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SIDIC Periodical XX - 1987/1
Rabbinic Parables and the Teaching of Jesus (Pages 19 - 22)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Gleanings: Parables and Midrash
Different Authors


Midrash Rabbah on the Song of Songs links this title to Eccles 12:9:
Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find pleasing words, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

Commenting on this verse, Midrash Rabbah continues:
Ile (Solomon) pondered the words of the Torah and investigated the meaning of the words of the Torah. He made handles to the Torah.

Rabbi Nahman gave two illustrations:
Imagine a large palace with many doors, so that whoever entered could not find his way back to the door, till one clever person came and took a coil of string and hung it up on the way to the door, so that all went in and out by means of the coil. So till Solomon arose no one was able to understand properly the words of the Torah.

R. Nahman gave another illustration:
From a thicket of reeds which no one could penetrate, till one clever man came and took a scythe and cut some down, and then all began to enter through the cutting. So did Solomon.

R. Jose said:
Imagine a big basket of produce without any handle, so that it could not he lifted, till one clever man came and made handles to it, and then it began to be carried by the handles. So till Solomon arose no one could properly understand the words of the Torah...

R. Hanina said:
Imagine a deep well full of water, cold, sweet and wholesome water, but no one was able to drink of it, till one man came and joining rope to rope and cord to cord, drew from it and drank. So proceeding from one to another, from one parable to another, Solomon penetrated to the innermost meaning of the Torah...

Our Rabbis say:
Let not the parable be lightly esteemed in your eyes, since by means of the parable a man can master the words of the Torah. If a king loses gold from his house or a precious pearl, does he not find it by means of a wick worth a farthing? So the parable should not be lightly esteemed in your eyes, since by means of the parable a man arrives at the true meaning of the Torah.
Midrash Rabbah, Soncino Press, London 1961.


A well-known dictionary concludes its description of Samaria with these words: Samaritan (the Good): Gospel parable teaching charity towards all men. This is undoubtedly the meaning given by the man/woman in the street to the expression Good Samaritan, which has become synonymous with a charitable person.

But is this really the meaning of the parable? When we want to go more deeply into a gospel text, there are two ways open to us: the first is to consult modern works and commentaries on Scripture; the second, on the contrary, is to go to the ancient texts and commentaries on Scripture, those written by the Fathers of the Church. These latter have advantages over the former, in that they are closer in time to the gospel texts themselves and, if it is true that oral tradition played an important role in the ancient world, they could also have preserved some very early interpretations. We will therefore follow this second method, in order to discover the meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The modern reader who turns to the commentaries of the Fathers is likely to get a shock. Yet it is necessary to allow oneself to be somewhat disoriented, to enter into an argument not one's own, in order to get under the shell of the words and find the kernel within.

We have the good fortune to possess many traditional interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The most celebrated is the one which Origen, who lived in Caesarea, has included in his commentary on the gospel of Luke:

"According to the commentary of an ancient writer who wanted to interpret the parable, the man who descended represents Adam; Jerusalem, Paradise; Jericho, the world; the brigands, the enemy powers; the priest, the Law; the levite, the prophets; and finally, the Samaritan represents Christ. The wounds are disobedience; the ass, the Body of Christ; the inn, open to all who wish to enter it, the Church; the two pennies represent the Father and the Son; the innkeeper, the head of the Church, with responsibility for administration. As to the promise to return made by the Samaritan, this prefigures the second conning of Christ."

In this commentary, taken by Origen from an ancient Church writer, every detail in the parable has a meaning. One has the impression that the parable has become an allegory.

But is it really question of an allegory? It seems that the ancient writer who passed on this traditional interpretation had clearly understood that the parable was nothing other than a revelation of the mysteries of salvation, especially the revelation of God's love for each one. He stresses the theological interpretation of the parable and refuses to reduce it to a single anthropological meaning. Thus he is in accord with the fundamental intention of all the parables.

