IN A VERY WELL-KNOWN PARABLE... we see the story of a Samaritan who reached across the huge divide which existed between his own people and the Jews in order to care for a man who had been robbed, beaten, and left for dead. He did what the man's "own people" did not - caring more for the man's situation than for himself. This is beautiful, and this is how Jesus frames salvation at work - across all boundaries and borders, whether social, racial, economic...
But why DIDN'T the Priest or the Levite stop and help?
Many people say they were afraid: that the road was dangerous, that they worried the robbers might have been using the man to trap them too, or that they may have thought the man himself was faking and waiting to spring a trap of his own… But I don't personally see that in the text. Though the most common motivation given for their avoiding the man-left-for-dead is fear, we don't see that sort of fear in Jesus' story. In fact, in the text itself, the only real detail we're granted which might indicate their motivation is that we see the Priest and Levite - not hiding or running away to avoid being near the man - but simply "passing by on the other side of the road”… It would seem to me that they were motivated to keep their distance for some reason other than terror, since that is not what terrified people do.
It’s the “keeping their distance” part which, to me, clarifies the situation here. You don’t have to move to the other side of the road in order to pass by someone without helping them, but this “buffer zone” they enacted indicates that the Priest and the Levite were concerned with ritual purity. If they had touched a man who was about to die or was perhaps already dead, they would be ceremonially unclean. This would render them “unfit for temple worship” according to the standards of their Law.
Understand, Jesus deliberately used religious titles and designations in this parable. The characters of a Priest and Levite carry as much meaning and implication as the character of a Samaritan does. Otherwise, he could have just spoken of any two jews who passed by without helping before the Samaritan exercised compassion… But Jesus was drawing attention not merely to the cultural and personal issues of Jews and Samaritans, but to the religious institutional system at play around him. The very system Jews believed they had been given by God. The very system they could point to scripture to support… In their effort to remain “clean” and “fit for temple worship”, the Priest and the Levite neglected to honor or worship God in the very place God dwells: people.
In their zeal to follow the Law and its prescriptions, they missed the greater law of love.
In their keeping to rigidly doing “what the Bible says,”
they kept to the other side of the road.
I love Jesus’ tenacity here. As in so many other places, the way he challenges their preconception of what the Father gave them - while regularly saying that he represents the Father completely - is bold and wonderful and dangerous.
The Good Samaritan, then, becomes someone Jesus might champion not merely for his compassion or his willingness to reach across the boundaries and divisions of race, class or social status… But also for his freedom from rigid religious institutionalism - his lack of what we might call “religious hangups”. The Good Samaritan is not so busy keeping up his rules, regulations and rituals that he avoids the very real and tangible Kingdom of God around him. He’s not so preoccupied with the coming “services” and ceremonies that he can’t stop for someone in need.
There is nowhere else he has to be.
He is Here.
The Priest and the Levite are concerned with the Past of their Law and the Future of their Ritual… But the Samaritan exists in the Present. In that sense, you could say his lack of “devout Jewishness” brings him a sort of freedom: the freedom to live truly and dynamically with all the God-Moments surrounding him.
This is how, Jesus says, the ideal of “love your neighbor” and the question of “who is my neighbor” meet their tangible answer.
This is how, Jesus says, one inherits the kind of life that lasts forever.
While this would have been scandalous for Jesus to say in the first century, we must remember that it remains scandalous so long as the implications are the same. Because for us, “being a good Christian” might actually obscure the Kingdom in the same way it did for the Priest and the Levite. Jesus chose to give this this particular parable a very intentional religious dimension, and so long as we carry that dimension - with its titles and designations and rituals - we run the risk of moving to the other side of the road and passing by the man-left-for-dead.