Teaching Parables: Three Levels of the Good Samaritan

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is a well-known, well-used, but often misunderstood piece of Scripture. Frequently, preachers and teachers, believers and unbelievers alike employ this parable to reinforce the importance of showing kindness to others, especially those we don’t know or those we might be naturally disinclined to assist.

This is one level of the parable, but there are more—two more that I will present and for which I will offer teaching strategies.

The Parable

In Luke 10, Jesus begins:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. (vv. 30–32)

Jesus’ audience is well aware of the parable’s location. Those traveling between the two important cities probably used that road with frequency and may have themselves fallen victim to thieves and abusers. If one were to encounter a victimized traveler, such a person might stop to help, or they might not, but certainly a trusted priest or Levite would! These men are close to God; they teach and offer sacrifices on behalf of the people. How could these two people pass by?

Our Lord continues:

But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back. Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers? He [the lawyer] said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (vv. 33–37)

Remember that Samaritans and Jews did not mix. Far back in Israelite history, the Assyrian Empire invaded the north. This invasion resulted in theft, murder, destruction—and children. Many of the invading Assyrian soldiers produced offspring with Hebrew women. Other Hebrews considered these children biological, cultural, and spiritual half-breeds. No Hebrew would ever expect a Samaritan to act so kindly toward a traveler left for dead on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho.

First Level: Showing Mercy to Others

One lesson the world can derive from this parable is the importance of acting kindly toward those who suffer, and this idea non-Christians or even atheists could understand and appreciate. What’s more, we understand that in many cases, the people we would first expect to act benevolently do not and vice versa. In other words, we demonstrate mercy to all, regardless of their background.

Second Level: Historical Context

The second level relates closely to Jesus’ hearers. Jesus is teaching Hebrews, many of whom regard Samaritans as described above, or at the very least as beings to be ignored. Jesus wants His audience (and us today) to understand that the salvation He brings is for all. All people stand in equal need of God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ. The Samaritans are no exception. God does not play favorites.

Those in Jesus’ audience who were priests, Levites, or people who held other positions of spiritual leadership or authority heard this message and more. Like their counterparts in the parable, the priests and Levites in the audience were to understand that they held no moral or spiritual high ground. They were sinners like everyone else. These priests and Levites were to understand their position or heritage would not exempt them from the need for salvation. They needed to embrace the Savior before their eyes and bring His Good News to those in their charge, including Samaritans.

Third Level: The Gospel for Us

Finally, both the first and second levels in this parable bring us to our sin. We fail to love others as ourselves, to consider others as equals, and to carry the Good News of Jesus to all in the world without prejudice. The final level to this parable is God’s love and salvation in Jesus Christ. We, like the traveler, lay dead on the road with no means of saving ourselves. While those who claim to love us walk by, the One we rejected, the One who has nothing to gain from our salvation, places Himself in danger and pays a high price to restore us to life. So, at its core, this parable presents the Gospel message. God lays down His life in Christ to save His enemies. Through His work, we are rescued and restored.

Life Application

To help students understand the parable in the context of their own lives, ask them to list five of the most dangerous places in their community: alleys, parks after hours, the school locker room, and so on. Then have them list the top five people they would expect to help them were they to fall victim to bullying or theft: parents, siblings, teachers, pastors. Then have them produce a list of people they would never expect to help them. Depending on the age of your students, this list could range from bullies to members of a political party to foreign nations that threaten the country they live in.

Teach the parable a second time using the information students give you.

Then teach it a third time using yourself and them as the man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and Jesus Christ as the Samaritan. Emphasize our helplessness in sin, our inimical relationship to Jesus, and the price He paid to set us free. Stress how His love is different from any they have in the world.

Jesus is our Good Samaritan!

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Phil Rigdon

The Rev. Dr. Philip Rigdon and his wife, Jamelyn, live in Kendallville, Indiana, with their two rabbits, Frankie and Buttons. He serves as pastor of St. John Lutheran Church and School in Kendallville. He enjoys writing, running, and playing guitar.

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