Foundations: No.64 Spring 2013

The Parable of the Good Samaritan: Redefining “Israelite” or Redefining “Neighbour”?

Craig Blomberg 

John Legg argues in a 2011 issue of this journal that the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) does not universalise the concept of “neighbour” to all humanity but turns individuals like this Samaritan into true Israelites. His main supporting arguments have to do with the common Jewish definition of “neighbour” and the inversion of the lawyer’s question by Jesus at the end of the parable.  Neither of these observations proves persuasive.  Legg’s frustration with fairly bland interpretations of the parable does not stem from a universalising definition of “neighbour” but from the history of allegorising the parable followed by the overreaction by Jülicher a little over a century ago. Recognising the implications of the structure of the parable for interpretation and suggesting some contemporary contextualisations preserve the shocking nature of the original story as teaching that “even my enemy is my neighbour”.

In the Autumn 2011 issue of this journal, the Rev. John Legg presented a novel interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), entitled “So Who Is My Neighbour?” [1] One might even call it iconoclastic, since it consciously broke with almost the entire history of interpretation of the parable. Not only that, but the article very much had an edge to it. The standard conviction that Jesus is universalising the concept of neighbour in this parable is termed an “error”, then a “false view” and eventually “a form of theological (or at least exegetical) political correctness”. [2] A variety of modern commentators are cited, only to claim how uniform their misunderstandings are on this issue, rather than to interact in any detail with their actual exegesis. Motives for their conclusions are imputed, however, as Legg suspects that some scholars understand the truth (his interpretation) but “feel they must nevertheless fall in with the general consensus, possibly lest they be accused of bigotry and narrowness in neglecting non-Christians”. [3] 

What is this view that almost everyone has missed or covered up? Simply this: Jesus is not expanding the standard Jewish definition of neighbour to every person in the world, even one’s hated enemy. Rather he is adopting the perspective, pervasive throughout the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism, that a neighbour is a fellow Israelite. But then he comes to the far more radical conclusion that those like the Samaritan, who cross ethnic and religious boundaries to offer help to a desperate individual, demonstrate that they are true Israelites, whereas those like the priest and Levite who fail to offer such help show that they are not true Israelites at all. Or, in Legg’s own words,

The real shock of the parable is only felt when, and if, the Jewish listeners hear Jesus saying that a Samaritan is behaving as, and therefore is, a true Israelite, a neighbour of all other Israelites, a covenant-keeper! The priest and the Levite, on the other hand, behave unlike neighbours and therefore are not neighbours. Jesus has, in effect, admitted a Samaritan to membership of the covenant people and excommunicated the priest and Levite – and anyone who lives and behaves like them – from the people of God. [4] 

A key reason this is so important for Legg is the consistent New Testament teaching, nicely summarised in Galatians 6:10, that believers must do good to all people, but especially to those of the household of faith. If even a Samaritan can be a neighbour, then we have one among various rationales for helping to break down some of the enmity between Samaritans and Jews (or any two comparable groups in other times and places), but if even Samaritans (or their equivalents elsewhere) can be true Israelites (or today true Christians), then God’s people owe them the greatest priority attention when they are in acute need.

One can appreciate the extra power and significance that such an interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan would produce. But is that what Jesus intended? Has Legg really grasped something that virtually everyone else has missed, suppressed or avoided out of fear of how they would be viewed? Legg quotes an “all-star cast” of contemporary scholars, including, but not limited to, Kenneth Bailey, Leon Morris, I. Howard Marshall, Herman Ridderbos, D. A. Carson, R. T. France, Peter O’Brien and Ronald Fung, only to declare all of them wrong, while he cites not a single precedent for his own view. [5] This does not by itself disqualify his view, but it does place a certain burden of proof on him to provide a rather strong argument in his favour. What is this argument?

