We are all admonished to seek wisdom and inspiration from the scriptures, recognizing that official interpretation of doctrine for the Church always remains in the hands of those whom we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators of the Church. One day, seeking wisdom, I began reading the familiar parable of the good Samaritan. Suddenly I had the experience we all have had from time to time: a new perspective seemed to jump off the page.
Jesus’ parables often serve as especially rich sources of enlightenment. However, they can also be difficult and a little frustrating as we try to discern what the Savior would have us learn from them. The LDS Bible Dictionary states: “It is important to distinguish between the interpretation of a parable and the application of a parable. The only true interpretation is the meaning the parable conveyed, or was meant to convey, when first spoken. The application of a parable may vary in every age and circumstance.” (See “Parables.”)
A further complication to understanding parables is that Jesus taught in parables principally “to veil the meaning.” (See Matt. 13:13–15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10.) “The parable conveys to the hearer religious truth exactly in proportion to his faith and intelligence. … The parable exhibits the condition of all true knowledge. Only he who seeks finds.” (Ibid.)
In my search for knowledge, I often turn to the parables taught by Jesus. The parable of the good Samaritan has long served as an especially inspiring message to me of good Christian behavior, of acting toward others as Jesus would act. The notion of treating each person I met as I should a longtime neighbor appealed to me and helped me to raise my view of others. But this time I saw something else, a lesson both significant and powerful: The parable served for me as a testimony that Jesus is the Christ and our Redeemer, the only source to which we may look to be healed from sin and spiritual ills, the only one who can truly show mercy to us.
The most common lesson taken from this parable has to do with doing good to all regardless of predisposed attitudes and prejudices. With it, the Savior instructs a conniving lawyer with a simple tale of unusual kindness and, with a few well-chosen questions, gets the lawyer to answer his own questions.
I found it useful to learn something of the Samaritans, Jews, rabbis, and priests of that day in order to get a clearer picture of what is going on in the parable. Ancient Israel had been commanded by Moses to “love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” (Deut. 6:5.) They were also to love their neighbors as themselves. (See Lev. 19:18.) The difficulty arose in determining whom they should consider as neighbors:
“The rabbis said, ‘He excepts all Gentiles when he saith His neighbor.’ ‘An Israelite killing a stranger-inhabitant doth not die for it by the Sanhedrin, because it is said, If any one lifts up himself against his neighbour.’” We are not to contrive the death of the Gentiles, but if they are in any danger of death we are not bound to deliver them, e.g. if any of them fall into the sea you need not take him out, for such a one is not thy neighbour.’” (A Commentary on the Holy Bible, ed. J. R. Dummelow, New York: Macmillan Co., 1936, p. 751.)
Gentiles, including Samaritans, were not considered the equals of the Jews, according to rabbinical teachings. According to Elder Bruce R. McConkie: “The Jews esteemed themselves as a chosen race, superior to the religiously degenerate Samaritans whom they hated, whom they classified as foreigners, and whom they expressly refused to accept as neighbors.” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966–73, 1:471.)
Elder McConkie also points out that the priest would have been “a literal descendant of Aaron who held the office of priest in the Aaronic Priesthood and served as a minister among the people,” and the Levite “one of the tribe of Levi who was ordained to office in the Aaronic Priesthood and was called to be a minister and light to the people.” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 1:472.)
Thus, we have a powerful story of two who had been called in priesthood offices to serve but who passed by one in need, while another who had every social excuse (in the eyes of the Jewish nation) to pass by did not but rather stopped and took care of the injured one.
As I read the parable this time, I asked myself, “Why didn’t the Lord tell the parable in such a way that a Jew assisted the Samaritan?” In some ways, I could imagine the switched positions serving as a strong role model for the lawyer whom Jesus was teaching. The elements would have still been there: two races who disliked one another, one rendering life-saving assistance to the other. But with the Jew and Samaritan in switched roles, the priest and the Levite would have been socially excused in passing by and the code of the day would have been upheld in their actions. Jesus could then have compared their behavior with the kinder action of the Jew who stopped to help a lowly Samaritan.
Yet that is not how the Savior taught this parable. Perhaps he wanted to teach something more, as it appears he did so often in his parables.
The parable of the good Samaritan begins this way:
“A certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
“He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?
“And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
“And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.
“But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:25–29.)
Jesus then proceeded to tell him the parable.
Perhaps the Jews felt that because of the fact that they worshipped only one God, unlike the polytheistic pagans around them, they fulfilled the divine command to love their God. The problem, however, was that they did not know who that one God really was. Although the Jews of that day worshipped God, he had become a god of their own making. In many ways, they had forgotten the living God and had replaced him with a set of regulations.
Perhaps Christ spoke the parable of the good Samaritan not just to teach the lawyer who his neighbor was but also to teach him who the true Lord and Creator was. The lawyer indeed answered correctly when he said that his duty was to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.” But he erred by assuming that he had already complied with the first part of the law by loving the Lord. He in fact did not even know who the Lord was. It is in this context, then, that the Lord told him the parable of the good Samaritan.
Let us look again at the elements of the parable. A man had fallen on hard times. He had “come down” from the spiritual center of Jerusalem. He had been wounded and left half-dead. Since the people of this time often equated one’s physical condition with one’s spiritual condition (a leper was not only physically ill but was also considered spiritually unclean, for instance), this man could have been seen as one who was spiritually wounded and dying as well. As that thought occurred to me, I began to see the parable in a different, more symbolic way. The parable continues:
Along came a priest, a man of religion. It seems that he either would not or could not save the dying man. Likewise, a Levite came by, with the same results. Neither man representing religious power and service assisted or tried to heal the wounded man. Perhaps they thought they could do nothing for the fallen one, so they pressed on their way. In any case, a possible message is this: The religious leaders of the day simply did not have the power to heal this man who had fallen on spiritually hard times.
Then came a man from Samaria. He was “despised and rejected” of the Jews. He was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and [they] hid as it were [their] faces from him; he was despised, and [they] esteemed him not.” The Jews considered the Samaritans “stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.” (These quoted words were not originally intended to describe Samaritans but rather the promised Messiah. Yet the application fits remarkably well. See Isa. 53:3–4.) This Samaritan saw the wounded and fallen man and “bound up his wounds,” anointed him with oil and wine, paid a ransom for his healing, and indicated that whatever the caretaker spent in his task would be justly rewarded. Could the parable be seen as a picture of the Savior and his mission?
The parable of the good Samaritan teaches us many things. It gives us a model of behavior to follow in being good to all mankind, regardless of their physical—or spiritual—condition. It teaches us that not all who profess goodness have the power to save. It tells us that those who assist in this work, as did the host at the inn, will be rewarded for what they do to help the less fortunate. But perhaps it also offers a powerful testimony of him who alone can show eternal mercy, who paid a dear ransom for us, and who offers life eternal.
As Latter-day Saints, we have an obligation to do as Jesus instructed the lawyer: “Go, and do thou likewise.” We cannot save eternal souls in the same way the Savior did, but certainly we can testify of him, we can love our families and neighbors, and we can help to open the eyes of the spiritually blind and the ears of the spiritually deaf. To the extent that we live as good Samaritans, we can draw nearer to that Good Samaritan who offers all people healing from their spiritual wounds.