Why do the priest and the Levite pass by the man on the side of the road, and why does the Samaritan stop? What is going on inside their heads? What is going on inside their hearts? What is motivating them? Why did the first two keep going and the other one stop? While these may be simple questions to ask, they are elusive to answer, because the parable doesn’t tell us why these men do what they do. It doesn’t tell us their motivations. It doesn’t let us into their heads. If we want to get an answer, we are going to have to use our imaginations, a necessary faculty when you encounter a parable.
I think we can imagine something of what’s going on in the head of the priest and the Levite. The text says that both had a good look at the robbery victim, but “when they came to the place [where he was lying] and saw him, they passed by on the other side.” In that brief sentence Jesus hints at an attitude. In that brief sentence, Jesus gives you a picture of a reaction. In your mind’s eye, you can see the priest walking down the road. He sees an unconscious figure lying by the side of the road covered in blood. He gives a start. He recoils. His nose wrinkles. His face crumples. He takes a few steps to the side. And he keeps moving.
What makes a person recoil and move on? We know about this.
Any of us who have ever walked by a homeless beggar on the streets of Grand Rapids or Chicago or Toronto knows that there are several possible reasons. It could be fear that made the priest and the Levite recoil. When you come across a situation like this one you just don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. The man looks like he’s been beat up by robbers. Doesn’t that tell you something? This is a dangerous place!
The priest and the Levite could stop and the robbers could jump on them and take their stuff and leave them half dead. Then there would be two men lying by the side of the road, and I ask you, would that help anyone?
Of course, it doesn’t have to be fear, it could also be busyness. We understand this motivation too! The priest and the Levite would love to stop, they’d love to help, it’s not that they’re not willing to help their fellow human being, it’s just that they’ve got a 9:30 in Jericho and there are people depending on them to be there. The Levite is an important member of the regional council of Levitical Oversight, he’s on the executive, committee and today’s meeting is really important.They really can’t possibly do without him. If it were up to him he’d stop, but this looks really complicated and he simply has to be on time for that meeting. Someone else will be coming along soon, someone slightly less busy, and that person will have time for this poor soul.
Or maybe the priest and the Levite pass by because they’re concerned about contamination. This person could be dead, could be ceremonially unclean. After all, the law of God stipulates that anyone who touches a dead body will be ritually unclean for seven days. If the man was dead and the priest touched him, he wouldn’t be able to perform any of his temple duties, he would miss a whole week’s worth of meetings. No, better safe than sorry. Better keep going. People needed him and he’d be no good to anyone unclean.
Even this motivation for passing by we understand. We don’t do ritual impurity anymore, but we do have new kinds of contamination. You can’t be too careful about helping injured people in this litigious society. If you try to help and do something wrong, you’re liable to get sued. You could find yourself contaminated with a lawsuit.
Do we know exactly why the priest and the Levite pass by? No. But we can imagine the possibilities. The same possibilities crowd our imaginations, the same worries keep our doors locked and our eyes looking straight when we pass the drifter, the homeless, and the hapless on freeway entrance ramps.
What’s important to see here is that whatever the motivation of the priest and the Levite, whether it was fear or busyness or concern about contamination, it all amounts to the same thing. The same basic attitude is at the bottom of all three of these excuses. In the end, it all amounts to self-preservation. It all amounts to self-protection. We may not know exactly why they passed by, but we do know that one way or another, they were looking after themselves. When these two men walked down the road and saw the man lying in the ditch, they immediately raised walls of protection. Their eye of concern went inward, away from this man’s misery and toward their own safety. They retreated to their little panic room, and they passed by on the other side of the road.
There is another character in this story that displays the same attitude. It is the young lawyer who questions Jesus and spurs him to tell this story. The lawyer asks Jesus two questions, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?” Both these questions are thinly disguised efforts to promote his own interests and advance his own position. Eternal life is the deal he wants to make with Jesus. But he’s hoping to get this eternal life at a cut rate. He doesn’t want to overpay. And so when he hears that love of neighbor is part of the price tag he tries a little haggling: “And who is my neighbor?” he asks. He’s hoping that the circle of those considered neighbors might be drawn as small as possible. Perhaps he could limit the circle to his family and those living on his block. That way he could get eternal life without shelling out more love than necessary. The fewer the neighbors, the lesser the love, the cheaper the eternal life.