As far as I can tell, it boils down to only two points. First, Jews uniformly used “neighbour” in a less than universalising sense. In fact, it was set in contrast to the alien or sojourner in the land, so that it meant fellow Israelite. The well-known levitical law, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18) [6] was not intended to be applied to all people in the world indiscriminately. Jews understood this to refer to those who were their national or spiritual kin. Jesus was a Jew, he knew all this, and he could therefore have been expected to adopt this same definition in his conversation with the lawyer. [7] 

Second, when the lawyer asks the clarifying question of Jesus, “and who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29b), Jesus never answers the question. Instead he tells his famous parable and then reverses the lawyer’s question by asking him to identify who proved neighbour to the man left to die (Luke 10:36). As many others have observed, Legg notes that the lawyer could not even bring himself to say “the Samaritan”. He understood the shocking implications of Jesus’ story and his follow-up question. All he could mutter was “the one who showed mercy to him” (v. 37a). Legg believes that by reversing the question from “Who is my neighbour?” to “which of these three, do you think, became a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?” (v. 36), that is, by forcing the lawyer to imagine himself as the one who is helped, Jesus has not redefined the term neighbour to include the dramatically “other” but has adopted the conventional definition of neighbour as Israelite and forced the lawyer to include even a Samaritan in his category of Israelite. [8] 

Neither of these arguments seems at all persuasive. Jesus, by the time he is traveling en route to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), has in essence redefined numerous conventional concepts within Judaism. He has challenged interpretations about the Sabbath and will continue to do so. Is it a day intended to limit humanity and prevent people from doing good? Or was the Sabbath made for humanity and not humanity for the Sabbath (Mark 2:28)? Will the Pharisees’ long list of proscribed activities on the last day of the week (Shab. 7:2) forever make it impossible to heal non-life-threatening conditions or is it lawful to do all kinds of good things on this day, while still being true to God’s desires for his people to get adequate rest and have sufficient time for worship? Nor is it just Pharisaic additions to Torah that concern Christ. Even the Ten Commandments’ emphasis on Saturday as the day on which to do no work comes in for implicit questioning. Is this really the core of the commandment’s meaning? Are all its stipulations to be forever inviolable? The early church certainly did not think so, as it quickly shifted to Sunday as its special day, and the emphasis in the first three centuries of Christianity was much more on worship than on rest, since Gentile Christians prior to the time of Constantine did not have the luxury of having one day every week off work. [9] 

Or consider the laws of ritual purity. What did Jesus understand the meaning of clean and unclean to be? What for him was pure or impure? His teaching about what came out of a person rather than what went into a person as that which made them unclean (Mark 7:14-20 par.) revolutionised the reigning understanding of purity for those who were willing to accept it. He knew traditional Jewish definitions but he hardly intended to adopt them! When it came to healing a leper, the most ritually impure of all diseased people, Jesus, who elsewhere demonstrated he could heal at a distance, deliberately touched the leper (Luke 5:13 pars.). But instead of incurring the man’s uncleanness, Jesus’ touch made the diseased and impure individual well again and clean. He demonstrated that holiness/wholeness was more “contagious” than moral or ritual impurity, completely subverting contemporary Jewish conviction. [10] 

For one more example, take the question of Jesus’ own identity. By the time in his ministry that he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, he has challenged conventional messianic expectations in a host of ways and will continue to do so. When people have acknowledged him as Messiah, he has told them to be quiet and not spread the word (Luke 4:41 pars., 5:14 pars., 9:21 pars., etc.). When people have asked him if he is the one to come or if they should look for another, he has replied very cryptically by alluding to his miracles and preaching of good news to the poor (Luke 7:18-23 par.). As Legg himself points out, Jesus has highlighted that his parables were not meant exclusively to reveal truth but also in some sense to conceal it. [11] He has disclosed himself plainly to a Samaritan woman with a reputation for immorality (John 4:24), while remaining cryptic with the upstanding religious authorities in Judaism all the way to just preceding his trial before the Sanhedrin (see, e.g., as late as Mark 11:27-33). He has adopted as his favourite title for self-reference the ambiguous expression “Son of man”, rather than one of the more unambiguous titles for a divine messiah. [12] 

In other words, no lawyer who has heard anything at all reliable about Jesus would have automatically assumed that Jesus was going to use conventional definitions for key theological terms. As Legg observes, too few interpreters pay sufficient attention to the context. [13] Legg may have fallen into the same trap. Verse 25 makes it plain that this lawyer’s question is no innocent request for information, no genuine desire for knowledge nor even a benign curiosity as to Jesus’ perspective. He wants to put Jesus to the test (ekpeirazei, which can even mean “tempt”). He wants to see if Christ will measure up to the lawyer’s already formed conclusions about what the correct answers to key theological questions are. So he asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. [14] 

