I think the most difficult part of this process is deciding what to talk about. To stand here doesn’t just mean that I must have something to say. I can usually manage to say something (though I do prefer saying it in from another vantage point!) To preach means to bring good news. The Gospel means good news. What do I have to say that would bring good news to anyone?
I have decided to retrace a bit of the journey I have made. Several years ago I started on a program of more intensive Biblical study and was systematically reading the entire Bible. It was a good experience, but this project held some surprises. The first was how different the text reads when taken in large segments at once rather than a few verses at a time. I was absolutely amazed. But amazed or not I still found Leviticus heavy going and at that point decided to split the time I was spending each session between the Old Testament and the New Testament. So it happened one day my readings included Leviticus 21 and the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was an epiphany. Now I can’t even being to count how many times I had read or heard this parable over the years. Considering a lifetime of church school and worship services plus my own Bible reading it must have numbered in the hundreds for this particular passage. And in fact I did know what it said. But there was far more to discover about what it meant than I had ever guessed. Before I read it again I want to spend a little time looking at some related passages in the Old Testament. I will start with the passage in Leviticus that I read that long ago morning.
“The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: No one shall defile himself for a dead person among his relatives, except for his nearest kin: his mother, his father, his son his daughter his brother; likewise, for a virgin sister, close to him because she has had no husband, he may defile himself for her. But he shall not defile himself as a husband among his people and so profane himself.”
— Leviticus 21:1-4
But it wasn’t the first time the subject of being clean or unclean had come up in Leviticus. I had already read quite a bit about this.
“You are to distinguish between the holy and the common and between the unclean and the clean: and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them through Moses.”
— Leviticus 10:10-11
Then most of the rest of the book gives in great detail what will make one unclean and what rituals are necessary to remedy in each situation. The understanding of why this was necessary was given too.
“Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, so that they do not die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.”
— Leviticus 15:31
I was beginning to get the idea that the parable was about more than I had thought it was.
It wasn’t that long before I was into Numbers and the subject came up again. A passage in Numbers 19 spells it out unmistakably, to quote just a part of this chapter:
Verse 10: “This shall be a perpetual statute for the Israelites and for the alien residing among them. Those who touch the dead body of any human being shall be unclean seven days.”
Skipping to verse 13: “All who touch a corpse, the body of a human being who has died, and do not purify themselves, defile the tabernacle of the Lord; such persons shall be cut of from Israel.”
And, verse 22 shows the seriousness for the whole community:
“Whatever the unclean person touches shall be unclean, and anyone who touches it shall be unclean until evening.”
Contact with a dead, or possibly dead, body was not to be done lightly.
At this point I realized that the details of the story had more significance than I had realized and I was on the look out for more information.
It was a quite while before I realized the significance of the priest and Levite being on the road to Jerusalem. But there are references for that too. For this I am going to summarize a very long passage. I Chronicles 23 – 28 talks about King David organizing the priests and Levites to serve in the temple. It is a long passage and contains dozens of names that I know for a fact that I can’t pronounce. The priests were to offer sacrifices and perform the necessary rituals. The Levites served in the temples as musicians, guards and assistants. Rotations were set up so that all would serve. Now obviously Chronicles does not tell us exactly how they were organized in New Testament times, but that information is available. The book “Backgrounds of Early Christianity” by Everett Ferguson gives information about the historical setting of early Christianity. While looking up something else I came across a section where he tells about how the priests and Levites were organized in the first century:
The priests were divided into twenty-four courses, each of which was responsible for conducting the temple ritual for one week at a time, twice a year, and all were to be available at the great pilgrim festivals. Most of the priests, therefore, lived outside Jerusalem and were there only when their course was on duty. There was a considerable social gulf between the priestly aristocracy centered on the temple and the ordinary priests scattered throughout the country.
He goes on to tell how the Levites too were divided into twenty-four courses (pp.531-531).
