The first online class I took for my Master of Arts in Biblical Studies with Grand Rapids Theological Seminary was Hermeneutics. It was a good refresher for me; I learned a lot.
This is a research paper I wrote for that class in November 2012. I hope that it sheds some light on this familiar Gospel story. More importantly, and this goes for me too, I trust that we will be exhorted to be compassionate doers of the Word, and not just hearers of it. Enjoy!
The Meaning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan
In its Literary and Historical-Cultural Context
In this short discourse, I will discuss a few things to help unpack the meaning of this parable, such as the nature of interpreting a parable, and its literary and historical-cultural context.
II. The Nature of Interpreting a Parable
To begin, one wonders, as do Fee and Stuart do, rhetorically, “How could these simple, direct little stories Jesus told pose problems for the reader or the interpreter? It seems that one would have to be a dullard of the first rank to miss the point of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son. The very reading of these stories pricks the heart or comforts it.” However, they are quick to point out, “for all their charm and simplicity, the parables have suffered a fate of misinterpretation in the church second only to the Revelation.  To illustrate, they lay out the elaborate, and frankly hard to believe, allegorical interpretation that Augustine proposed. The traveler represented Adam, Jerusalem was the heavenly city, the robbers were the devil, the Samaritan was Christ himself, the inn was the church, and the innkeeper was the apostle Paul, to name a few.
However, modern scholars almost universally agree that most of Jesus’ parables contain one main point. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary instructs well that “Bible students should not resort to fanciful interpretations that find ‘spiritual truth’ in every minute detail of the parable . . . The one central point of this parable is that we should also extend compassion to others – even those who are not of our own nationality, race, or religion.”
Osborne reminds us that the parables of Jesus had a variety of forms. This one falls into the category of “example stories in which the parable becomes a model for proper conduct.”
According to Fee and Stuart, parables such as this one “function as a means of calling forth a response on the part of the hearer.” Osborne certainly agrees, stating, “The crowds are forced to make a decision for or against Jesus, and his disciples are challenged and taught by them . . . The parables encounter, interpret and invite the listener/reader to participate in Jesus’ new world vision of the kingdom.”
Jesus often used an element of surprise get his listeners’ attention. He clearly made this tale quite memorable, and got a desired reaction from this expert in the law. Osborne states, “The major way by which Jesus forced decision was to break conventional lines in his parables. Time and again a totally unexpected turn of events startled the hearers and forced them to consider the deeper implications of the parable . . . The hated Samaritan, not the priest or Levite, is the one to bind the wounds of the robbery victim”
III. Literary Context
Looking at the overall theme of the book of Luke, many have pointed out some things that help us better understand this parable, which is unique to Luke’s gospel. Meadors, in his notes on the Literary Genres and Hermeneutics: NT Gospels, mentions Luke’s purpose in verse 1:1, that he is writing “an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us” (NIV). Meadors asserts that this is understood to be “the messianic program bringing to fulfillment the promises of the OT.” For example, this theme is echoed loudly in Luke 4:16-21, where we find Jesus reading from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (NIV).”
In addition, Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard (KBH from this point forward) point out that Luke shows Jesus was “the friend of sinners and outcasts in Jewish society – most notably Samaritans, Gentiles, tax collectors, prostitutes, poor people, and women.” Meadors, in his article “The ‘Poor’ in the Beatitudes of Matthew and Luke” declares that this gospel has more content about the poor and the oppressed than the other synoptics. The Nelson’s New Illustrated Commentary agrees, stating that the book “highlights Jesus’ love for a variety of groups who were not esteemed in His day.”
What was the setting or occasion for this parable to be given? This was one of many instances where the Pharisees and Sadducees were trying to trick or test Jesus. This had happened in Luke 5:17-26, where Jesus healed a paralytic; Luke 5:29-31, where Jesus ate with tax collectors at Levi’s house; Luke 6:1-11, when Jesus picked grain and healed on the Sabbath, and so on.
IV. Historical-Cultural Context
We have seen at the beginning of this parable that it was “an expert in the law” that tested Jesus. A similar event (minus the parable) is recorded in a parallel passage in Matthew 22:34-40. Although there are some differences in these accounts, Matthew’s version implies that this may very well have been a Pharisee.