Legg rightly rejects the approach that reads Jesus’ reply as akin to Pauline theology (or, one might add, to his logic in the Sermon on the Mount). [15] Jesus is not reciting key commandments so that if the lawyer insists that he has kept all of these, Jesus can reply triumphantly, “No you haven’t. You’ve lusted, haven’t you? You’ve gotten angry inappropriately, haven’t you? I know you’ve coveted. So neither you nor anyone else can ever gain salvation through the Law. You need a Saviour and that’s what I’ve come to provide you!” That’s not even a terribly fair summary of what Jesus was doing in his Great Sermon or what Paul was doing in his epistles, and it certainly isn’t the logic of the interchange with the lawyer preceding the parable of the Good Samaritan.

No, Jesus is deliberately answering the lawyer in a way that he knows will be acceptable to him, assuming that they both agree on the definitions of the key words involved. As long as the Mosaic covenant is in force, one can be saved by faithful obedience to the Law, because faithful obedience also includes offering the proper sacrifices when one sins (hence, Lev 18:5 in its original context). Of course, the Law was given after God’s unconditional covenant with Abraham, who was reckoned righteous because of his faith, and it did not supersede that covenant (Gal 3:15-18). Of course, the Law was given after the Exodus, and intended to be the way an Israelite lived out a life of covenant faithfulness and attained eschatological salvation, in a world without anything approximating the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. [16] But it was only after Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice for sins that the Law became a cul-de-sac, because one could no longer offer animal sacrifices as (provisional) atonement for sin and therefore when one violated the Law, one could not obey its prescribed practices for receiving forgiveness and continuing in right relationship with God. [17] Instead one had to become a follower of Jesus, the once-for-all sacrifice for all of humanity’s sins.

Thus, Jesus could in good conscience address a Jewish leader before the inauguration of the new covenant and recite representative commandments of the Law as an answer to the question of how to obtain eternal life. But this would not satisfy a lawyer whose express purpose in questioning Jesus was to trap him in his words. So he asks him “who is my neighbour?” Why does the man choose this particular law for clarification? We cannot be sure. But Luke’s Gospel is the one that most stresses Jesus’ concern for the outcast, the marginalised, the stigmatised even among the Israelites, including the poor, women, the diseased, and tax collectors and other notorious sinners. Luke also highlights Jesus’ compassion for Samaritans and Gentiles, those who are not even true Israelites at all. [18] It is natural to assume that the lawyer has heard something of all of this and is suspecting that Jesus would define the term “neighbour” more broadly than he thinks an upstanding, orthodox Jewish rabbi or teacher should. Contrary to Legg’s assumption, we have every reason to believe that this story is building up to Jesus’ redefinition of the term neighbour.

But how is Jesus to do this? If he gives a straightforward declarative reply, the lawyer will reject it out of hand and accuse him of being unfaithful to Jewish tradition, perhaps even to the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus has to speak more elliptically, more allusively. Parables provide perfect opportunities for precisely this kind of speech. So he tells the story of Luke 10:30-35, long before anyone ever named hospitals and laws protecting those who try to help others in public after the Good Samaritan! As Anthony Thiselton has so powerfully demonstrated, a “good Samaritan” would have been a choice oxymoron in Jesus’ world. [19] A faithful Jew could hardly have conceived of someone linking the two words as if they belonged together. It is shocking enough that the priest and Levite both fail to stop and help. But enough rabbinic stories at times took an anti-clerical twist, so that many might have imagined Jesus building to a climax in which an ordinary lay Israelite would be the hero. [20] But no, it is the hated other. And worse than the totally other, it is the Samaritan, the despised half-breed, or more precisely the despised descendant of the unlawful marriages of Jews and Gentiles centuries earlier. Legg does not have to worry that the interpretation that redefines the meaning of neighbour will not be shocking or radical enough. If a conservative evangelical white Scottish farmer is told that a liberal atheist African-American feminist lesbian is his neighbour, there can be quite an element of shock and even resistance!

