Parables are probably the first thing that one learns and comes to understand when reading the New Testament. The Lord Jesus used parables to explain things in a very effective way. The parable this study is based on is the one that came to be known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus used this parable to reply to an expert of the Law that was trying to test Him. This man asked the famous question «Who is my neighbour?». In other words, «who is it that I am supposed to love as myself?» (Leviticus 19:18). The obvious conclusion of the parable, that anyone has learnt at some point, is that our neighbour is anyone that is in need of our assistance.
This is the natural conclusion one draws when they apply the good principles of interpretation (literal, grammatical, historical, contextual). In this case a literal reading gives us the classical interpretation of this parable. However, this does not mean that certain passages in the Bible won’t also have a symbolic meaning. As long as this symbolism still respects the principle of non-contradiction (w.r.t. other literal as well as symbolic readings), then it’s still a valid reading of a passage.
With the parables is often true to find that there is a symbolic meaning behind the common sense reading. After all, the word parable comes from the Greek word
parabolē which means «to place side by side»; in fact, parables can be described as being an earthly setting of a heavenly story.
So, what’s our heavenly story, here?
Let’s get ourselves some background on the Samaritans first: this will help us to place things «side by side».
The Samaritans: a little historical background
The Samaritans were the offspring of marriages between the Jewish farmers the Assyrians left behind when they conquered the Northern Kingdom in 721 BC and the pagans they re-located there. Mixing up the conquered populations was standard procedure for the Assyrians because it reduced the threat of organised rebellion. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews because of these mixed marriages and because they had incorporated pagan rituals into their worship of God (both things were forbidden by Jewish law), so to have a Samaritan as the hero of this story must have gotten the attention of the Lord’s audience right away.
A generation or so before the time of Jesus, a son of the Jewish high priest had run off and married the daughter of the King of Samaria, built a replica of the Jewish Temple on Mt. Gerizim and instituted a rival worship system which caused a huge scandal. In her encounter with Jesus (John 4:4-42) the Samaritan “woman at the well” makes reference to this (v. 19). (By the way, the ruins of the Samaritan Temple were discovered about 10 years ago and are being excavated for public display).
The old Jericho Road was a steep narrow passage along one wall of a deep canyon. In the 17 miles from Jerusalem to Jericho, it dropped 3200 vertical feet through a rough wilderness area fraught with danger from attacks by wild animals in the best of times. In the Lord’s day there was also the threat of being attacked by robbers lurking in the rocks. The Temple renovation was nearly complete and many workers had been laid off. Having lost their source of income, some turned to stealing to provide for their families. The people were all too familiar with reports of violence there, and had nicknamed this road «Adumim», i.e. the Pass of Blood. The area where the canyon opens up at the bottom, near Jericho, is traditionally known as the valley of the Shadow of Death, from Psalm 23.
Our Heavenly story
So, we know the literal meaning of the parable. Let’s now try and see the symbolic meaning, verse by verse.
We will see that once we have identified the first symbols, the rest of the symbolic meaning will become clearer at once.
‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half-dead. (Luke 10:30 NIVUK)
The man here represents you and me, all of us; mankind. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is a dangerous place, which symbolises the world we wander in. The robbers stands for Satan. The clothes we’ve been stripped of are our righteousness. The Bible refers many times to our spiritual cover in terms of clothing (see Isaiah 64:6, 61:10; Zechariah 3:3-4; Revelation 6:11). And we are indeed left in this world destined to (spiritual) death because of our lack of righteousness.
A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. (Luke 10:31-32 NIVUK)
The priest and the Levite here represents mere religion, completely ineffective and powerless to save mankind from their sin. When religion finds us and comes in our lives, our spirit is left as dead as it was. We know it’s only a personal encounter with the Living God that can bring our spirits back to life (John 1:12-13; John 3:3)
Of the priests and the Levites of that time the Lord had Isaiah prophesy (Isaiah 29:13):
These people come near to me with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
is based on merely human rules they have been taught.