The remarkable behavior of the Samaritan man reveals quite a different attitude. When he saw the broken man by the side of the road, he didn’t retreat. He had compassion on him, and went to him. He didn’t move away from the trouble, he moved toward it. He wasn’t thinking first of all about the danger because he was too busy thinking about his neighbor’s need.
While the lawyer is concerned about figuring out the boundaries of his compassion, and fixed on what the law requires him to do, the Samaritan goes way beyond what’s required of him. If the Samaritan were simply acting by the letter of the law, he wouldn’t have bothered to do half of what he did. He could have just thrown the man on his donkey and dropped him off at the gates of Jericho. He could have said to the Jews, “Looks like one of your people. I took him this far, the rest is up to you!” But the Samaritan in Jesus’ story operates out of compassion, not self-preservation or society’s strict codes.
He washes the man’s wounds with oil, he puts him on his own donkey, he takes him to an inn where he spends the night caring for him. The next day he gives the innkeeper a generous expense account. The text says two silver coins, and maybe that sounds like a couple of quarters to you, but don’t be fooled! The modern equivalent of two silver coins is four hundred bucks, and climbing. And as if that weren’t enough, he tells the innkeeper to do whatever needs doing and if that means spending more money, so be it, put it on his tab.
The extent of the Samaritan’s generosity and compassion would have seemed outrageous to the listeners. This Samaritan’s compassion drives him to do more than we could ask or imagine. Jesus leaves no doubt that what drives him is deep compassion and not self-preservation. Jesus tells this story as a challenge to the self-preserving attitude of the lawyer.
The attitude of the lawyer is why Jesus answers with a story. Of course he could have answered the man’s question with a direct response. He could have simply said, “Who is your neighbor? Your neighbor is everyone. The whole world is your neighborhood.” But Jesus doesn’t do that because while such an answer would have addressed the man’s question, it would have done nothing to challenge his attitude. The story of the Samaritan isn’t just an answer to the lawyer’s question. It is a missile aimed at the self-preserving, self-justifying attitude behind it.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven!” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. When he said that, Jesus wasn’t calling us to a higher standard of perfection. He was calling us to live lives of joyful, passionate, extravagant love, instead of anxious, back-watching, account-keeping lives of self-justification.
We can all nod our heads and say, “Yup, yup, yup, it’s all about love. It’s all about passion and joy,” and then still spend our lives trying to justify ourselves. Most of us spend our whole lives making halting steps on the journey from being people who serve our neighbor and our God out of fear and duty, to becoming people who serve out of love. How do we keep going on that journey? How do we suppress the instinct to self-preservation, while at the same time arousing and encouraging the fresh instinct to compassion?
I suppose there are many ways. It helps to read again this biblical story and meditate on it. It helps to worship together and confess our pride and pray for compassion. It helps most of all to remember the wellspring and source of Christian compassion. Think of it this way: we have been the beaten man on the side of the road. Imagine that you are the one lying there beaten to a pulp by your brokenness, too weak to save yourself, feeling half dead. You are covered with blood and dirt and sweat. And as you’re lying there, Jesus comes by and sees you. And when he sees you, he doesn’t wrinkle up his nose in disgust. He doesn’t recoil. He doesn’t say, “Do I really have to stop here? Aren’t I within my rights to keep going?” When he sees you, he doesn’t take out a file of your life and check out your value to see if you’re worth saving. He stops. He smiles. He reaches out to you with a pierced hand to bandage your wounds. He lifts you up, and he takes you to a safe house. “I’ll pay whatever it takes,” he says, “I’ll shoulder the costs of this one! Just put it on my bill.” When you know Jesus has loved you like that, then your instincts begin to be schooled in Jesus’ way when he says, “Go and do likewise.”