But Jesus refuses to say this in so many words. He tells a story in which a character analogous to that woman, a visitor in the country, comes to the aid of a character like the farmer when she finds him almost gored to death by the horns of some Highland cattle along the side of a B-road not too far to the east of Oban. Oh, and this happens only after the Moderator of the Church of Scotland and one of his high ranking clergymen have just driven by, slowed down, peered at the motionless man and decided to head on without stopping. [21] Now Jesus asks who proved neighbour to the farmer. The reversal of the question does not suggest that Jesus is no longer dealing with the original question about the definition of a neighbour. Instead, he recognises that there are plenty of people, particularly those consumed with the study of Scripture or other religious tasks, who can agree that God’s people must love and help others, even those so different from themselves that they are probably repulsed when they think about helping them. With great acts of condescension, however, they can bring themselves to give charity to the desperate who are very different from them. Turn the tables, though, and they would never admit their need to others in order to receive help from them. They can take care of themselves quite nicely, thank you very much. Well, maybe, if finances become unbearably depleted, they might confide in a very trusted friend – the truest kind of “neighbour” – perhaps one or two close churchgoing acquaintances. But someone as different as this unbelieving, immoral, perverse, foreign wretch, never! Never, that is, unless they are dying, unless they are too weak to resist, unless they realise that their only hope for physical survival rests in this person who shares nothing with them except a common humanity. Can all homo sapiens created by God in his image really be my neighbour, including this “pathetic misguided pervert” who stands for everything I despise? Damn right – pardon my French! [22] The universalising interpretation is neither tame nor domesticated!

Put more prosaically, the parable is indeed more powerful and poignant because Jesus reverses the lawyer’s original question and forces him to imagine himself receiving help from one to whom he can barely imagine offering help. [23] But that greater power and poignancy have nothing to do with some supposed acceptance of the lawyer’s definition of neighbour as limited to a fellow Israelite. The fictitious Scottish analogy just presented does not turn the foreign woman into a true Scottish Christian, nor have the Moderator and his clergy friend just forfeited both their ethnicity and their salvation. The analogy teaches rather that even an atheist feminist African-American lesbian is my neighbour. It is as the lawyer feared. Jesus has redefined “neighbour” in an entirely unacceptable way from his point of view. Worse still, he has told a story and asked a question that forced the lawyer to admit the correctness of the redefinition, though he is unlikely to act upon his grudging admission. Yet, as if to sink the dagger in ever more deeply, Jesus concludes the account with precisely that mandate. The lawyer must act on his admission. Jesus commands him to go and do likewise (Luke 10:37b). [24] 

A structuralist analysis of the parables shows that every triadic or three-pronged parable has a unifying figure. A sizable majority of the time this is a person in a position of power (a king, master, landlord, shepherd, etc.) who is able to judge between good and bad subordinates. What makes such individuals unifying figures is their presence throughout the story. They interact with each of the other main characters and the lesson they inculcate is the most central one of the parable. [25] In the Good Samaritan, of course, it is the man in dire need of help who is present throughout the account, able to recognise who did and did not help him. So it is natural for Jesus to reword the lawyer’s question to ensure that he is putting himself in the position of the man left for dead, as the parable itself wants him to do. [26] The man is sufficiently shocked that he cannot even speak the word “Samaritan”.

I suspect the reason that the history of the interpretation of the Good Samaritan has seemed too anaemic, too domesticating of Jesus’ message, both to Legg and to many others, is because we have not often enough preserved this “sting in the tale”. [27] Yes, Jesus universalises the definition of neighbour. But he does much more. He uses the most extreme example in his world of someone who would have disgusted or repulsed the average Israelite as his illustration of his expanded definition. He uses one who is the enemy, but he also uses an enemy who is very much like oneself. At this point, the analogy with the visiting African-American lesbian to Scotland is still not powerful enough, still not completely parallel. Nor is a Jewish lawyer reflecting on a Samaritan hero fully analogous to a white, culturally Christian, American “redneck” being forced to think of the Chinese Maoist as a neighbour during the height of the Cold War or a Shi’ite Muslim in Iran being confronted with a Canadian Inuit shaman as his neighbour; these pairs of individuals are too different from each other. The better analogies are Protestant and Catholic Irishmen in Northern Ireland at the height of the “Troubles”, Afrikaaner and English Reformed Christians in South Africa during the Boer wars, Hutu and Tutsi Baptists in Rwanda during the attempted genocide of the early 1990s, or Tamil and Sinhalese Muslim and Hindu background Methodists in Sri Lanka even today. [28] This is “sibling rivalry” at its worst, turned into sibling hatred, and always threatening to turn into sibling warfare. These pairs of people have much more in common culturally, ethnically, and religiously than they care to admit, but with key differences that threaten to lead them to mutual extermination. This is the dimension of the parable which has more often than not been lost in the history of its interpretation and exposition.