But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. (Luke 10:33 NIVUK)
Here we have two main symbols: the dying man and the Samaritan. We know already who the man represents. Who’s the Samaritan? Let’s try and describe him based on what we know, thanks also to our little background from earlier on: he’s a man, despised by the Jews, who comes right where the dying man is, and takes pity on him.
Now let’s try and remember one thing about our Lord Jesus: the Living God who became man, despised by His own (the Jews first [John 1:11; Mark 6:4], the unbeliever Gentiles later [Isaiah 53:3]), came right to where we were (on Earth), and took pity on us.
The Lord Jesus is our Good Samaritan.
He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. (Luke 10:34 NIVUK)
After understanding the symbols in the previous verse, it’s easy to think of the bit in Isaiah 53:5 where it says «by his wounds we are healed» when we read that «He bandaged his wounds». And this passage goes even further providing us with some powerful symbols. The first two are the oil and the wine. In the actual act of bandaging the wounds, the oil was then used for its soothing properties, to bring comfort, whereas the wine was an antiseptic, a cleansing agent.
The oil is a classical symbol for the Holy Spirit (our Comforter), which is given to all Church believers at the moment they first believed (Ephesians 1:13). It’s the author of the regeneration of our hearts and of our spirits coming back to life, cleansed forever so to allow the Lord to dwell in us until the day of redemption (Ephesians 1:14)
The wine, on the other hand, is a clear symbol for the blood Jesus shed for us so that we might be cleansed and therefore saved.
Both the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 44:3) and His blood (Matthew 26:28) have been poured for us, as the passage says the Samaritan did with the oil and the wine.
The rest of the symbolism in this passage will be clearer in the next one; the inn represents the Kingdom which we are brought in when we are born again (John 3:3) and where He takes care of us, both now on Earth (Matthew 6:25-34) and forever more.
The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.” (Luke 10:35 NIVUK)
Before we start with the symbolism here, it’s worth it noticing that some other translations as well as some other editions of the NIV translates the word denarii with “silver coins”. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, since a denarius was indeed a silver coin. And this particular attribute of the coin is actually what makes it such a remarkable symbol. In fact, throughout the Old Testament, we learn that the silver coin is the coin of redemption (Exodus 30:12-15; Leviticus 27:1-7).
As the Samaritan found the man almost dead, so The Lord Jesus found us on our way to spiritual death because of our sin. But He came to us and without requiring us to do anything, He paid the price we couldn’t pay, the debt we owed to God; that price redeemed us and brought us into the Kingdom (the inn) where we are being taken care of by God (the innkeeper).
From Matthew 20:2 we see that one denarius was probably a fair pay for one day’s labour into the fields. From historical research we also learn that the monthly salary of a legionary soldier was 25 denarii. So, the 2 denarii of the parable are not a small amount of money and some resources say these 2 denarii would’ve paid up to 2 months accommodation in an inn at the time of the Lord Jesus.
So those two denarii are telling us Jesus paid quite a price. But that’s not everything. The price He paid is higher than what these 2 denarii imply. Notice that the Samaritan promised the innkeeper to pay any other extra expense on behalf of the man. If we keep consistent with our symbolism, we see The Lord has paid it all and took full responsibility on the future sins we commit after He saved us. And once again, He didn’t put any conditions down.
This links perfectly with the last words of Jesus on the cross of Calvary, «it is finished»; more than that, it links with the Greek word we translate «it is finished»:
tetelestai, which literally means to «bring to an end, to fulfil». In its historical setting, this word gives us a powerful insight: it is the word that in Roman times was used to indicate that a debt had been fully extinguished; the case was closed, never to be reopened again. It was written across a paid invoice, for example. It was also written across the bill of charges for which a criminal had served time. The ex-convict carried this document with him as proof that he had paid his debt to society so he wouldn’t be charged with the same crime again.
When you look at the parable of the Good Samaritan under this light, it’s easy to see how it’s telling us what Paul also tells us in the epistle to the Colossians:
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13-14 NIVUK)
This study is liberally based on a study by Jack Kelley.