I’ve been thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan lately. I’m sure you’re familiar with it, but in case you need a refresher, here it is.
Jesus tells a story of a Jewish man who is on his way down the mountain from Jerusalem when he is ambushed by a band of thieves. They beat him, steal his goods and leave him for dead. Sometime later, a priest comes by and seeing the body from a distance, crosses over to the other side. So to a Levite (one of the workers in the Temple) comes along, sees the man’s body lying alongside the road, and crosses over to the other side. Lastly, a Samaritan, comes along, takes pity on the man and cares for him. He provides first aid to the injured man, transports him to the hospital and even agrees to pay for his hospital bill. Jesus points out that the Samaritan was the neighbor while the religious people were not.
Here is an interesting piece, according to the Law found in Leviticus 21:1, The Lord commanded Moses to “Speak to the priests…and say to them, ‘A priest must not make himself ceremonially unclean for any of his people who die…'” (emphasis mine). Also, in Numbers 19:11 it reads, “Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days.” I bring this up because it adds some really interesting complexity to Jesus’s otherwise straightforward parable.
If the priest and the Levite suspected the man lying alongside the road was dead, then they were required, by Law, to pass by. The priest was forbidden from defiling himself for anyone who wasn’t family and the Levite, assuming he had to work in the Temple the next day, couldn’t defile himself and still be allowed in the Temple. So this begs the question, “why did Jesus choose these two people as the characters in his story?”
The context to this parable is Jesus being questioned by an expert in the Law. This expert wants to know what he needs to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what the most important commands are. The expert replies, “‘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 ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” This is, of course, the correct answer — the man knows his stuff. But theory is one thing, practical application is another, so the man asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the parable above and then asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert agrees — it was the Samaritan.
Jesus’s parable puts the expert in a double bind by pitting the Law against itself. On one hand is the command to love, on the other is the command to be holy. In order to fulfill the most important commands of Scripture (to love) the expert would have to break lesser commands (holiness). He would need to break the Law in order to fulfill the Law. Either way he plays it, he is still a lawbreaker. On one hand he breaks the Law to love if he does not help someone in need. On the other hand, he breaks the laws of holiness if he embraces the radical notions of Neighbor Jesus puts forth in his parable. If what Jesus says is true, then he is a lawbreaker no matter what he does and that means he is disqualified from inheriting (earning) eternal life. I find that to be a fascinating predicament Jesus puts the expert in. I find it fascinating because it has such direct import to our current political situation in the United States.
One side of our political system leans heavy on loving people, sometimes at the expense of moral standards (Biblically speaking). The other side leans more towards holiness and morality, sometimes at the expense of helping people who really need it. Which side is correct?
If the parable of the Good Samaritan were all we had to work with, I think it would be easy — err on the side of love. Mercy triumphs over judgement. But this isn’t the only teaching of Jesus we have. We also have the time when Jesus was brought a woman caught in the act of adultery. In this instance, Jesus does indeed break the Law in order to fulfill the Law. By Law he was required to stone an adulteress and by Law he required to love that woman as he loved himself. Jesus chose to show mercy and not stone the woman to death, but he doesn’t leave the issue of holiness unaddressed. His parting words are “Go and sin no more.”
Holiness is important to God, we are to be holy because He is holy. We can’t get rid of the commands to be holy, to have high moral standards, and neither can we fail to love. So what do we do? The following three principles help me to navigate this complex issue.
- I try to continually expand my definition of neighbor. The Parable of the Good Samaritan shows me that my neighbors are people who don’t look like me, don’t talk like me, believe differently than I do, don’t live in my geographic area, are from different socio-economic backgrounds and might otherwise hate me in another circumstance. In other words, there is no one on this planet I am not called to love. I must use that Truth to constantly fight my own fear, prejudice, ignorance and indifference. Unless I am continually growing in my love for humanity I am not fulfilling the royal Law of Love.
- Lead with Kindness and Mercy. We are all in process and it is OK to admit that. Because of Holy Spirit’s work in us, we are being transformed into the image and likeness of God. God willing, the things which entangled me yesterday will have less power over me today and no power tomorrow. No one needs to be perfect before I extend to them the love, mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. I wasn’t perfect when he first offered those things to me and I’m still not perfect even though I’ve been saturated with them every day for the last 20 years. But I trust that God will finish what he started — in me and in you. He isn’t a God of half measures, He won’t give up until we are glorious and Good.
- The Doctor’s Orders are for our benefit. God is not a buzzkill who enjoys rules for their own sake. Everything God commands us to do is for our benefit. Because I believe that Jesus really does want what is best for me and those around me, I have no problems trying to follow those orders and convincing others to do the same. Holiness is not a constraining and joyless pursuit — on the contrary — it is a necessary ingredient for abundant, overflowing and joyful living. Whenever possible I think we should advocate for people to live according to the Book. It isn’t necessary to understand, it is only necessary to believe it will work for our good.
We’re not going to do this perfectly, this dance of obedience. But fortunately for us we don’t have to. Unlike the expert in the Law who was trying to do everything perfectly so that God was obligated to save him, our salvation is a gift. It wasn’t given because we were deserving and it won’t be taken away because we are undeserving. The gift of our salvation gives us freedom to learn, grow, make mistakes and learn to do better. We are learning to love and follow the lead of our Savior — we’ll be clunky at first and will get better over time. Very rarely will we ever encounter a situation where we have to choose either love or holiness because Jesus, through the power of the Spirit and in accordance with the heart of our Father, creates a new option — that loving people is what brings them to holiness and purifies us as well.