What has led to this loss? Neither failure to understand that Jesus was supposedly calling the outsider a true Israelite nor failure to understand the significance of Jesus standing the lawyer’s question on its head is to blame. Rather, it is the whole history of the array of methods used to interpret parables in general that has caused the problem. From roughly the mid-second century onwards, Jewish Christianity became so small a segment of the Jesus movement that distinctively Jewish backgrounds to Scripture were increasingly lost sight of. In keeping with common Greco-Roman forms of interpretation of sacred narratives, parables were interpreted as if they were detailed allegories, with almost every detail standing for some corresponding spiritual element in the history of salvation. [29] This parable was also quickly Christologised. Augustine’s famous interpretation of the man who was beaten and left for dead understood him to be Adam, with the priest and the Levite representing the inability of the Old Testament to save him, and with the Samaritan as a Christ-figure. Other details were allegorised to fit that basic plot: Jerusalem, the heavenly city from which Adam fell; the thieves, the devil who deprived Adam of his immortality; the inn, the church; and the innkeeper, the apostle Paul! [30] 

From the fifth century to the twelfth century, numerous creative allegorisations competed for acceptance concerning the import of Jericho, Jerusalem, the oil and wine, the Samaritan’s beast of burden, the inn, the innkeeper and so on. Bede adds that the traveller was stripped of the garment of innocence, and equates the oil with hope and the wine with fear. Gottfried of Admont used the parable to illustrate good and bad prelates. Hugh of Saint-Cher viewed the robbers as worldly people like the rich, doctors and lawyers. And Nicholas of Lyra took the binding of the injured man’s wounds as wise counsel, with the oil representing mercy and the wine standing for justice. Examples could be multiplied at length. [31] But even as late as the end of the 1100s, Radulfus Ardens could observe that the parable of the Good Samaritan taught four main points: “the ruin of the human race, the devil’s persecution, the inadequacy of the Law, and Christ’s mercy”. [32] The original context of the parable in Luke 10 truly had been lost sight of.

Calvin, in his Harmony of the Evangelists, recounts the common allegorical interpretation of the parable as he knew it in the sixteenth century, put forward by those he believed overemphasised human free will. Intro-ducing this interpretation as “too absurd to deserve refutation”, he describes it as follows:

Under the figure of a wounded man is described the condition of Adam after the fall; from which they infer that the power of acting well was not wholly extinguished in him; because he is said to be only half-dead. As if it had been the design of Christ, in this passage, to speak of the corruption of human nature, and to inquire whether the wound which Satan inflicted on Adam were deadly or curable; nay, as if he had not plainly, and without a figure, declared in another passage, that all are dead, but those whom he quickens by his voice (John 5:25). As little plausibility belongs to another allegory, which, however, has been so highly satisfactory, that it has been admitted by almost universal consent, as if it had been a revelation from heaven. This Samaritan they imagine to be Christ, because he is our guardian; and they tell us that wine was poured, along with oil, in to the wound, because Christ cures us by repentance and by a promise of grace. They have contrived a third subtlety, that Christ does not immediately restore health, but sends us to the Church, as an innkeeper, to be gradually cured. [33] 

Lest he leave us in any doubt about his opinions on all of this, Calvin then adds, “I acknowledge that I have no liking for any of these interpretations”, and that “we ought to have a deeper reverence for Scripture than to reckon ourselves at liberty to disguise its natural meaning”. [34] 

Undoubtedly to Legg’s discomfiture, Calvin states quite plainly this natural meaning, “that the word neighbour extends indiscriminately to every man, because the whole human race is united by a sacred bond of fellowship”. [35] Why then did Jesus tell the parable and invert his closing question as he did? “Christ intended to draw the reply from the Pharisee, that he might condemn himself. For in consequence of the authoritative decision being generally received among them, that no man is our neighbour unless he is our friend, if Christ had put a direct question to him, he would never have made an explicit acknowledgment, that under the word neighbour all men are included, which the comparison brought forward forces him to confess”. [36] Little wonder that Legg has discovered this to be a common understanding of the parable ever since.

