Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 10, 2022
Luke 10:25-37 Commentary
Boundaries and rules can be good for us. Take the ten commandments: they help us put boundaries on our own actions for the sake of others as well as ourselves. In fact, all of God’s laws ought to be understood as helping to frame a picture of how we can live in order to discover not only God’s goodness but how to be part of God’s shalom.
But sometimes, especially when they become part of religious traditions, boundaries and lawful thinking gets warped and in turn shape us to make decisions about action the wrong way. This is the case with the lawyer who questions Jesus about who is a neighbour, and it is the case for the priest and the Levite in the parable Jesus uses as he guides the lawyer to a more faithful understanding of obedience to the law of God.
We see the warped understanding expressed by the lawyer. He, like most religiously observing Jews at the time, is not a bad guy; he wants to do what is right in God’s eyes so that he might have a sense of security about his eternity. And, over the course of centuries, the religious tradition has tried to help folks like him figure out how to be obedient by giving some guidance on how to interpret the laws of God.
The lawyer knows loving God and loving neighbour are key acts of obedience, but somewhere along the way, the guidance for understanding how to obey the law to love one’s neighbour became less about one’s personal actions and more about who qualified as a neighbour.
The script was flipped, so to speak. Whereas the ten commandments and laws like those in Leviticus 19 (especially verses 17-18, which are about neighbours) are about what the individual is to do or not do—limits and boundaries we are to place on ourselves to protect and preserve others—the lawyer is asking for a limit or boundary on others: who does he have to act this way towards? Who’s in and who’s out on the neighbour scale?
We see the warped understanding in the priest and the Levite as well. According to Kenneth Bailey, the way that each of them approaches the injured man examples the way that the tradition has already transformed obedience of the law to love one’s neighbour to be conditional on the definition of neighbour—one’s own kin and kind, i.e., other people of the same ethnic and religious group.
Jesus explicitly mentions the details that the injured man is “half dead” and “stripped” of his clothing (v 30). As Bailey explains, “half dead” was a technical term among the rabbis, meaning close to dead and at the least, unconscious. In this state, the injured man would have been unable to speak, and therefore not only unable to identify himself, also impossible for the priest to identify the injured man based on his speech pattern and dialect. Further, his clothing would have revealed who he was: insider or outsider, someone to be treated as neighbour or non-neighbour, someone to love or someone who could be ignored for the sake of other law-keeping.
For that seems to be the crux of the matter for the priest. Unable to identify this man by his clothing or speech, the priest must decide if he will get close enough to the man to see if he is alive or not. And if injured man is dead, then by approaching him, the priest will have become unclean. And if the priest becomes unclean, he is unable to fulfill his priestly duties without taking the time to go through the time-consuming ritual to become clean again.
These purity laws had become unconditional in the tradition, the highest of consideration; they were laws where caveats (like that on who counts as a neighbour) were not allowed. Bailey calls the priest a “victim of a rulebook ethical/theological system.” Was it worth the risk to disobey what was perceived as an unconditional commandment in order to see if he was bound to a conditional commandment of helping a possible neighbour? Along with the possibility that the man might already be dead, if the man was alive but not Jewish—if he was a Samaritan for instance—then the priest would still be made unclean. The only scenario by which the priest would stay pure enough to fulfill his priestly duties, based on the religious tradition’s regulations and interpretation of the law, would be if the man were still alive and Jewish.
And so, the priest plays it “better safe than sorry” and does not approach the man but crosses to the other side of the road. This act is a picture of how the boundaries made by the laws had switched from surrounding ourselves to others: the boundary of “uncleanness” emanated from the injured man. Here is a snapshot of how a religious tradition and system preserves the status quo, becoming a closed system that does not want to risk reaching out to cross self-imposed boundaries that are, placed upon others—becoming more for our own “good” than that of others.
Now, the Levite is also a religious leader, but Levites were not bound to the same level of strictness regarding purity laws, nor was the ritual purity process as involved as it would have been for the priest. So, Jesus says, the Levite does one step more than the priest: the Levite “comes to the place” where the injured man is, seemingly closer than the priest who merely “saw him.”
The Levite might be able to tell whether or not he is a fellow Jew, a neighbour as the tradition has taught him to obey the law of love. But he too appears not able to tell whether this man counts without being able to talk to him or judge by his dress, and so he too, crosses the street in order to keep his own status intact. Without the certainty that this man is his neighbour, he’s off the hook to help. We might even interpret the Levite as acting in the footsteps of his religious leader the priest, who set the example before him; the system preserving the status quo…
The expectation of those listening to this story would be that the next character to appear would be a normal, Jewish layperson. Instead, Jesus provides the surprise of the parable: it is the unclean heretic, a Samaritan, who comes and cares, protects, and provides for the injured man at great risk to himself. Not only does the Samaritan risk being attacked by the robbers on the road, he runs the risk of being held responsible for this man’s suffering. By taking the man to an inn, by coming back to the inn, the Samaritan man loses his anonymity, and if this injured man is Jewish and dies, his family may seek vengeance on the Samaritan man (Ken Bailey explains the reasons for this from the culture of the time in his essay on the parable).
While God’s people set up the boundary as a way of keeping their separation, the Samaritan models the true intent of the command and what God has written: the Samaritan has given the care he would have hoped to receive from another, even though it came at great risk to himself. (See the textual point below for more on how the Samaritan is understood as a Christ figure.)
The lawyer’s question, to use a phrase from Rev. Peter Jonker, reveals his desire to manage the “boundaries of his compassion.” It appears that the easiest way we humans seek to do this is not to limit ourselves, but to limit who we are responsible to, to place the boundary lines around others. Perhaps all of this is what naturally happens when a commandment is impossible to live up to; God’s standard is more than a little too high, so we humans find a way to lower the bar a bit. But lowering the bar runs the risk of watering down the point of the commandment altogether.
For with God, whom we image, there is no limit to compassion. When Jesus asks the lawyer, “What is written in the law?” he uses the perfect tense for the “written”: what did God need to only command once, but meant for all eternity? The answer: “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 neighbour as yourself.” There are no conditions on expressing kindness and compassion; or as St. Paul says, against things like these, God places no prohibitions.
The question isn’t who is my neighbour? Who’s in and therefore I should care about versus who I can wash my hands of… the question is who needs me to be a neighbour? Who might I be Christlike towards?
For much of the Christian tradition of interpretation (pre-Reformation era), this parable was interpreted allegorically, with Jesus Christ as the Samaritan who comes to humanity (symbolized by the anonymous nature of the injured man), coming near enough to truly be near the suffering, binding up our wounds, paying for our salvation at great personal cost.
This piece by Bob Booth places all of the characters of the parable in one scene, with an additional anonymous figure alongside the Levite and the priest. Is the anonymous figure the lawyer? Is it us? The passersby appear more like gawkers who are still keeping their distance—the boundary line—whereas the Samaritan man is right there, near to the man in need. The Samaritan’s gaze, however, is looking towards the three figures avoiding helping; his arm is outstretched—a wordless question of “Why?” It is the question underneath Jesus’ command to “Go and do likewise.”
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