Notes on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Part 3 Interpreting Parables

Notes on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Part 3

Interpreting Parables

By Dr. G. Steve Kinnard


The Bible contains various genre or types of literature. Take a moment and think of the many genres of literature that the Bible has. How many genres can you name?

Here’s a partial list: The Bible contains narrative, poetry, wisdom sayings, legislative/legal statements, apocalyptic literature, prophecy, gospels, letters, and parables, to name a few.

To properly interpret the Bible, we must understand that each literary genre has it’s own rule of interpretation. If you don’t use the proper rules of interpretation for each type of genre, then you will misinterpret the Bible.

For example, narratives are stories. They are written to inform and inspire. They aren’t legal codes. They aren’t filled with imperatives or exhortations. Narratives aren’t meant to be legal codes. It would improper to take a particular detail in a narrative and twist that detail into a command or an exhortation.

The old preacher’s illustration of this is the person who decided that he was going to open his Bible and point at three scriptures. Whatever the scriptures said, the reader would literally obey.

The first scripture: “Judas went out and hanged himself.” That was a discouraging first attempt.

The second scripture: “Go and do likewise.” That’s right here in the parable of the good Samaritan. It didn’t help the anxious Bible student. Certainly the third scripture would solve his dilemma.

It didn’t. The third scripture read, “Whatever you do, do quickly!”

That’s not a great way to interpret the Bible. We have to consider context, and we have to consider genre.

What must we consider in interpreting parables?

  1. Live in the house of the parable.

Parables are stories. When we read a story, we need to get involved in the story. Parables are like a house that invites us to come inside and live there for while. The more we live in the house, the more the story comes to life.

I’ve been living in the house of the good Samaritan for over a week now. I put a face on the injured man. I saw his cuts and bruises. I witnessed the robbery and the beating. I put faces on the priest and the Levites. I watched their eyes as they noticed the injured man, then passed by on the other side of the road.

I put a face on the good Samaritan. I noticed that he was dressed differently from the priest and the Levite. I also saw the way he looked at the injured man, his look of love and compassion. I watched as picked up the injured man and placed the man on his donkey. He didn’t care that the man’s blood stained his own garment. I asked myself: Would I be willing to stain my clothes with the blood of a complete stranger? I watched as his opened his satchel and pulled out two denarii for the innkeeper to cover the cost of nursing the man back to health. Two denarii would have covered the expenses for two weeks. Two denarii is the equivalent of two days pay. I asked myself: Would I be willing to give up two days of pay to cover the expenses of a complete stranger?

(2) Don’t allegorize the parables.

In an allegory, we can find meaning in every detail of the story. But parables are not strict allegories. So we have to be careful not to allegorize every detail in a parable.

For example, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, you might say that the Samaritan’s donkey represents the church because the Samaritan put the injured traveller on the donkey to transport him to the inn. You could then say that because the traveller received aid in the inn, that the inn is heaven.

However, you could just as easily say that since the donkey carried the injured traveler to the inn, that the donkey is baptism and the inn is the church. The problem with an allegory is that you can make it say almost anything you want it to say. You shouldn’t treat a parable in this way.

It’s better to see the donkey and the inn as simple elements in the telling of the bigger story. Jesus didn’t attach any special meaning to these elements, therefore we shouldn’t either.

(3) Look for the “Aha” or “Gotcha” moment.

A parable usually contains an “aha” or “gotcha” moment. That’s the moment when fortunes are changed and tables are turned. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the gotcha moment is when the Good Samaritan sees the injured man and has “compassion.” The priest and Levite see the man, and they cross to the other side of the street. When the audience hears Jesus introduce the Samaritan in the story, they must think, “Here’s a third person who will walk right by the injured man.” However, their thinking was wrong. The Samaritan did stop. He didn’t just stop, he put the injured man on the back of his donkey and took him to an inn for care. He also paid for the injured man’s stay at the end. That’s the “gotcha” moment.

(4) Find the lesson/lessons the parable is teaching.

We shouldn’t leave the house of the parable until we learn a lesson (or lessons) that will carry us through the day or through the week. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, one lesson is compassion. When we see a person in need, we should have a compassionate heart toward the person.

Another lesson is clearly stated by Jesus at the end of the story, “Go and do likewise.” Go and be a Good Samaritan to others.

Find the lesson the parable is teaching and then, “God and do likewise.”