Few interpreters were as sanguine as Calvin, however, and allegorical interpretations of the parables in general and of the Good Samaritan in particular continued to prove popular until the end of the nineteenth century. [37] As is well known, this was the heyday of Adolf Jülicher’s magnum opus, a thorough history of the interpretation of each parable, demonstrating how rampant allegorising was and how contradictory many of the allegorical interpretations of each parable were. [38] Stressing that there was only one main point of comparison and thus only one main lesson per passage, he typically stripped the parables from all contextual material, including any interpretive remarks attributed to Jesus himself that would threaten his methodology. These Jülicher assigned to accretions added to the words of the historical Jesus either by the subsequent oral tradition or the compilers of the Gospels or any previous written sources they may have used. Jülicher’s main points for many of the parables fit the spirit of the “old liberal” universalising theology of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man so common in the late nineteenth century. It is this context that gives the approach to the Good Samaritan that sees it as universalising the concept of neighbour the blandness to which Legg rightly objects. About this passage, Jülicher declares, “The self-sacrificing exercise of love is of the highest worth in the eyes of God and humanity; no privilege of office or birth can replace it. The compassionate individual demonstrates, even when he is a Samaritan, a greater blessedness than the Jewish temple officials who indulge in self-seeking”. [39] And it is not just Jülicher’s theology but also his methodology, which swings the pendulum from one extreme to the other, that is at fault. Jülicher rightly rejected rampant allegorising but he still interpreted the parables in line with a Greek philosopher, Aristotle, rather than studying the hundreds of ancient rabbinic parables that parallel Jesus’ stories more closely than any other short, fictitious narratives known from the ancient Mediterranean world. [40] 

Had he done so, Jülicher would have recognised that the rabbis consistently told short stories with two, three, or four main points of comparison and spelled out their interpretations of the parables even more clearly and extensively than Jesus usually did. [41] There is no reason, therefore, to imagine that Jesus’ interpretive remarks appended to his parables in the canonical Gospels represent anything other than his own intended interpretations. In other words, Jesus, like the rabbis, used a limited form of allegory. But the emphasis is definitely on the adjective limited. Moreover, any symbolic import we ascribe to a detail in a parable must be one which fits its original historical and literary contexts. In other words, interpretations must involve meanings that Israelites living in their ancestral homeland in the first third of the first century could have understood. Of course, sometimes they needed more explanation than at other times, but the point is that the interpretations cannot be anachronistic to the context, like those that saw the innkeeper caring for the Good Samaritan standing for the Church!

Parable interpretation during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century can be summarised as a general acceptance of Jülicher without absolutising his principles. Longer and more complex parables were sometimes deemed exceptions and often elements of allegory snuck back in to interpretations that were allegedly non-allegorical. [42] The “one point” of a passage was sometimes phrased cumbersomely, with more than one independent clause, making one question whether a given scholar was actually following his own methodology or not. [43] But in a majority of cases, Jülicher’s method held sway, irrespective of the larger theological convictions of a given interpreter or interpretive community.

