Parables feature heavily in the Gospel of Luke; so heavily, in fact, that there are fifteen parables unique to the gospel. Two of these parables are The Good Samaritan and The Pharisee and The Tax Collector. In this essay, the content (that is, the story itself) and the teaching (what Christ intended us to learn) of these parables will be discussed.
The story of the Good Samaritan was prompted by the questions of the ‘expert in the law’, ‘What is it I am to do to be the possessor of eternal life?’ and ‘who is my neighbour?’ Jesus answers the latter with a parable of a man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho who is robbed, beaten and left for dead. He is then passed, first by priest, and then a Levite before finally a Samaritan, who, filled with compassion, helps him and takes him to an inn to recover.
The first thing to note about this parable is the road that the man was travelling on. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously dangerous; about seventeen miles long, it wound its way through a lonely desert area with caves that could be used by robbers as hide-outs. It was uncommon for anyone to travel this road by themselves, and it can therefore be said that any trouble experienced by the traveller was a consequence of his own actions – he had no one to blame but himself. Perhaps, therefore (as Barclay claims) the first lesson in this parable is that we must help even those who have brought trouble upon themselves.
Now that the geography has been discussed, what can we learn from the actions of those in the parable? It was a widely-held belief of scholars that one possible reason for the priest and Levite walking past the man, despite noticing him, was that they did not want to become ritually unclean by contact with a corpse (Numbers 19:11) as this would interfere with their temple duties. However, this does not sit easily with the fact that they were travelling away from, rather than towards, Jerusalem.
Another possible reason for their actions was fear of being attacked themselves. It was common for the robbers to use decoys; one of their members pretended to be injured and as someone stopped to help they would be ambushed – it is likely that the priest and Levite were too wary of this possibility to help the injured traveller.
If we take these two explanations to be true, there are two lessons to be learnt by the actions of the priest and Levite: first, we must not put ritualistic teaching before true, Christ-like compassion for others and, second, we must put the needs of others before our own needs.
At this stage, the parable is turned on its head. The lawyer and others may have expected the third and climactic traveller to be an ordinary Jewish person; however, the shocking cultural twist of the parable is that its hero is a Samaritan, a traditional enemy of the Jews. As Michael Burns puts it, ‘It would have been difficult in Jesus’ day to manufacture a more hated protagonist than a Samaritan. It would be on par with telling this same story in Israel today and having a Palestinian or Iranian take the role of hero,’ (even at the close of the parable, the lawyer still so reviles the idea of a Samaritan being exemplified that rather than speaking of his nationality, he simply calls him “the one who had mercy on him.”).
The subversion of cultural convention is further highlighted by the contrast that is drawn between the responses of the Jewish leaders and the Samaritan. While all three travellers saw the robbers’ victim, only the Samaritan was moved by compassion. Banks tells us the parable itemises seven compassionate acts by the Samaritan: he went to help the wounded man, putting himself at risk from ambush; he bound his wounds, possibly using ripped pieces of his own clothes as bandages; he poured on olive oil (to soothe) and wine (to cleanse); he put him on his own animal; he brought him to an inn; took care of him overnight and finally paid the innkeeper what would have been two days’ wages to cover further care while he was away, including the promise of further payment on return for any additional expenses (which would have left him open to extortion).
The actions of the Samaritan can teach us many things. It firstly reaffirms what we learnt from the actions (or lack thereof) of the priest and Levite; that is, we must help those in need and show mercy, regardless of what the consequences may be for ourselves.
The monetary generosity of the Samaritan also teaches us to give selflessly. He gains no promise from the wounded traveller that he will be repaid, nor does he even hint that he might want to be reimbursed for his troubles.
The third lesson to be learnt from the Samaritan’s actions is the importance of practical help. Simply feeling compassion, as no doubt the priest and Levite did, is not enough – we must act on this compassion (a lesson Jesus felt the Jewish leaders desperately needed to heed).
Not only can we learn from the actions of those in the parable, but the way in which Jesus told the parable teaches us something important. Jesus didn’t answer the question of who was the expert in the law’s neighbour but flipped the question to ask who acted as a neighbour. The expert in the law would have wanted to know if the injured man was really his neighbour and really required help; Jesus makes that a non-issue. Jesus’ presupposition is that everyone is already a neighbour, the question is whether we love like God’s people or not. Rather than worrying about who is your neighbour, Jesus calls us to be a neighbour to all. If even the Samaritan can act like a neighbour to someone he didn’t know, then why wouldn’t someone who wants to be part of God’s people?
Eight chapters later, Jesus tells The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. This tells the story of a Pharisee and a tax collector praying in the Temple. As in the Good Samaritan, the parable flips the audience’s expectation: the Pharisee’s prayer is one of self-righteousness and contempt; the tax collector’s prayer, however, is one of humility, and it is he who, at the close of the parable, returns home justified.
In order to truly understand the teaching of the parable it is necessary to study the two prayers separately, and then contrast them.
The first detail to note is that the Pharisee, who represents the entirety of the Jewish leadership, stands to pray by/with himself; this could mean one of two things. It could be telling us that the Pharisee was quite literally by himself, separated from others in the temple. However, it may also indicate the focus of his prayer, rather than his isolation. While his prayer begins in a form as a ‘thanksgiving’ to God, it continues in a self-centred way with no reference to God. He glories in what he is (“I am not like other men”), what he does (“I fast twice a week”), and what he gives (“I give tithes of all that I possess”). Self is a prominent feature of his prayer (he uses the personal pronoun “I” five times) showing his great obsession with himself.