Two little details in the parable confirm the fact that the usual interpretation does not falsify the original meaning. Luke affirms that the Samaritan had compassion. He takes the same expression that he uses in 7:13 when speaking of the love of God. Moreover, when he speaks of the return of the Samaritan, he has recourse to the same verb which he uses in 19:15 to evoke the return of Christ at the end of time.

Origen affirms that he received this interpretation from an ancient Church writer. This means that the primitive Church, following the example of the Synagogue, handed on an official interpretation of the text at the same time as the text itself, an oral law and a written law, so to speak. While it is difficult to trace with accuracy the origins of the traditional interpretation, at least there are other examples of this interpretation which are known to us. here is a quotation from Irenaeus of Lyons in his tractate Against Heresies:

For the Lord confided man, his own possession, to the Holy Spirit; man, who had fallen into the hands of brigands, this man upon whom he had compassion and whose wounds he himself bandaged, giving two royal coins .so that, having received by means of -the Spirit the image and inscription of the Father and the Son, we might make this coin confided to us fructify, and thus increased, return it to the Lord.

At the end of his commentary Irenaeus brings together the parable of the Good Samaritan and that of the talents; this is an original way of emphasizing the unity of the Scriptures. Moreover, he adds a personal note to the traditional interpretation of the parable: the innkeeper is no longer the head of the Church, responsible for its administration, but rather the Holy Spirit, who is its soul. Clement of Alexandria also exploits the Christological reading of the parable:

"Who is the Good Samaritan if nor the Saviour? Who has had more compassion for us than he, we whom the powers of darkness had nearly killed by their blows, fears, desires, passions. miseries, lies and pleasures. It is he who poured wine on our wounded souls, the blood of David's vine. It is he who has provided an abundance of oil, the compassion of the Father's heart. It is he who has established the angels, principalities and powers to serve us."

Here the ecclesial and sacramental interpretation of the parable is set out in bold relief.

This rapid glance at the traditional interpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan convinces us that the Christological reading of the parables is an ancient one. We remember that Luke has already shown in his gospel how Christ interprets Scripture when, on the road to Emmaus, he explains to the disciples those passages of the Scriptures that refer to him. The primitive Church, aided by the Spirit, will interpret the parables in the light of Christ's resurrection, which has shown forth the love of the Father. She will not hesitate to call Christ the Good Samaritan because, by means of his life delivered up for us, he has healed the man who fell into the hands of the enemy.

Nevertheless, the dictionary definition of the parable of the Good Samaritan, although inadequate, is not inaccurate. The traditional interpretation does not deny the obvious meaning of the parable, but it puts the commandment of love into its proper setting. Charity only has meaning in the light of this transport of divine love which has impelled the Father to love the world to the extent of sending his Son. The Church, given life and inspiration by the Holy Spirit, is carried away by this same transport of love.

FREDERIC MANES, O.F.M. Translated from La Terre Sainte, Nov.-Dec. 1986.


In its entry under JESUS OF NAZARETH, the Jewish Encyclopedia suggests that the original version of the parable presented the contrast between Priest, Levite and Ordinary Israelite, representing the three divisions by which the Jewish people were, and still are, classified! How did it come about that the ordinary Israelite became a Samaritan? Is it evidence of an anti-Jewish polemic? Was it an adaptation for Gentiles who would not have been familiar with the traditional triple division? Does it perhaps point to an early Samaritan community which was considered a model church? Did Luke wish us, therefore, to look upon the Good Samaritan as the ideal disciple of Jesus?


