A lawyer tells Jesus that when he reads the law the Moses, he finds the hope of life in the commandments to wholeheartedly love God, and to love his neighbors and he loves himself. Jesus agrees and, when the lawyer asks “alright, but who is my neighbor,” Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan.
If this is a parable ultimately about compassion, maybe we need to start with enough empathy to be curious about why the priest and the Levite would pass by a beaten man. A man had been going down to Jericho, and he’d been attacked and left stripped by the roadside. Jesus says he was half-dead. The most important of those two words is: dead. Left for dead, appearing from a distance to be dead.
According to the covenant law given to Israel, contact with a dead body made a person unclean. The bodies of the dead—even a fragment of bone—were the most potent and concerning source of impurity. It was also unavoidable, because death intruded into every life, and the bonds of love and duty meant caring for those who were dying, to hold and stay with them, to bury them. But once unclean, something had to be done to be clean again. Book of Numbers gives an astonishing ritual as the only means by which be purified—the sacrifice of a perfect red cow, to be burned and the ashes saved, to be mixed with water for sprinkling on anyone who had come in contact with a corpse, and onto the tent where a person died, all the furnishings in the tent, and anyone who had been present. This had to be done on the third day, and again on the seventh day. And then, after the water and the seven days, these people and objects would be clean. Anyone who was unclean and didn’t take care to be purified, would be cut off from the People.
Such is the profundity of death.
Priests were people set apart, and one of the things they were set apart from was death. Here is what they read in the book of Leviticus: “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” Part of the way a priest was set apart, was, in a special, to be set apart from becoming unclean through nearness to the dead.
So, Jesus says, a priest comes along and sees a man who appears to be dead. He wouldn’t have to actually touch a body to become unclean, he just had to get near one—close enough to tell if the man is actually dead. He’s not taking any chances; that’s why he passes by on the other side of the roadway. The levite does exactly the same thing. And in that sense, they’ve fulfilled the obligation of the law for them.
But here’s the problem.
Ending up as an abandoned body is really bad. The worst curses in the Hebrew scriptures are prophesies of ending up unburied. And there was a powerful sense that it was a person’s holy obligation to take responsibility for the body of someone they came across outdoors—its called a met mitzvah. Its a solemn duty to neighbor.
Not long after the resurrection, there are Jewish rabbinic teachings that make this obligation explicit—even for priests.* Some argued that even if the high priest was traveling alone and found a neglected body, he should stop. Yes, by approaching and touching and caring for a body he would defile himself. That’s bad. But there’s a remedy for that. And you accept that uncleanness for the sake of fulfilling your obligation to your dead neighbor, which is your covenant response to God.Leviticus, after all, says a priest among his own people can’t risk corpse impurity except for the closest relatives…..but if we’re being strict constructionists, it doesn’t say anything about non-relatives.† Sure, being unclean in this way means a person is forbidden from presence in the Temple for the seven days of purification. That’s a drag if you’re a priest. But remember the way Jesus tells the story—they were going down the road, like the man who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Meaning, they aren’t on their way to take their turn serving at the temple. They’re on their way back home, having already done their part.
So the priest and the levite in the story have taken a different interpretive stance on the law—one that tells them they have to avoid this person to keep holy above other concerns. And they pass by.
The Samaritan probably assumes, just like the priest and the levite did, that the guy is dead. But he’s presented with a person—a neighbor—who’s in a terrible condition. There’s nobody else around. So this person’s problem is his problem. And he determines that he’s going to need to defile himself and get this poor man buried. So, because he’s decided to become unclean, he gets close. And when he got close, he could see him.
The man is alive and not dead. And now the Samaritan finds himself not with a purity problem, but entangled in caring for a helpless and wounded stranger in a strange place.
Jesus finishes, asks the lawyer: who was a neighbor to the beaten man? The lawyer takes Jesus to mean, which these three men acted like a neighbor? He answers “the one who showed him mercy.” But he’s wrong. He’d asked, in the first place, who is my neighbor? And Jesus told him a story to help him see that the answer is: everyone. The priest, the Levite and the Samaritan were all neighbors to the beaten man. Only the Samaritan recognizes he’s free to love this neighbor he discovers.
What’s the parable really about? Jesus tosses in the Samaritan—a person who was an outsider—as a way of surprising and sharpening the story, but I’m not sure this story is as much about outsiders as we often read it. Its not about Jesus setting aside the purity laws given to his people by YHWH. He’s passionately taking sides in a debate. Its Jesus indicting those who read the law in ways that actually created conflict within it—who didn’t allow the commandment to love to interpret the rest. If they had, they wouldn’t have thought purity was a higher concern than being the one to stop and care for their neighbor. They should have known better. But as much as we tend to decide how they felt walking by the man, and hammer them for callousness and hardness of heart, they probably thought they were doing the right thing as people called to be holy and undefiled and clean. We want to stay clean.
Which is the one of the sharp teeth in the parable.
My great grandmother grew up in the central valley of California—an oil town, actually. In 1918, she started working as a nurse in the local hospital, and 1918 became a frightening time to be a nurse, even in Orcutt, because the Spanish influenza that was ravaging the globe arrived. She got sick—and as with so many her age, the young strength of her body, became deadly overreactive. They took care of her at home, and the Dr. ultimately took her father aside and said there was absolutely nothing to be done for the girl except maybe whiskey. Whiskey could help. Of all things. If George Ferguson had ever had a drink in his life, he had renounced it as bitter sin, and it was well before he met his wife. The man was a Presbyterian. The man would drag the family organ outside the house when the preacher came to town. These were prohibitionists. They did not drink, or abide drinking, because they were confident that their experience of men within God’s creation and God’s law said it was wrong before the Lord.
George Ferguson walked out of the house, and up the street. And he walked into the saloon in front of God and everybody and bought a bottle of whiskey for his daughter. She died 77 years later.
I’m pretty sure George didn’t reconsider what his faith told him about whiskey, or drinking. I imagine he asked forgiveness for having spent a cent that went to the support of a saloon. But compassion acted out is messy business, mess that will get on us. Compassion is a way we’re called to find within situations in which we sometimes won’t have crystal certainty. Where we risk being wrong. Where we risk guilt.‡ And that’s where we depend utterly upon grace.
* For the curious, here’s what these discussions sound like in the Mishna: “A high priest and a Nazir do not contract corpse uncleanness on account of [burying even] their close relatives. But they do contract corpse uncleanness on account of a neglected corpse. [If ] they were going along the way and found a neglected corpse—R. Eliezer says, ‘Let a high priest contract corpse unclean- ness, but let a Nazir not contract corpse uncleanness.’ And the Sages say, ‘Let a Nazir contract corpse uncleanness, but let a high priest not contract corpse uncleanness.’ To be clear, “they do contract” is language meant to express “they should.”
†This reading of the Good Samaritan parable as one that turns on questions about ritual purity depends on the work of James Crossley. See especially James Crossley, Jesus and the Chaos of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 119-121. Crossley largely amplifies the earlier work of Richard Bauckham, while ultimately disagreeing with Bauckham’s argument that Jesus points to a place where legal commandments actually do conflict. See: Richard Bauckham, “The Scrupulous Priest and the Good Samaritan: Jesus’ Parabolic Interpretation of the Law of Moses,” New Testament 44 (1998): 475-489.
‡This point of risk in the life of faithfulness to neighbors, and our dependence on grace itself depends on a 2016 lecture by Rowan Williams, a passage of which concerns Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s struggle to determine whether to become involved in the plot against Hitler.