The parable of the Good Samaritan is a story that is embedded in Western culture. Many people who know different versions of the story may be unaware of its actual origin in the New Testament. The parable has been interpreted in a variety of ways since it first appeared in the New Testament. On a surface level, the parable is an example of altruistic behaviour. An altruistic person is someone who puts the interests of other ahead of his or her own. Mother Theresa is regarded as an example of an altruistic person.
- Skill level:
Place the parable in its scriptural context. Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to the question "who is my neighbour." Jesus was asked to comment on a text from the Old Testament, Leviticus 19:18, that commands us to love our neighbour. The assumption in that verse is that duty to a neighbour outweigh duty to a stranger. However, the parable of the Good Samaritan questions the rigid distinction between neighbour and stranger.
Place the parable in its cultural context. The primary characters are the Jewish victim that is beaten and robbed, a Jewish priest, a Levite, and the good Samaritan. Jesus's parable was provocative because the Levite and priest are both Jewish religious figures who fail to come to the aid of a fellow Jew. The parable is even more provocative because the cultural climate of the time was full of animosity and tension and between Samaritans and Jews.
Place the parable in its historical and physical context. The victim was attacked as he travelled the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. The road was notorious for being dangerous and prone to thieves. This may explain, in part, someone's reluctance to aid an apparent victim out of concern that it might be trick. Martin Luther King saw the road between Jerusalem and Jericho as a metaphor for a dangerous and violent world. In King's view, the parable should challenge us to make the world less dangerous and violent.
Interpret the parable as an allegory of Christianity. St. Augustine and Origen, two of the most important Church Fathers, both saw the parable as an allegory. The Samaritan represents Christ and the Jewish victim represents Adam or man in his fallen state.
Place the parable within a larger ethical context. The ethical interpretation of the parable does not necessarily depend on any religious perspective. The parable can be seen as expressing the meaning of compassion while simultaneously critiquing religious hypocrisy.
Test the parable with psychological experiments. At the heart of the parable is a claim about altruistic and self-interested behaviour. The Samaritan appears to be altruistic and places his own safety at risk to help a stranger. The Levite and priest seem to be entirely motivated by self-interest and unwilling to risk their own safety. However, human motivations, actions and decisions can be very difficult to understand.
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