Kenneth Bailey’s work in the late 1970s and early 1980s represented an early, important and evangelical shift from this consensus. [44] Reading the parables of Jesus in the light of decades of ministry in the Middle East among traditional Lebanese, Palestinian and Arab Christian communities, researching old Arabic Christian commentaries, and paying careful attention to the literary structure of each passage in its context in the Gospels, Bailey postulated a cluster of theological themes or motifs for each parable rather than trying to boil everything down to one central point. In the case of the Good Samaritan, treating all of Luke 10:25-37, Bailey identified nine items, which may be abbreviated and paraphrased as: 1) all attempts at self-justification fail; 2) a high ethical standard must still be sought; 3) a code-book approach to ethics is inadequate; 4) Jesus offers “a sharp attack on communal and racial prejudice”; 5) love is something felt and done; 6) anyone in need, even an enemy, is my neighbour; 7) God works despite the disobedience of the official leadership of his people; 8) people can sin by either violence or neglect; and 9) salvation comes via costly, unexpected love. [45] 

Not all of Bailey’s theological clusters of motifs are this detailed, but they do consistently raise several questions. Does Jesus really intend to teach all of these points? Of those he does intend to teach, are some logically subordinate to others? Could they therefore somehow be combined or streamlined into fewer points without sacrificing anything crucial to the parable? And by what methodology can we answer all these questions?

About the same time as evangelicals were rethinking Jülicher, many liberal scholars were exploring polyvalence. Parables, they believed, were excellent test cases of a theory that saw multiple meanings in texts not because their authors intended them but because of the inherent instability of all human communication and because readers/listeners always bring an element of their own creativity to the interpretive task. These two claims coalesced around the subdisciplines of hermeneutics known as deconstruction and reader-response criticism, respectively. Today they have taken their place among several tenets of postmodern interpretation more generally. [46] Parables could not be limited to one point, their exponents would insist, because interpretation can never be cordoned off. One can interpret forever. The only criteria of a “good” (not “legitimate” – that would be too exclusive) interpretation were consistency and cleverness. The interpretation had to hang together internally, whether or not it corresponded to any external reality, and it had to be creative enough to be interesting to read. [47] 

Enter a young Ph.D. student in the University of Aberdeen foolish enough to invade the horribly crowded field of parable research in the early 1980s. For a considerable time I wrestled with the question of whether there were any criteria or methods for establishing legitimate controls on interpreting Jesus’ parables without the overly-truncated approaches of Jülicher and his followers. Then I discovered Pierre Grelot’s two-part article on the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) read, in turn, through the eyes of its three main characters. [48] Grelot concluded that the one main point of the parable involved the possibility of repentance, no matter how far one had fallen from God, the need for others not to begrudge God’s generosity to the wayward, and God’s amazing love for both kinds of sinners. [49] I had my kairos moment. Grelot was absolutely correct; he just couldn’t count! There were three main points to his conclusion, not one, and each corresponded to one of the three main characters of the parable. Each was necessary if one was to retrieve Jesus’ full meaning, but none required allegorising any details besides the father and his two sons and those only in ways that were completely natural. All of the remaining details of the parable were recognisable as supporting props, once one understood first-century culture in Israel, working together to indicate the lessons we are to learn. [50] 

Readers can decide for themselves how successful they think my attempt to apply this methodology of one point per main character of the parables is to Jesus’ stories as a whole. [51] The only passage we are interested in here is the Good Samaritan. As is so often the case, those who have debated a single, central point have put forward three different points that compete for acceptance, and they line up according to the dying man, the priest and Levite, and the Samaritan. [52] Legg quotes two-thirds of my summary of the parable’s meaning, omitting my first point below:

(1) From the example of the priest and Levite comes the principle that religious status or legalistic casuistry does not excuse lovelessness. (2) From the Samaritan, one learns that one must show compassion to those in dire need regardless of the religious or ethnic barriers that divide people. (3) From the man in the ditch emerges the lesson that even one’s enemy is one’s neighbour.” The third point is the most crucial (italics mine). [53] 

Had Jesus wanted only to call his followers to imitate the kindness of the protagonist, he could have chosen an ordinary Israelite as the story’s hero. Had he not wanted to take a jab at the spirit of some religious leaders that actually discourages them from doing God’s will, he need not have used the priest and Levite as foils for the hero of the story at all. The specific combination of characters, with the priest and Levite functioning as one, leads to three emphases. In this sense, the parable does teach much more than that everyone is one’s neighbour. But it teaches no less. And Jesus’ reversal of the lawyer’s question does not turn the Samaritan into a true Israelite nor excommunicate the priest and Levite from Israel. Legg’s approach is provocative and worth consideration. But I do not see how it can displace the standard interpretation, which, when framed properly, is more than challenging in its own right.