This week’s chapter is rich with stories that we “church people” know well. The Beatitudes. Casting out of demons, Many, many, healings. And the parables: the sower and the seeds; the prodigal son; the good Samaritan. One of the common threads that I see throughout all of this week is a turning of the tables. Those in strength are brought low, while the weak and powerless are elevated. Jesus himself stated this explicitly when he said
But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (Matthew 19:30 NRSV)
As I said, “church people” know and love these stories. But I think we need to look more closely. I want to focus on the story of the good Samaritan.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend. ’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-38 NRSV)
On it’s surface, of course, this is a story of those who should do what is right vs the one who does what is right. But it goes deeper than that. Clearly, Jesus was lampooning the powerful of his day — the priest, who was the intermediary between the people and God, and a Levite. The Levites were responsible for the care of the temple. Both positions of power.I’m sure that Jesus’ audience would have enjoyed taking them down a notch or two. Of course, the next part wouldn’t have gone over quite as well. While anyone who’s been reading along in the story will know that the Samaritans were, at best, second class citizens, even among the Jews. And that, I think, is the key to digging under the surface of the story.
Jesus doesn’t give any motivations to the characters in his story. He didn’t say WHY the priest and Levite ignored the plight of the traveler. Nor did he explain why the Samaritan expressed such compassion. But we can make some educated guesses. Both the priest and the Levite would have had responsibilities in the temple. And service in the temple required that participants be ritually clean – something which could not be true if they encountered a dead body. Thus, in order to protect their ability to perform their duties to God, they couldn’t risk that. If we go with that as their motivation, then, in their minds, they are justified in their actions. They are making sure that they remain pure, so they can do the job that God has ordained them to.
Then we come to the Samaritan. Why didn’t Jesus have a shepherd or some other common person do it?
I think we can extend that purity idea here. While a common person wouldn’t have the “need” to remain ritually clean for their daily lives, there was undoubtedly have been a desire to remain clean, to be able to participate in the ritual life of the community. But a Samaritan? They’re already as “unclean” as anyone could get, as far as the Jews were concerned. Almost as outcast as lepers. Without the fear of contamination, the Samaritan is able to meet the needs of the traveler where he is.
Can we learn anything from this perspective? I think so.
Those in power of Jesus time had grown to feel entitled to the privileges their position brought them. They gave lip service to God, but lost sight of the reasons for the rules. They held onto their holiness, at the expense of a real relationship with God. A fault that I think we share today. We enjoy our position of power far too well. I think Jesus is telling us that we need to be willing to give all of that up. Not that we just be willing to be uncomfortable to assist others — we need to join others where they are. Being “holier than thou” is not what it means to follow God.
Of course, this is all just hypothetical supposition. Does any of this resonate with anyone else?