While I was on vacation, I took the time to read a book I was very interested in. It was titled: Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, and it was written by Scottish scholar Richard Bauckham. I have begun to have a very high respect for Dr. Bauckham’s work, and it just so happened that he dealt with the parable presented in our Gospel lesson for this Sunday.
Luke places Jesus’ parable immediately after a lawyer asks Jesus an important question, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
In all actuality, the lawyer knew the answer to this question. I mean, let’s be real. Lawyers don’t ask questions they don’t already know the answers to. As an expert in the law of Israel, this lawyer knew the 600+ commands of God listed in the first five books of the Bible backwards and forwards. He knew what it took to inherit eternal life. Let’s not kid ourselves. This is probably why he asked Jesus the question–he indeed wanted to see if Jesus knew what it took to inherit eternal life.
Jesus doesn’t bite. You see, Jesus knew the situation in Israel. He knew there were several different religious groups, and they all had their understandings about eternal life. They each had a particular slant on what it would take to enter God’s Kingdom. The Pharisees believed it was keeping the purity of the people. This is why they emphasized all the rituals of cleanliness listed in the Law: washing hands appropriately, wearing the right kinds of clothing, associating with the right kinds of people, etc. The Sadducees didn’t believe in any sort of afterlife, so their understanding of the Kingdom of God was a bit different, and the question would have been irrelevant to them. The Zealots believed in a very present reality of the Kingdom, a reality brought about by armed revolution. The priestly class emphasized temple worship and sacrifice. All of these groups formed a conglomeration of thought when it came to what was needed to be in God’s good graces. Each group emphasized a different part of the law. If Jesus were to answer straight out, He would make enemies and fast. So, instead of answering straight-forward, Jesus turns the question around.
“Well,” Jesus asks, “what is it that the Law says? How do you read it?”
Now, what lawyer isn’t going to take the time to show off how well he knows the law? I’ve known a few lawyers, and they always seem happy to jump in and tell you how much they know about their given area of expertise, and this guy is no exception. Before he realizes what Jesus has done to him, he blurts out, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Jesus replies that the lawyer has answered well.
The lawyer then realizes what Jesus has done. He realizes Jesus has escaped the little snare, so he wants to save face in some form or fashion. “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus tells a story–again, not a direct answer, but something which makes people think. Now, I am going to begin sharing some of Bauckham’s insights into this story most of us know by heart.
Jesus begins by garnering our sympathy. A man is traveling down to Jericho. He’s minding his own business; doing his own thing like any such traveler. However, this guy is waylaid by bandits. He is robbed, stripped, beaten, and left half-dead. No one ever wants to be in this position. The crowd gathered to hear this story has immediate sympathy.
It’s important to realize here that the man was half-dead. He’s not exactly in a state of prime health. In fact, according to Bauckham, this meant that from a distance one couldn’t tell if he were dead or alive. This is an important detail as we shall see in a moment.
Jesus continues the story by telling us that first a priest and then a Levi walk by. They notice the man lying there, but then they hurry on their way. Oftentimes, we think these two guys just couldn’t be bothered. They feared for their life, or they were so occupied with their own thoughts and importance that they just went on their merry way. Bauckham believes differently. You see, there is a Jewish law concerning dealing with those who are dead. If one even comes near a dead body, then that person is considered unclean. The priest and the Levi work in the temple, and if they come near this man–who looks half-dead–possibly is dead, then they would be unclean. They would be breaking a command of God to remain pure. They would have to go through the rituals of cleanliness and they would not be able to fulfill their duties in the temple. Therefore, rather than become unclean and break this law, they went on their way.
But the next person who came a long did not go on. The next person who came along decided to break the purity law and see if the beaten man were indeed alive. But there was a catch to this one–the next person in line was a Samaritan. The Samaritan’s were cousins of the Jews, but they were reviled. They essentially followed much of the Jewish Law, but the Jews felt they had warped it and were outside the true faith. Despite this, Jesus reveals the Samaritan to be the hero. The Samaritan is willing to break the purity code to show compassion.
There is a double whammy in this parable. The first whammy, of course, is the Samaritan being the hero. Good Jews wouldn’t like that, but it is an attention getter. The second whammy is Jesus’ clear articulation that some of God’s laws have a higher priority than others.
Think about that for just a moment. I mean, perhaps you were raised just as I was raised. Perhaps you were told and still believe that a sin is a sin is a sin–one sin is not greater than another. Many of us were brought up believing just this very thing, and so there is an implication in that understanding. If a sin is a sin is a sin and no sin is greater than another, then all of God’s laws must be equal as well, correct? It doesn’t matter which law you break, all are of equal importance since God views all sin the same. Am I off base in this understanding of how many of us think?
Unfortunately, Jesus’ teaching is different from what many of us have come to believe. Jesus believes there are some laws which are more important than others. If you don’t believe the parable of the Good Samaritan, then take a read at the other two times Jesus is asked about the most important or greatest commandments in the books of Mark and Matthew. In Mark 12 and Matthew 22, Jesus is asked, “Which commandment is first? Or Which commandment is greatest?” This implies a hierarchy of commandments. It implies that there are some which are more important. Does Jesus ever say, “All of the commandments carry equal weight.”? No. Not a chance. Jesus prioritizes. Love God. Love your neighbor. These are most important, and everything else follows after these two.
The implications are important–very important. We live in a very litigious society. We really, really like making laws. We try to cover each and every situation known to man with a law. We try to write laws governing every type of situation including telling kids they cannot make pretend guns with their hands lest they get suspended from school! It’s almost enough to make one pull out your hair.
But the fact of the matter is, laws will eventually come into conflict with one another. Laws cannot cover all the basis. For instance, in the U.S. we believe we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We pass all kinds of laws interpreting these rights, but they easily come into conflict. For instance, my pursuit of happiness may be that I like telling everyone what to do and how they should do it. This directly impinges upon others’ right to liberty. The two come into conflict–which one wins?
Or, how about another scenario. Let’s say you’ve fallen on hard times. You have a family to feed, and you have been unable to obtain food for them. Would you steal in order to feed your family? Would you take bread or meat or other such food from someone in order to make sure your family did not starve? I personally would if I had run out of options.
Is such a thing wrong? Yes. But which is more important–making sure children don’t starve or keeping one’s record clean? Neither is right, but life wins out.
Jesus makes the same point. The purity code is less important than showing compassion to one who is injured and in need of assistance. It is better to be defiled and check to see if one is injured than to pass by just so one can fulfill one’s temple duties.
There are circumstances in life when we come across such choices as well. There are times when we must choose which laws to follow and which laws to break. Jesus offers us our guide. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. This is our measuring stick as to importance when faced with conflicting situations. May we practice them without fear. Amen.
Writer's Note: Following the sermon, one of my congregation members who studied some theology in Europe commented about this sermon, "I am surprised this was the first time you'd run into that interpretation of the Good Samaritan. I thought it was common knowledge."
I replied, "Hey, I was schooled in the Crossan and Borg school of theology."
She said, "We need to talk."
I agree. It might give me a chance to vent over the rather poor biblical scholarship I received.