Most mature believers probably already know a little bit about the Pharisees. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary tells us that they were “a religious and political party”, and members of the Sanhedrin, which was “the supreme court and legislative body of the Jews.” They insisted on strict obedience to God’s laws (over 600 of them), “as the scribes interpreted it”, especially with regards to “tithing and ritual purity.” In addition, the Pharisees “always seemed to be ready to criticize others for not keeping the laws, and they often looked down on ‘sinners’ who showed no interest in God’s law”. (A good example is found in Luke 7:39, where a woman of ill repute anointed Jesus’s feet with perfume and tears.) Furthermore, they “thought they could match God’s standards by keeping all the outward rules . . minor details became a major preoccupation, and they forgot the more important things (Matt. 23:23)”
There are several things that need to be said about the protagonist in this story. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary reminds us, “To a Jew there was no such person as a ‘good’ Samaritan.” The Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary explains, “In Jesus’ day the Samaritans were despised by orthodox Jews because most of the Jews from that region had intermarried with foreigners.” Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary sheds some more light on this. Samaria fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.; following that, the city was populated by people from Babylon and other nations, who brought in their own idolatrous ways (2 Kings 17:24ff). “Intermarriage of native Jews with these foreigners led to the mixed race of Samaritans so despised by full-blooded Jews” in Jesus’ time. KBH submit that even though the modern reader may know that the Samaritan in this story was the “good guy” and that the Pharisees were the “bad guys”, this is counter to what the first-century Jews would have known. “Samaritans were the hated half-breeds and Pharisees the most popular of the religious leaders.” Fee and Stuart mention the value of appreciating “how contemptuously the Pharisees held the Samaritan” in order to really hear what this man heard Jesus say. “Notice that he does not even bring himself to use the word ‘Samaritan’ at the end.”
KBH, Fee and Stuart, and others suggest that one needs to bring this key cultural note to light by contemporizing it. KBH state, “To have the proper impact on a typical conservative American congregation in the twenty-first century, a preacher ought to consider retelling the story with the man in the ditch as a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, the priest the Levite as two upstanding local pastors, and the Samaritan as a fundamentalist Arab Muslim (or perhaps an atheist black feminist!)”
The expert in the law zeroed in on the word “neighbor.” He knew that loving God (from Deut. 6:5) and loving his neighbor (from Lev. 19:18) were critical to inheriting eternal life. The text states that he wanted to “justify himself” (NIV), so he asked “And who is my neighbor?” He obviously knew what Scripture said. Weeldreyer emphasizes, “In Hebrew Scripture, ‘neighbor’ connotes certain rights and responsibilities within covenant relations as a just foundation for order in society.” Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary summarizes that the Ten Commandments prohibited slander of a neighbor and envying a neighbor’s wife, servant, etc. Additionally, “A person was not to cheat or rob from his neighbor (Lev. 19:13) . . . Despising one’s neighbor was sin (Prov. 14:21), as was leading him morally astray (Prov. 16:29-30) or deceiving him, then saying ‘I was only joking’ (Prov. 26:19) A person was not even permitted to think evil of his neighbor (Zech. 8:17).”
So, what is the main point of this parable? From The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, we read, “The NT parables aim to lead one to a decision; Jesus’ question in v.36 (‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’) forces the ‘expert in the law’ to voice his decision. In this question, Jesus focuses on the person who loved, the Samaritan who made himself a neighbor. This reversal of the ‘expert’s’ question (‘And who is my neighbor?’) (v.29) provides in itself the key to the meaning of the parable and to Jesus’ teaching on love. Love should not be limited by its object; its extent and quality are in the control of its subject. Furthermore, love is demonstrated in action, in this case in an act of mercy, and it may be costly.”
Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary offers this excellent observation on the main point of this parable, which is seen in Jesus’ response found in verse 36, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”. They state that the “central issue is not determining who one’s neighbor is, but being a good neighbor to all.” I find this to be a common understanding of what Jesus wanted the expert in the law, the others close by who heard Jesus give this parable, and readers throughout the centuries to take away.
KBH suggest that we “consider each parable from the perspective of each of the main characters . . . From the example of the priest and Levite comes the principle that religious status or legalistic casuistry does not excuse lovelessness; from the Samaritan we learn that we must show compassion to those in need; from the man in the ditch emerges the lesson that even an enemy is a neighbor.”
 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 149.
 Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 150.
 Ronald F. Youngblood, ed., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 943.
 Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 292.
 Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 152.
 Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 296.
 Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 299-300.
 Gary T. Meadors, lecture notes, Literary Genres and Hermeneutics: NT Gospels.
 William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004): 403.
 Gary T. Meadors, “The ‘Poor’ in the Beatitudes of Matthew and Luke”, Grace Theological Journal 6.2 (1985): 305.
 Earl D. Radmacher, ed., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 1272.
 Youngblood, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 979.
 Youngblood, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 981.
 Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger III, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Abridged Edition) (2 vols: Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994): 250.
 Radmacher, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary, 1272.
 Youngblood, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1116.
 Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 415.
 Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 155-156.
 Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 415.
 Seth E. Weeldreyer, “Between Text & Sermon”, Interpretation 62, 2 (2008): 167.
 Youngblood, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 891.
 Barker and Kohlenberger, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 250.
 Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 413-414.
Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.