From this, we can learn about pride; as Barclay says, ‘no man who is proud can pray.’ In this sense of pride, self-delusion and self-righteousness you can learn little from Christ – why would you listen when you believe there is nothing to hear?
The second observation to be made is the way in which the Pharisee compares himself to others. He does not pray for the sinners he mentions, he has no interest other than to point out their flaws; not satisfied with commending himself, he disdains the tax collector as well.
From this, three lessons can be learnt. Firstly, no man who despises his fellow men can pray. In order to gain a place in God’s Kingdom we must receive his mercy; and this requires the recognition that we are in a position where it is necessary to ask for this mercy – we must be self-recognised sinners.
Second, we learn that true prayer comes from setting our lives beside the life of god. The Pharisee compares his own flaws, not with God’s infinite perfections, but with the imagined greater flaws of others.
Finally, we learn that we do not gain salvation through our actions. The Pharisee may not have been an extortioner, unjust, or an adulterer; he may not have overtly sinned as the tax collector did; and he may have fasted and tithed with greater dedication than most-but none of his good works could justify him.
The tax collector’s prayer confirms what we have just heard, as his prayer can be seen as the opposite of that of the Pharisee. He expresses the greatest humility; while looking up to Heaven often accompanied prayer, he is too ashamed to do this, with his shame and remorse being even more evident in the beating of his breast.
From this prayer, we can simply learn that we need to be like the humble tax collector. We need to constantly and actively remember that we are God’s people solely because of his mercy. We need to humble ourselves before God as sinners and know that, only then, will we receive salvation.
At the start of this essay I mentioned that parables play a large part of Luke’s Gospel, and I believe one of the reasons for this is clearly apparent in these two parables. We learn many things from The Good Samaritan and The Pharisee and The Tax Collector, but one of the prominent lessons in both is what we must do to receive God’s mercy. Luke wrote to inform the reader about universal salvation – what use is this salvation if we do not know how to obtain it.
Explore the view that the meaning of parables in Luke’s Gospel is not always clear. Justify your answer. 
Fifteen parables are unique to the Gospel of Luke, but is the meaning of these parables always clear?
Firstly, it must be mentioned that the meaning of the parables cannot be fully explained unless we first discuss what a parable is – it has been said that history of interpretation is virtually a prerequisite for studying Jesus’ parables. Over time, many scholars have developed different theories of what defines a parable.
One of these scholars was A. Jï¿½licher, who denied that Jesus used allegory (a series of related metaphors) or allegorical traits. He instead viewed Jesus’ parables as simple and straightforward comparisons that d not require interpretation – the parables are extended similes, not extended metaphors.
C. H. Dodd and J. Jeremias were influenced by the work of Jï¿½licher; they attempted to remove allegorical elements from the parables. Dodd understood Jesus’ message as realized eschatology (the idea that the Kingdom had already arrived) while Jeremias sought to provide historical and cultural evidence for understanding the parables and to ‘ascertain a given parable’s original form by stripping away allegorical features or other additions supplied by the early church’.
Also, scholars have placed emphasis on different aspects of the parables: E. Fuchs and E. Jï¿½ngel focused on ‘the power of Jesus’ parables to bring to expression the reality to which they point’, while G. V. Jones, A. N. Wilder and D. Via all focused on the artistic and existential character of the parables and K. Bailey focused on the rhetorical structure of the parables.
Many scholars are now taking a simplistic approach to the parables, and four forms of parables are often distinguished: allegory (metaphor), simile, illustration (from which only one conclusion can be drawn) and narrative – despite this fourfold method being popular, some scholars find it unworkable.
Despite the ambiguity of the definition ‘parable’, I believe the actual meaning of the parables in Luke is fairly clear as a theme can generally be recognised within them.
One of these themes is God’s mercy; shown in, for example, The Parable of The Lost Son. In this parable not only is the father willing to forgive the son for both bringing shame upon the family and insulting the father himself in asking for his early inheritance, but we are told that he sees the son returning home when he is still a long way off, indicating that he had been waiting for his return – this shows the full extent of God’s mercy.
The theme of mercy can also be clearly seen in the story of The Good Samaritan. Here, we are told that we must be a neighbour to everyone; we must show mercy and compassion on everyone – mirroring the actions of Christ.
Another theme is wealth, or the right use of wealth; this is displayed in the parable of The Rich Fool. The rich fool thought only of his own enjoyment in the use of his wealth. He failed to consider the source of his wealth or the fact that life consists of much more than material possessions. Vs. 20 suggests that life is on loan from God and that we are accountable to him for it.
The third and final theme which will be discussed is that of prayer. One of the parables relating to prayer is that of the Unjust Judge. The judge acts on behalf of the widow so that she will not keep pestering him. However, the parable indicates that God is not like the unjust judge; rather, he will adjudicate the cause of his people quickly – Luke gives his readers confidence that God hears and responds to prayer.
Another parable that teaches us something about prayer is that of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector – it emphasises the humility and repentance with which one should approach God.
In conclusion, the term ‘parable’ is ambiguous in itself; however, once we get past this initial issue, the meaning of the parables in Luke is fairly clear, as he uses them to express the themes which are prominent throughout the rest of his gospel.
* The Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke – William Barclay
* The Gospel of Luke – Raymond Banks
* Forerunner Bible Study – Martin G. Collins
* Dictionary of Jesus and The Gospels