof. Annette Merz
Professor of New Testament

Parables: no secret teachings for the initiated

Let us first establish what people do agree on today: when Jesus spoke in parables, he wanted to be understood by his common hearers. The parables do not aim to convey a message that can only be understood by the initiated. According to an ancient view, the parables require allegorical interpretation. Every detail of the story was said to relate to a deeper religious truth. This untenable view was long taught in the church.

Thus, the parable of the Good Samaritan was read by the church fathers as an allegory for the history of salvation: The man set upon by the robbers is Adam, his wounds are mankind’s sins, the Good Samaritan is Christ, the wine and oil poured on the man’s wounds are the sacraments, and so on. My colleague Riemer Roukema has devoted a wonderful study to these interpretations, which say a lot about the theology of the church fathers and their highly creative way of reading. Yet this way of interpreting is not in line with the original meaning of the parable.

Parables in the context of their time

Today the consensus is that while there can be more than one good interpretation of a parable, there are also interpretations that certainly do not match with the meaning Jesus intended. The allegorical interpretation just discussed is certainly one of them, as it requires complex thought processes that disconnect the content Jesus intended to convey from the story itself. This sort of thing can only be done by people with some training. But Jesus and his fellow rabbis actually used the parables because they wanted to make something clear to illiterate people.

An Englishman, and Irishman and a Scotsman (or a dinosaur)

If you want to uncover the meaning of Jesus’ parables, you must have knowledge of the culture of his time. The average Bible reader usually knows that in Jesus’ time, Jews regarded Samaritans as hostile neighbouring people. It is less known that by starting the story with the priest and the Levite seeing the half-dead man but continuing on their way regardless, Jesus creates the natural expectation with his audience that a third man will along, who will be a common Israelite. What Jesus does can be compared to someone today telling a joke about an Englishman and an Irishman, but then introducing as the third protagonist not a Scotsman or Welshman, but a dinosaur, for example. In this imaginary example, everything comes down to the content of the joke and the cultural stereotypes attached to the protagonists, which requires that the audience is familiar with these stereotypes and fills in what is left implicit. The great cultural distance and the incomplete information we have about the Judaism of Jesus’ time creates a grey area of culturally ambiguous information here, which allows the parable to be read in very different ways. Therefore, we certainly cannot discount the possibility that we might misinterpret a parable of Jesus.

Anti-Jewish interpretation of parables

Further complicating matters is the anti-Jewish interpretation of almost all Jesus traditions. Jesus took one of the possible Jewish positions in Jewish debates, but over the centuries Christian interpreters have interpreted his parables and other words in an anti-Jewish way. The views of those with whom Jesus had discussions have been distorted and demonised. It was forgotten that Jesus was a Jew and never distanced himself from Judaism. However, like earlier Jewish prophets, he criticised certain interpretations or behaviours prevalent among some of his contemporaries. 

Anti-Jewish stereotypes are often employed in the interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan. It has been claimed, for example, that through the parable Jesus distances himself from a legalistic, ritualistic Judaism fixated on purity commandments. According to this explanation, the priest and the Levite passed by because they did not want to defile themselves by touching a person who had possibly already died, which would have meant neglecting their cultic duties. Only the Samaritan would recognise that God wants us to love our neighbours rather than to bring sacrifices (see Hosea 6:6). According to this explanation, it is a Gentile who reveals that being fixated on the letter of the law, which is actually detrimental to doing justice to the intention of the Torah, is attacked by Jesus. And the same attitude is said to be evident in the story that frames the parable, where the lawyer poses the question: “Who is my neighbour?”

Is that interpretation correct? No, definitely not. Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University, very recently showed in a book on the parables of Jesus that the priest and the Levite were not driven by purity considerations. They were also not headed to Jerusalem to work in the temple there, but coming from Jerusalem. Moreover, says Levine, there is no doubt that the Jewish duty to help an injured person or to bury a human body outweighed all other commandments, even for a priest. The two representatives of the religious elite are simply failing to do what is an obvious duty for every Jew. They are not representatives of a legalistic Judaism, but of human negligence.

What do the parables teach us?

But if the parable is not a reckoning with Jewish legalism, then what lesson was there to be drawn from the story by Jesus’ first hearers (and by us today)? In what follows, I will describe two recent answers, one given by Ruben Zimmermann in a widely read German guide to the parables of Jesus, and one by the aforementioned Amy-Jill Levine. These two scholars have different approaches because they give different answers to the question which protagonist in the parable the hearer should identify with.

How do I become a neighbour?

According to Zimmermann’s ethical interpretation – he also suggests two other interpretations – the audience should follow the Samaritan’s example. While the priest and the Levite see the victim but continue on their way unmoved, the Samaritan allows himself to be stirred within. The Greek formulates it very drastically: eksplanchnisthe, literally: his bowels were stirred. According to the story, you do not become a neighbour by realising what your ethical duties are, but you become a neighbour by sympathising, by experiencing empathy and taking action out of compassion. The question at the heart of this parable is not who your neighbour is, whom you should help, but rather how you yourself become a neighbour. And the answer lies in entering into a relationship with the other by allowing closeness, by allowing yourself to be moved by the other’s suffering and the compassion it stirs in you. In this way, the suffering of the other becomes part of one’s own identity.

Seeing the good in your enemy

Levine gives a different interpretation of the parable. According to her, it is unlikely that Jewish listeners would identify themselves with the Samaritan. Furthermore, he only makes his appearance at the end of the story like a jack out of a box. According to Levine, listeners choose to identify with the assaulted and half-dead man from the very beginning of the story. They lie beside the road together with the victim, so to speak, hoping that someone will come to their rescue and save their life. Those who would be expected to help (the priest and the Levite) fail to do so. Eventually help arrives, but from a member of a group of people who were considered most odious. Through this story, Jesus wants to instil us with faith in the humanity of even our worst enemy. Levine has a not easily disproved Biblical argument for this: In 2 Chronicles 28:8-15, there is little known story about Samaritans (referred to there as Israelites, inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom), who in a fratricidal war killed and took captive many inhabitants of Judah. Oded, a prophet of God, then calls on the Samaritans not to enslave their brothers and sisters, but to set them free (2 Chron. 28:11). And so it happens! The passage describing how prisoners are clothed and cared for by their enemies and how the wounded are put on pack animals and taken to Jericho (!) (2 Chron. 28:15) sounds like the Biblical blueprint for the caring actions of the Good Samaritan (Read this passagecompare the texts). Levine concludes on the basis of 2 Chronicles 28:

“Those who want to kill you may be the only ones who will save you.” (p. 103).

Looking at people radically differently

Levine’s interpretation asks a lot of us as readers. Imagine the person furthest away from your own values and norms, for example someone who beats their children, a radical Muslim, a lesbian activist, a right-wing representative of the US pro-gun lobby, or anyone else who evokes negative feelings in you. And then imagine that you are completely helpless and can only survive thanks to this person. This forces you to recognise that this person has become a neighbour to you and – more generally – that the world will only get better if everyone takes into account the possibility that an enemy can become an example of humanity, an example that everyone should take to heart. That, according to Levine, is the best interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan. According to her, this interpretation does most justice to Jesus’ intention. The parable is confusing then, but also refreshing, because it makes us look at the people around us in a radically different way.

Read this passageSuggestions for further reading