Sometimes it feels that whenever Jesus needs to make a point, He talks about Samaritans. A good Samaritan is someone who helps a stranger. In fact, here in New Jersey and many other states, there are laws that we call “Good Samaritan Laws” which generally protects people from any civil liability if they render aid at an accident scene. They’re intended to stop bystanders from being hesitant to help because they have a fear of being sued for possibly causing harm in the process.
In today’s text, the priest and the Levite are certainly not following the Good Samaritan law, choosing instead to keep walking. So let us focus on them first. The priest was not like priests, pastors, or even rabbis today. In ancient Israel, the priesthood was something men were born into. They were all descendants of Aaron, the older brother of Moses. If someone wasn’t from Aaron’s lineage, they couldn’t be a priest. They were the only ones who could officiate offerings in the Temple. So ritual cleanliness was of vital importance. Having contact with the dead or blood would have made a priest ritually unclean.
The same way, the Levite, who was a direct descendent of the tribe of Levi, was someone who had to remain ritually clean. Levites served important functions in the temple, like serving as guards, singing, or playing music, as well as having other religious and even political duties. He, too, had to remain ritually clean in order to do his job.
And here’s the interesting point of the story: neither man did anything biblically wrong! In both cases, these men passed by the beaten man who had been left for dead because the law of Moses was very clear about how they should live and how they should always remain ritually clean. So, they were doing precisely what they had been commanded by the Law.
The lawyer, listening to Jesus telling the parable, would have known this, too. Up to this point, he was following the story very clearly. We, too, have followed the story to this point. But here’s where we might lose the actual purpose of the story; and that is, the parable of the Good Samaritan isn’t about good deeds versus bad deeds. Maybe it’s not about deeds at all.
Take note how Jesus doesn’t praise the Samaritan for his deeds, any more than He condemns the priest or Levite for theirs. He’s making a bigger point about religion, which He does so often throughout His ministry. During Jesus’ time, religion had all-encompassing power. To live the right, proper, and moral life was the most important thing; every rule had to be followed and every law had to be kept. This was the only way a person could even hope of remaining on good terms with God.
And this would have resonated with the lawyer because he wasn’t a lawyer in our modern terms. Instead, the lawyers of Jesus’ time were tasked with interpreting and explaining the often-complex laws of the Bible and determining what a good person could or should do, and what they could not do, because God’s law was the law of the land.
With that, life became legalistic; people lived according to Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots. They lived according to religious laws. To the priests, Levites, and lawyers – and any devout Israeli – following the law was the most important thing, even if that meant ignoring someone in need. And so, the law’s requirement to stay ritually clean was more important than the life of another person. Because in order to get rid of the sins that people created because it was impossible to follow every law, people had to go to the Temple and sacrifice an animal. And as we saw earlier, only the priest could perform this sacrifice for the people to atone for their sins. So we are back to the importance of being ritually clean, and avoiding the dying and the dead. But another thing the law taught the people was that anyone outside of their own tribe and people was unclean and unholy.
Which brings us to today. We look at our world today, and we often see that we’ve become like the priest and the Levite, drawing into our own worlds. We create our own neighborhoods that draw us together with others who are just like us. We create neighborhoods in our political affiliations, our national identities, and even our denominations.
The churches we belong to, the Party we vote for, and the country we live in – we make these our neighborhoods, and we consider them better than others because we think we are “right” and others are “wrong”. We think we’re holy and blessed, which leads us to view others who aren’t like us as bad or unholy.
But none of these things – the church we belong to, what our politics are, or the country we live in – literally none of these things are what the world needs or makes it a better place. We only manage to make it easier for us to justify crossing to the other side of the street and passing by others who are not like us.
We as Christians must live differently than that. We belong to something bigger than any place or country or group on earth. We belong to God, and we are explicitly commanded by Jesus to go into the whole world – the entire world – to preach and teach and live the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Jesus teaches us to be like a Samaritan and to treat others – even our enemies - like our neighbors. This teaching would have struck the lawyer hard – because he didn’t see the Samaritan as good or clean or right. And if we think about it, it can be difficult for us, too. Let’s change that word “Samaritan” to something we consider the exact opposite of who we identify with. Now behave with compassion towards them. That’s hard and very uncomfortable.
Jesus, throughout the Gospels, teaches us to go outside our comfort zones. He constantly reminds us to go outside our neighborhoods. But we don’t want to, because we’ve convinced ourselves like the priest and the Levite that we’re right and everyone else is wrong. And that is a sin.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul reminds us in Romans. Everyone has sinned, including us good, holy Lutherans. The fact is it doesn’t matter how hard we try we are going to sin. But that’s not meant to be a depressing reminder, and it’s not meant to discourage us, because Jesus was teaching us these things for a very specific reason; to help us accept that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Him.
So here’s a lesson for us from today’s parable: Let’s not be the priest or the Levite. And maybe, let’s not even think of ourselves as the Samaritan. Instead, let’s consider that we may be that man who was robbed, and lay bleeding and dying on the side of the road. Both the priest and the law – earthly religion and politics - has passed us by, unable to save us. But the one who did stop and save us was Jesus. He took us in, bound our wounds, and paid for our care – all with his precious blood, shed on the cross for our sins.
Paul writes in today’s Epistle lesson: “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of sins.”
Because Jesus has saved us, we have become members of His kingdom, joining together will all the saints throughout time. And His kingdom, as we know, is not of this world; it has no beginning or end; it has no boundaries, and lasts forever. And that is a big neighborhood!
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