Lesson #1 – Interpreting the Bible: Methods

Interpreting the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Good Samaritan

  1. Finding meaning:

Q: What does the parable mean to you?

A: Christ uses this interrogation as an opportunity to reveal the righteousness of the law, which calls us to be lovers of our neighbors. The lawyer wants to define neighbor in a narrow way, because he only wants to “love” those who are his friends. By the parable Christ tells us that we are neighbors to all, and all are also neighbors to us; there are 2 sides to the relationship.

Therefore to be conformed to the commandment of God is to show mercy on all without discrimination, regardless of creed, race, gender, age, etc. This is to inform the conscience of His audience, for He compared a priest and a Levite, “holy men”, to a Samaritan, who was hated for his ethnicity and religion among the Jews.

Q: How would you describe your interpretation of meaning? Q: Are you finding literal, psychological, moral or theological meaning in the parable?

A: Moral in that Christ is telling the parable to emphasize a moral truth. Psychological in that he helps the words of the lawyer rebuke himself, for he sought to justify his prejudices. Theological in identifying the recipients of mutual duties of the second table of the Law, “Love thy neighbor”.

Q: The most common interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan that one meets with is the one that attempts to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor,” does answering that question give us an adequate interpretation of the parable? Can you find meaning in the parable that goes deeper than that question?

A: Christ seeks to expose the backwards thinking of society, not thinking first of how they are to be a neighbor to others. But more significantly Christ, in emphasizing the need to go and “show mercy”, puts this work into practice by showing mercy to sinners. Christ is the arch-neighbor, or first neighbor in that He came into the world, became flesh and laid down His life for His people who are described as dead, lost, rebellious, fallen, etc.

  1. Character analysis:

Q: What is the contrast and what does it tell us about the moral meaning of the parable?

A: The holy men, who would have been expected to show mercy, neglected the half dead man in the gutter, while the Samaritan, who was despised and would never be used as the hero of a Jewish parable or example, goes above and beyond in helping out the beaten man. We ought not have this kind of prejudice against others, but rather ought to be willing to show charity towards all mankind. In a sense it is meant to shock the audience out of their preconceptions.

  1. Psychological Meaning:

Q: What is the Samaritan’s motivation for helping the wounded man? And why do the priest and Levite pass him by?

A: While it is true that Leviticus 21 forbids the priest to touch any dead person that is not near to kin1, this neither restricts him from calling out to the guy lying in the gutter, nor getting help. Instead they keep their distance, “passing by on the other side”. They could have dismissed the guy, thinking that he was some kind of bum. Maybe they wanted to get out of there as soon as possible, not wanting to end up like him. Christ does not reveal their particular motivation, however their action reveals their mind; these experts of the law are exposed for their wrong thinking and misunderstanding of the law. They lacked compassion.2 The Samaritan on the other hand, was motivated by compassion, according to the text. He took care of his wounds, took him to an inn, and then continued to take care of him through the night, finally he paid his bill in full. He thought of this man as his neighbor.3

  1. Conclusions:

Q: Having worked through the parable, what are your conclusions about the teaching of Christ in answering the scribe’s question: “And who is my neighbor?” Remember, the Law says we should love our neighbor as ourselves. The Jews took this commandment to apply mainly to the love of members of their own community, though the Law also taught them to treat aliens and travelers respectfully. How does Christ suggest a broader, richer interpretation of the law of loving our neighbor than the conventional interpretation?

A: I think that Christ masterfully answers this lawyer. The lawyer is forced to correct himself according to his own words. His conscience is compelled to answer rightly in agreement with the Law. This is something he has going for him. This rebuke from Christ’s teaching is what all of our hearts and minds need. We need to be slow to judge others, yet quick to show love and mercy upon all. Serving in the ministry is a good and godly profession, and it is a hard work yet it does not make one more holy than another. To live a holy life is to love God and our neighbor, which all can do, by His grace.

Secondly, we see that there is no better neighbor than Christ, and we need to respond to Him in love and obedience, conforming to His law, and showing, to the world, the love of Christ.

The Story of Martha and Mary.

Q: What does the story of Martha and Mary teach that is relevant to your interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan?

Mary and Martha br vermeerA: While Martha attends to hospitality and serving guests in her home, Mary is caught up in sitting at the feet of her Teacher and Savior, Jesus. One may want to appeal to Christ, as Martha does, to the “unfair” neglect of Mary, found not doing her share; however the text reveals that Martha was the distracted one, being preoccupied in “much serving”.

Hospitality is a virtuous thing, and to serve guests is a great work indeed, but it would appear that Martha thinks too highly of serving guests compared to being at the feet of Christ. She is found despising her sister for not doing her share, while thinking of herself as partaking in the work of holiness. Christ calls attention to Martha’s troubled attitude, and compares Mary’s zeal to be holy by seeking instruction from the Holy One of Israel. Mary is the one truly loving God, this good thing He would not take from her, for this is a needful thing for both Martha and Mary.

In both accounts we see two people compared, the priest & Samaritan, Martha & Mary. In both we would expect that one would be accounted holy living, but our assumptions are informed and sometimes challenged by the law of God. The holy ones are the ones found loving God (Mary) and loving our neighbor (the Samaritan). We need to rebuke the priests and Martha’s in us, and be more like the Mary’s and Samaritans.

1There may be a parallel in that our elder Brother, Christ, was able to touch us because we are family.

2The priest was to be an example of holiness, and therefore could not touch that which was dead. Christ, who is our great High Priest, not only touched death, but took death upon Himself to defeat it. This is the example of true holiness which Christians are called to follow.

3The Scriptures record Christ being “moved with compassion” multiple times. The same word is used for the Samaritan’s motivation, σπλαγχνίζομαι (splänkh-nē’-zo-mī)


One response to this post.

  1. This is great stuff, Shawn. So many practical applications it’s hard to know where to start! Very comprehensive and well-supported.


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