Parables use concrete language and examples to communicate difficult or esoteric ideas, concepts, and theology.
by Marc Turnage
Jesus most frequently taught using story parables.1 The story parable provides images from real life (they are not fables) that serve to communicate a primary message to people (parables are not allegories). Parables use concrete language and examples to communicate difficult or esoteric ideas, concepts, and theology. As such, much of the meaning of the parable comes from within the culture and setting of the parable, something that was part of the collective consciousness of the audience. People told parables to make concepts understood; they never told parables to hide or keep secrets. The challenge for the modern interpreter lies in understanding the embedded cultural setting of the parables taken for granted by the one telling the parable and his audience.
The sages of Israel utilized parables as a principal vehicle to illustrate and communicate their theology by using images and language that the common person could grasp; but, at the same time, parables often have a subcurrent running through them that the intelligentsia understood. Far from being simple images, people connected parables with the highest level of Jewish scriptural education.
The genre of story parable is unique to Jesus in the Gospels and the Jewish sages. Jesus and the sages not only similarly used the genre of story parables, but the theology communicated in the Jewish parables and the parables of Jesus is similar. Parables do not appear in the Dead Sea Scrolls or other Jewish literature of the first century, nor do they appear in the writings of Greek and Roman authors. They come from the fertile soil of rabbinic oral instruction and Torah education. Significantly, all story parables in rabbinic literature are composed in Hebrew even during later periods where Aramaic was the dominant language of the Jewish people; Hebrew is always the language of parables. We should assume, then, that Jesus originally told all of His parables in Hebrew.
The Good Samaritan
The “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25–37) is perhaps one of the most well-known of Jesus’ parables. The origin of the parable derives from an exchange between Jesus and an expert in the Law. The scribe asked Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (verse 25, ESV2). Jesus responded to his question in a very Jewish manner with another question, asking him to summarize the Law. The scribe responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul,” and Leviticus 19:18, “and your neighbor as yourself.”
Why did he read those two passages together? The first passage, of course, is part of the Shema (“Hear, O Israel”) that Jews in the first century recited daily (m. Berachot 1.1). Jewish interpreters, like Jesus and Paul, connected biblical passages because of shared language between the two verses. We call this hermeneutical method gezerah shevah. Language, not theology, drove the hermeneutic. Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 are two of only three passages in the entire Old Testament that begin with the phrase ואהבת (“and you will love”). Jewish exegetes would have seen this phrase as a connection between the passages in which the second assists in interpreting the first.
Jesus replied to the scribe that he had answered correctly, “Do this and you will live.”
The scribe proceeded to ask, “And who is my neighbor?” He sought further clarification as to who was his “neighbor.” His question asked Jesus to draw a line indicating who was inside and who was outside the commandment, and thus who he was obligated to.
To answer his question, Jesus told a parable based upon the third Old Testament passage that begins with ואהבת “and you shall love,” Leviticus 19:34: “And you shall love the foreigner” (author’s translation). This exchange demonstrates the erudition and Torah learning of Jesus and that He functioned at the highest level. It also betrays His incredibly creative genius.
In the parable, Jesus told a story using a common occurrence about a person traveling the road between Jerusalem and Jericho and falling among thieves. The thieves beat the man and left him for dead. Jesus’ description of the man as “half-dead” indicates that he was on the threshold of dying. This explains the hesitancy of the priest and Levite to help him. If they helped him, and he died, they would have become ritually impure and not been able to perform their religious duties. Herein lies the tension of the parable: Does the call of God supersede the needs of the human individual?
The Theology of the Parable
In the centuries leading up to the first century, Judaism experienced a theological revolution that evolved into a new sensitivity of the value of the human individual.3 Two biblical verses stood at the heart of this revolution: Leviticus 19:18, which came to be read, “Love your neighbor who is like yourself,” and Genesis 1:27, “In the image of God he created them.” God created humans in His image and, therefore, they have intrinsic value. Moreover, in the manner in which I treat one created in the image of God, who is like myself, God will respond to me.
The scribe Jesus ben Sira, writing at the beginning of the second century B.C., stated, “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins?” (28:2–4).
In the book of Jubilees, written around the same time as Ben Sira, we find, “And among yourselves, my sons, be loving of your brothers as a man loves himself, with each man seeking for his brother what is good for him, and acting together on the earth, and loving each other as themselves” (36:4).
Jesus embraced this emerging Jewish humanism and its emphasis on the value of the individual, as well as God acting toward us in the manner we act toward others. The question of the lawyer in Luke 10:29 sought to further clarify who is my neighbor. Jesus answered this question by building a parable based on Leviticus 19:34 and making the hero of the parable a Samaritan — someone outside of the Jewish community — who showed mercy (10:37) toward one like himself. Moreover, Jesus rephrased the man’s question by asking, “Which of these three, do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (ESV). The man’s question sought to identify insiders and outsiders, those I’m obligated to and those to which I have no obligation. Jesus turned the question on its head, and said, “You go be the neighbor.” This parallels His teaching elsewhere when He stated that, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). In other words, God does not distinguish in His mercy, and neither should we.
Shimon the Righteous, a sage who lived in the third century B.C., stated, “On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on the Temple service, and on deeds of loving-kindness” (m. Avot 1:2). The order of the three indicates their priority according to Shimon, so for him, Torah study was preeminent, but the Temple service superseded deeds of loving-kindness. The attitude reflects that of the priest and Levite in Jesus’ parable: their ritual duty, their calling, was more important than the needs of the individual. For Jesus, however, something greater than the Temple exists (Matthew 12:6): the needs of the human individual and our need before God to show mercy toward others like ourselves.4