I think that most people know about the story of the man who was “going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers” (Luke 10:30). The story that Jesus tells probably rates as one of the two most widely-known “parables” of Jesus. Alongside the “parable of the prodigal son” (Luke 15:11–32), the “parable of the Good Samaritan” (10:30–37) must have a similar recognition level.
As we hear this story read in worship this coming Sunday, what is there that is new, or not much known, to be said about this story? I’m going to canvass three different aspects of the story, over three consecutive posts.
First, I want to propose that we consider the nature of this story—and we might reconsider whether this story was actually a “parable”. A parable is a story which puts one thing alongside another; in Hebrew, it was called a mashal, meaning “comparison”, whilst the Greek word, parable, literally means “thrown side-by-side”.
The classic parable in the Gospels begins, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed …” (Mark 4:30–31), or “it is like yeast that a woman took …” (Luke 13:21), or “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field …” (Matt 13:44), or “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard …” (Matt 20:1).
Most parables told by Jesus begin this way. But not the story of the man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho; Jesus simply starts into the story in response to a question from a lawyer, “who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). And the story of the prodigal younger son, and gracious father, and resentful elder son, simply begins, “there was a man who had two sons …” (Luke 15:11).
In this regard, these stories (found only in Luke’s Gospel) are much like the classic mashalim (comparisons) found in the Hebrew Scriptures, which simply launch into things: “there were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor; the rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb …”(2 Sam 12:1–3), or “let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard … “ (Isa 5:1).
The comparison is revealed at the end of the story: “you are the man”, says Nathan to David (2 Sam 12:7), “the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting” (Isa 5:7); and in the case of the story told by Jesus, a closing question, posed to the lawyer: “of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Luke 10:36). In this case, the lawyer draws the comparison intended (“the one who showed him mercy”), to which Jesus then concludes, “go and do likewise” (10:37).
So is this parable a parable? Yes, in the terms of the Hebrew Scripture, it is. But it is not explicitly a parable about what “the kingdom of God is like”. It is, rather, a story which instructs on how to live as a “good neighbour” to others in this world, in this time. The punchline (10:37) is instruction about living a just and righteous life.
As a story with a clear ethical punchline, it sits alongside of many of the explicit teachings of Jesus, indicating how we are to live in this life: “love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return” (6:35); “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (9:23); “sell your possessions, and give alms” (12:33); “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13); “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (14:33); “you cannot serve God and wealth” (16:33); “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (20:25); and so on.
The story is told after a discussion between Jesus and a scribe (an interpreter of the Law), about the question raised by the scribe: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:25). In the discussion, conducted in typical rabbinic style (a question posed, answered with another question, leading to yet another question …).
The scribe cites two commandments, from Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18–commandments which, in Mark 12 and Matt 22, Jesus declares to be “the two greatest commandments”. For my technical discussion of the words used in the citation of Deut 6:5, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/26/love-with-all-that-you-are-heart-and-soul-completely-and-entirely-deut-6-in-mark-12-pentecost-23b/