I know that when the parable speaks of “passing by on the other side” it does not mean that the only way to understand it is that the priest and the Levite were headed into Jerusalem. They could have crossed over to avoid the man left for dead. But I think the story has more “punch” if we assume the priest and Levite were headed into Jerusalem-with the implication that they were about to start their seven days of service in the temple.
Now I already knew that the Samaritans and the Jews did not get along, but lets look at this a bit more. From the same book we learn that the Samaritans in the first century were regarded as foreign and there was much hostility between them and the Jews. The Samaritans had their own version of the Torah, which was not the same as the Jews (though according to the Anchor Bible’s article on this passage they had the same prohibitions concerning contact with the dead), The Samaritans recognized only the Torah as scriptures while the Jews also had the prophets. They also had their own temple on Mt. Gerizim that they regarded as the only acceptable place to offer sacrifices, just as the Jews regarded the temple in Jerusalem (pp 499-501). These differences cut to the heart of what it meant to be faithful to God, and as far as the Jews were concerned the Samaritans didn’t measure up.
So let’s read the parable again.
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit Eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 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 given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 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. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 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. 35 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.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
— Luke 10:25-37
My second shock of that long ago morning was to realize that the most ignorant and uneducated person in the crowd listening to Jesus when he told this story would have known all of the background I talked about and undoubtedly more I haven’t even considered. Being a life long Disciples of Christ member I have always thought that any passage of scripture had to be taken in context to be properly understood. That day I realized how much more “context” is than the surrounding verses in the Bible. I must consider how the first people who heard the message would have understood it. I saw what a dramatic difference it makes in understanding the message. That day when I read this parable I saw the priest and Levite scrupulously avoiding contact with what might well be a dead body and thus keeping themselves ritually clean and able to serve and please God. The Samaritan was willing to break the purity laws and render himself unclean and thus by definition displeasing to God. Parables are teachings that use common situations to teach a new truth. They always have an element of surprise in them. The shock of this story is not how the characters behaved. The religious ones obeyed the religious law and the profane one ignored it. The shock is which one Jesus held up as an example.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the process started that morning has completely changed how I read the Bible. Focusing on how the first listeners of these stories would have understood the message has made the message come alive on my own time and place in a way I would never have even dreamed of before. I had long been acquainted with the idea that the life and teachings of Jesus were the most authoritative for Christians. That day I saw why. Make no mistake; the priest and Levite were obeying the law. If challenged about their behavior they could have pointed out just which parts of the law they were obeying and how to behave differently would have been violating the scripture. We read some of those passages earlier. I have read commentary on this passage that dwells on how heartless and arrogant the priest and the Levite were, because loving your neighbor is also in the law, but I think that misses the point. There is no hint in the text about what they thought about the situation. We don’t know if they were heartless or heartbroken about obeying the law. We only know they were obedient. We do know the context for the discussion Jesus had with the lawyer was the law. “What does the law say? How do you read it?” The lawyer in the story was able to give the right answer when Jesus turned his question back to him because he knew the law, all of it. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.” Is part of Deuteronomy 6:4 and “Love your neighbor as yourself” is part of Leviticus 19:18.
So what do we do with this? I can only answer what I do with it. My understanding of this parable is not just that we are called to help those “left for dead on the side of the road” -that is those we might rather not be associated with. Nor is it just telling us that sometimes we might need to accept help from someone we would rather not. Though I do think those lessons are there too. No, we are called to remember that loving God and each other is most important-I see Jesus saying that pleasing and serving God is about more than being justified. It is about being compassionate.
I know that I have described one position in one of the more divisive debates in Christianity today. How is the Bible true? This question is answered very differently by ecumenical Christians and Evangelical Christians. Is the entire Bible equally true or are the life and teachings of Jesus most authoritative? I have described the start of the process by which I have come to understand that while I take the entire Bible seriously the life and teachings of Jesus are most authoritative. I don’t want to imply that this is the only correct way to view the Bible. We are each charged with the responsibility to come to our own understanding. As no one has a perfect understanding of God it is to be expected that sincere people of faith can come to different conclusions. But this has been part of my journey with the Bible and it has been “Good news” in my life.
What is required to live?
“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.”