Yesterday we concluded our study of Philippians with guest writer, Marc Rader. Next week we begin a short series in the book of Ruth. For the remaining three days of this week, we look at the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan.
A common question asked by young Christian couples who are dating is ‘how far is too far?’ when it comes to physical contact. And of course, the standard holier-than-thou reply is, ‘well if you have to ask, then you’re going too far.’ It may not be the most immediately practical of answers, but it does make the couple think about their motivation for asking in the first place. Are they, in effect, saying ‘what can I get away with? What’s the minimum standard of holiness God requires?’
The setting of Jesus’ parable
The same kind of question is the setting for this rather famous parable about the good Samaritan. Jesus gets asked one of these ‘how far is too far?’ type of questions. And he’s asked by an expert in the Jewish law, no less: a Pharisee, maybe, or even a priest. Someone whose job it was to understand the Scriptures and interpret them for others.
The first question he asks Jesus is simple enough: ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ It’s not as though he doesn’t know, of course – he’s just checking Jesus out. He’s trying to see if his teaching on the obligations of the law was orthodox or heretical: How does Jesus tell his followers they must live in order to experience the favour of God?
So Jesus wisely turns the question back at him: what do the Scriptures say, Mr. Expert-in-the-law? How do you understand them? The lawyer responds with the two great commandments of the OT:10:27 ‘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 ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
Well done, says Jesus, go straight to the top of the class. This is how to live if you want to please God. You and I are in agreement on this one.
Except the lawyer isn’t done yet. He then brings out the real question:10:29 But he wanted to justify himself…
– that is, he wanted to show he was already obeying it –…so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’
And there’s the question. How far is too far? Who is my neighbour? And again, if you have to ask… then you just don’t get it. Because what he’s really saying is: what can I get away with? What’s the minimum interpretation of ‘neighbour’? What are the limits of my duty in this regard? Whom can I get away with not loving?
This was a hot topic of discussion in first Israel. After all, the Old Testament was pretty clear on loving fellow Israelites, so they obviously counted as ‘neighbours’. And in Leviticus 19, this command to ‘love them as yourself’ is extended to foreigners living in Israel; to people who had joined their community and their worship of the one true God. But what about foreigners who hadn’t actually joined their community and who didn’t worship God? Like the Romans, for example, who might have been living in their land – not by invitation, but by force. What about them? Are they our neighbours? Surely not!
And how about those fellow Israelites who were traitors to their own people – tax-collectors who collaborated with the Romans; or people who were traitors to God – prostitutes and other low-life scum. Are they our neighbours, too? Surely I don’t have to love them??
And so Jesus tells a story in response to his question.10:30 ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.’
This wouldn’t have been an unusual thing to happen. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious for the first century equivalent of ‘highway bandits’. The wealthy elite in Jerusalem kept their winter houses in Jericho because of the warmer climate – it’s actually about 600m below sea level! So at certain times of the year on that road there would be a steady stream of rich travellers to rob.
And the man in Jesus’ story seems to have been the victim of some pretty vicious bandits, who not only stole his money and clothes, but beat him up & left him for dead by the side of the road. But the road wasn’t empty for long.
The people who didn’t stop to help10:31-32 ‘A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.’
Why would a priest not stop to help? Aren’t they supposed to be the good guys, the ones whose job it is to represent God? What’s going on? Why would a priest just walk past without helping?
Turns out, when you look into the social dynamics at play, there are a lot of reasons – not the least of which was social class. Priests in Jesus’ day were among the powerful elite. They were wealthy. In the absence of a king, they were the ones who called the shots, particularly after they sold out to the Romans in exchange for power. And they didn’t get involved with the lower classes – if they could help it.
So when a priest came across a naked guy in a ditch beside the road, for reasons of social status alone, he was likely to pass by. In fact, Jesus’ working-class audience probably rolled their eyes when they heard his story – ‘typical of the upper class’.
But he wasn’t just rich and powerful – he was also a priest. They had special rules about what they could and couldn’t do, to ensure they remained pure. Except in the case of a very close relative who needed burying, they weren’t supposed to touch a dead body – and this guy in the ditch, well, he might have been dead! And if they touched him, that would mean for the next seven days they were considered unclean, and therefore unable to do their job. Even then, they’d have a whole load of purification rituals and sacrifices to offer. I mean, think of the inconvenience! Think of the wasted time!
I know what this is like, as it happened to me a few of years ago. I was just about to head off to a church meeting one night, and one of our neighbours turned up at our door and gave me a dead body they’d found lying in the gutter outside our house. OK, it was one of our pet rabbits, not a person, but it was still kind of gross. And it held me up a good fifteen minutes as I had to do something with it and then disinfect my hands. So from my experience, dead bodies do tend to hold you up from doing ministry. I’m sure in the mind of the priest, that was another reason not to stop and help.
And then, of course, there was the instinct for self-preservation. As we said before, it was a dangerous stretch of road – and clearly, there were robbers who were still probably in the area. To stop and help would put him in danger as well. Best walk by quickly so as not to become a victim yourself!
So if we were to re-tell this story in a 2014 version, what might it look like? Maybe a certain man is walking home one night through a dangerous part of the city; he’s mugged, beaten and left for dead. A pastor of a mega-church approaches in his Audi, having already made sure all his doors were locked as soon as he entered that part of the neighbourhood; he artfully changes lanes to go around the man, without missing a beat in the mobile phone conversation he’s having with one of his ministry team. A deacon of a local church also drives past on the other side. He’s already late to a committee meeting and besides, this guy was in a well-known red-light district – what would people think if he were seen pulling over at this time of the night? With a naked guy who had passed out?
Three reasons not to stop:
- status – I’m too important to stop
- purity – I’m too busy with my ministry to suffer the inconvenience
- self-preservation – I’m too scared to put myself in danger
To think about
How often are they the same reasons we don’t stop to help people. We might not consciously think in status terms – ‘I’m too important’; but is that because our social status has such a bearing on the way we arrange our lives that we don’t often come into contact with the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society? Is our daily routine designed to shield us from those who need help?
And what about being too busy to go out of our way, so that we do come in contact with those who most need help? Too busy with things that are in themselves good, like our work, our family, even our ministry?
Or again, do we so arrange our lives as to avoid danger to ourselves: the places we go, the people we associate with, the types of people we invite into our homes – avoiding the people who might not respond well to the grace you are offering, even take advantage of your kindness?
That is, do we shield ourselves from being well placed to help others for those same three reasons?