‘Revealing truths from the parable of the Good Samaritan’

Credit: Marianne Holman Prescott
Credit: IRI


By taking a deeper look at the parable of the Good Samaritan, individuals are able to see the world in new ways, finding insights into rightful thinking about duties and eternal realizations, taught John W. Welch during this year’s Truman G. Madsen lecture on Eternal Man held at Brigham Young University on Nov. 20.

“The story of the Good Samaritan is familiar the world over,” said Brother Welch, who teaches at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. “Biblical scholars, even the most critical, agree that if Jesus said anything, He told this story.”

Adding that the parable goes beyond biblical scholars, Brother Welch said that even secular legislatures in many states and countries have adopted good Samaritan laws, to encourage and protect anyone who stops to help another in dire need.

The lecture, named after deceased religious scholar and former BYU professor Truman G. Madsen, was held in the Hinckley Center on BYU’s campus and was sponsored by the Wheatley Institution. The event brought faculty, students and community members to hear Brother Welch’s discourse, which he titled: “Plumbing the Hearts of Social Institutions: Revealing Truths from the Parable of the Good Samaritan.”

Sharing his personal interest in the parable — one that really began in the 1970s — Brother Welch spoke of two specific experiences he had that triggered his deeper study of the parable — first a study of books about the Jewish backgrounds of Jesus’ parables and later, while overhearing a guided tour in Chartres Cathedral. It was while looking at a stain glass depiction of the Good Samaritan that new insight came to Brother Welch, sparking an interest that has continued for more than two decades.

“Soon I realized that there was much more to the parable than a simple story with a headline, ‘Man helped on way to Jericho,’ ” he said.

The parable of the Good Samaritan epitomizes the plan of salvation and offers the master plan for actuating beneficial human relations, he taught.

“I believe that this parable is generic and compelling enough that it can serve as a common paradigm of ethics, values and social instructions in every culture,” he said. “And thus, everyone interested in establishing justice and promoting the general welfare can draw social capital from this timely and timeless tale.”

Brother Welch walked listeners through the prominent parable, identifying all of the key players while describing two layers of meaning.

“This double level of meaning is not surprising, especially in the case of the parable of the Good Samaritan, because in this case, Jesus is actually answering two questions: What shall I do to inherit eternal life? And who is my neighbor?” Brother Welch said.

The parable, read at its first level tells of a story of flesh and blood, meanness and misfortune, hopelessness and indifference but also of compassion and healing and selfless service, he said.

Greek translations give new meaning to words used in the parable. When the Samaritan had compassion on him, the word in Greek is the same word that is used for divine compassion, Brother Welch said. The second level of meaning finds a passage that is profoundly allegorical.

“Read in a symbolic way the man who descended from Jerusalem represents all of mankind coming down from a holy beginning,” he said. “The thieves, or robbers, represent Satan and his minions. When they strip the traveler they do not take his goods, which the parable actually never even mentions, but they literally strip or undress or disrobe him, wanting something that he has brought from above.”

The wounds on the traveler represent sins or disobedience and, after the robbers leave the man half dead, he suffered one death, but not yet the second. The priest and the Levite, who happen upon the man by chance, do not stop to help. Although they saw, for whatever reason that is not known, they turned away and passed by on the other side.

“Christians as early as the second century saw the figure of the Good Samaritan as a reference by Jesus to Himself,” Brother Welch said. He added, “Both Jesus and the Samaritan bring the man to safety, both disappear from the scene asking no payment, only our thanks, appreciation and invitation. …

“Since it appears that every detail in the parable was consciously and brilliantly chosen by Jesus, out of each of its details we can construct an agenda for developing ideas to strengthen ethics, community, family and society.”

For example, the road to Jericho was dangerous, and the man travelled alone. But the solution is not for people to blame the wounded man for his own misfortune, but to realize that “all life’s travelers need mentors, companions, trainers, friends, bishops and teachers to help them understand the risks and even walk together with them through perilous stretches of the path.”

The parable speaks of injuries — both bodily and property — but does not mention the loss of dignity and confidence.

“Can we imagine the humiliation and pain of the man, how much he must have felt not only to be ignored by the priest and the Levite, but also to have been helped by the Samaritan but then to be taken to a public place where everyone knew of his misfortune?” asked Brother Welch.

The richness of the text tells readers things that remind them that the world is not always the way they think it is, he said. “So often we must also allow for the possibility that we do not understand all that we should understand.”

By looking at all of the people involved in the parable and applying different circumstances, individuals are able to identify themselves in the parable — as the wounded man, the rescuer, the priest or the Levite, the innkeeper or even the thief or robber.

Although the background information is not known on all of the players in the parable, one thing is sure — the Good Samaritan helped the beaten traveler no matter his personal background or situation.

“Through the system of lifelines that connect all of us with all other people flows this clear and revealing truth: that other people are always with us,” he said.

Because of those connections, it is through helping other people that individuals will ultimately help themselves. It is through lifting, healing and helping others that they are able to follow the example of the Good Samaritan — the Savior.

Drawing from the words of Truman G. Madsen, Brother Welch said, “ ‘One truth emerges. If He could not go it alone, neither can we — not without His strengthening us. To endure and overcome the world, our all is required. But our all is not enough. It must be combined with His. Only He can lift us to the full reaches of our potential.’

“Jesus Christ is at the heart of all of this — He is the Good Samaritan,” Brother Welch said. “He is the healer, the protector and Savior.” @marianne_holman

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