The parable of the Good Samaritan challenges its hearers to reimagine themselves, the world, other human beings, and God in radically different ways—and to put that new perspective into concrete action in their daily lives. It thus teaches a moral lesson. Yet, for centuries, the dominant interpretation of the parable was as an allegory of salvation history, such as the one famously elaborated by Origen. On this account, Jesus (the true Good Samaritan) restores fallen humanity (the wounded man, who symbolizes Adam). After the man is attacked by hostile forces in the world (the thieves, who represent Satan), the Samaritan brings the man to a right relationship with God in the church (the inn) of a sort that the old dispensation (the priest and Levite) cannot provide (Homilies on Luke, 32; cf. Augustine, Questions on the Gospels, 219).
Allegorical interpretations also dominated visual representations of the parable for centuries, as we see in the illuminations from the sixth-century Rossano Gospels where Jesus is explicitly portrayed as the Good Samaritan. A fourteenth-century mural in St Catherine’s Monastery on Sinai takes the allegory even further, because Jesus himself carries the wounded man, instead of placing him on an animal: Jesus is the symbolic ‘beast of burden’ who bears upon himself the salvation of humankind. Compare the twelfth-century stained-glass window in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres, whose twenty-four images physically and theologically extend the parable as an allegory of salvation by including the fall of Adam and Eve. In these interpretations, the parable by Jesus has evolved into a parable about Jesus (Gowler 2015: 643–45).
Allegorical interpretations of the parable began to decline in importance during the Reformation. Visual representations also reflect that change in emphasis with the majority of images depicting the Samaritan assisting the wounded man, usually with the priest and the Levite walking away in the background. Jacopo Bassano’s painting, like the parable itself, emphasizes the desperate need of the wounded man and the compassionate actions of the Samaritan, with the priest and Levite serving as foils against which to contrast the Samaritan’s mercy. In this way, Bassano urges viewers to be similarly ‘moved with compassion’ (Luke 10:33).
Bassano’s painting might also serve as a reminder that performing such acts of mercy for the ‘least of these’ is considered the same as performing them for Jesus (Matthew 25:40), thus reintroducing allusions to Jesus in the parable. In this case, however, Jesus is not portrayed allegorically as the Samaritan; instead, aspects of the wounded man’s depiction may reflect Jesus’s descent from the cross. He is the one left for dead at the roadside. This change in perspective highlights the human actions necessary to inherit eternal life, while still acknowledging Jesus’s role as the instrument of salvation.
Rembrandt van Rijn’s etching portraying the Samaritan and the wounded man arriving at the inn extends the emphasis from the man’s need and the Samaritan’s mercy to the Samaritan’s additional, generous efforts to restore the man to health (Luke 10:35). The parable’s connection to compassion and healing also resulted in images of the Good Samaritan being commissioned specifically for hospitals, such as William Hogarth’s treatment of the scene for St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.
Even elements of Rembrandt’s distinctive down-to-earth composition have been received allegorically by some interpreters, with the open door of the inn seen as symbolizing the path to eternal salvation—a passageway to eternal life (cf. 10:25) that opens for those like the Samaritan who perform such acts of mercy (Gowler 2020: 157).
Why might such naturalistic visual representations of the parable still evoke in some viewers allegorical, symbolic, or, in the words of Augustine, ‘spiritual’ interpretations? Perhaps it’s because both parables and visual images often function in a way analogous to ‘enthymemes’. Unlike syllogisms, in which explicitly stated premises lead to a necessary conclusion (e.g., All humans are mortal; Socrates is human; therefore, Socrates is mortal), enthymemes instead omit a premise (e.g., Socrates is human; therefore, Socrates is mortal), and the deliberately unstated premise has to be supplied by readers/hearers/viewers. Parables and visual images also can be ‘enthymematic’ and, since the unstated ‘premise’ is not always evident, can thus be ambiguous and polyvalent, provoking divergent responses as interpreters endeavour to understand them (Gowler 2012: 199–201, 209–13; Gowler 2020: 255–57).
The varying responses to Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan demonstrate how powerfully it continues to challenge people’s hearts, minds, and imaginations. The lawyer asks, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus asks, ‘Who proved to be a neighbour?’ The Rossano Gospels, Bassano, and Rembrandt respond in their own ways, and, in doing so, also challenge us to respond.
Gowler, David B. 2012. ‘The Enthymematic Nature of Parables: A Dialogic Reading of the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16–20)’, Review and Expositor, 109.2: 199–217
________. 2015. ‘The Good Samaritan in Visual Art,’ in The Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception, vol. 10, ed. by Dale Allison, Jr., Christine Helmer, Choon-Leong Seow, et al. (Berlin: De Gruyter)
________. 2020 .The Parables after Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions across Two Millennia (Waco: Baylor Academic Press)
25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.”29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “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. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, 34and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35And 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.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”