Some Reflections on the Parable called traditionally The Prodigal Son

When a Christian presumes to take up the question, Who or what is a Jew, he will have to answer, He is my brother! And he will have to add the qualifying statement, He is my senior brother whom I have wronged and with whom I would be reconciled, if ever I am to enjoy peace with God. A parable [old by Jesus (see Luke 15:11-32) may serve as an illustration:

A father had two sons. The younger asked for and received his share in the patrimony and left home to waste it with prostitutes. After he had lost all and had become so repulsive to every man that he was refused even the pigs' food, he remembered home and went home to confess his guilt before God and man and to ask for the lowest job. His father had been waiting for him and received him with outgoing love end joy. A great festival was celebrated for the returned prodigal. But the older brother, upon returning from a hard day's work in the field, would not join in the celebration. He remembered the contrast between his own labors and the vices in which his brother had engaged. The father had to go out to remind him of his undisputed privilegesand to urge him to join the celebration arranged for the one who had been dead end had come alive again, was lost and found again.

One of the many possible meanings of this parable is the illustration of the relationship between Jews and repentant Gentiles. The priority and hard labor of Israel is as little disputed as the shameful life of the goi with the swine. Their history is different: The one has many things to be proud of; the other has absolutely nothing. The first is in a position to judge the other; the other has coming to him whatever humiliation and punishment may be in store. But the two are not left to themselves. God is the father of both, and thus they are and remain brothers. It is not the junior brother's right or mission to reproach his senior. The father has reserved it to himself to call his older son to take part in the joy of his house together with the junior. This puts more than a damper or caveat upon traditional methods used by Christians to convert the Jews. Those who behaved like pigs and were saved from the swine can hardly go beyond confessing their guilt and showing fruits of repentance. It is certainly not theirs to prescribe to the Jews from an assumed position of superiority and security.

The parable may also serve to show that a Jew need not become a goi, as little as the goi needs become a Jew, to enjoy the privileges of the fatherly house. The unity which they enjoy, because there is but one Father, is not streamlined or uniform.

Markus Barth: Israel and the Church: Contribution to a Dialogue Vital for Peace, John Knox, Virginia, 1969, pp. 29-31.


As we consider the relationship between Christians and Jews, we might well go back to a very ancient narrative in Genesis which, in the course of time, has been developed in various ways and is to be found in many different books of the Bible. It concerns the relationship of two sons, whether they are called Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Judah and Joseph, or yet again, the prodigal son and the elder brother.

When the younger son came into his father's house where milk and honey flowed abundantly, his elder brother, Israel, had lived there for many years, well-loved and respected. He initiated the newcomer into the use of the family property, taught him how to pasture the flocks, to prune the olive trees, to bless the Father for bread and wine, and generally how to behave as an adopted son.

Will this time of mutual love continue?

When he came of age, the younger son forgot everything he had in common with Israel; hard words passed between them. The elder brother's inheritance, his corner of land, his books, his sanctuary, even his letters from the Father were all contested and taken away from him. His land was rented out to others, his manuscripts burnt. His place was taken by the adopted son.

Am I my brother's keeper?

Israel had to go far away into exile to make a new life for himself. When armed barbarians came to take away his sons into slavery, when his descendants were massacred in the west, imprisoned in camps and murdered in gas chambers, the younger brother did not want to know, he was not really concerned; he kept silent.

Am I my brother's keeper?

Then came a rime of reflection bringing with it regrets and memories. With his own freedom threatened and with quarrels within his own household, he became conscience stricken.

Hs the time for love returned at last?

Pondering on his beginnings, the younger brother now feels his memory slowly coming back: common roots, the ancestral inheritance, ties of brotherhood, and the patient love of his Father who had adopted him and treated him as a son.

Have you not one same Father?

As contrition replaces triumphalism, will the dispossessed brother, previously despised but once more honored, accept his younger brother's conversion and extended hand? It will take time, it will mean a long journey and the re-learning of the language of covenant and of friendship, both in daily life and in the acid test of action.

But when encounter, common projects and mutual recognition do take place, then indeed,
This is the time for love!

Marie-Helene Fournier, NDS


Pope John Paul II made an allusion to this parable on the occasion of his visit to the Synagogue of Rome on April 13, 1986, a visit which he described as a reality and a symbol:
"With Judaism . . . we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that your are our elder brothers."
(emphasis added).


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