…Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and too care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’
The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’
Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
I have already made some comment about the first two men who passed by on the other side and did not help the man in need. But before I begin to make comment on the Samaritan, I would like to say a little more about these first two.
We have already noted that, most likely, Jesus was speaking about two Levites, because priests were supposed to have been chosen from among the Levites. And I already made mention that the tribe of Levi is a very likely candidate as to being the tribe to which the expert in the law belonged. So Jesus was certainly making this message personal!
But please do not take from that only the very normal and understandable social reaction. I believe we all need to take this message personally. We need to think about the three examples Jesus chose, and to consider which of them we are closest to.
Yes, we can all admit to the fact that we would like to be the Good Samaritan. All of us instinctively want to feel that we can be the ‘hero’ of the story. We want to feel that we are ‘good’ people. No matter what the true state of our character, all of us believes that we are basically good and not evil or cruel or negligent and so on.
But I think it is worth it to take a moment and be brutally honest with yourself. Which of these three are you really like? And would you find yourself passing by on the other side?
Yesterday, I was making the point about being religious rather than having a living faith coming from a living relationship with the Lord. But there is much more here than that. Even the fact that Jesus chose two Levites of different status and profession is interesting in itself. In one way, this points more closely to the fact that this is a message of teaching for the Lord’s people, for those who are active in the church. This is not an evangelistic or prophetic message for everyone in the world (although this parable is indeed often used as a teaching aid even to children to make them think about caring for others less fortunate than themselves). Again, think of the context and why Jesus was telling this parable. He was clarifying the interpretation of the Law for the sake of a person who wanted to get it right and so live a life to qualify for the inheritance of eternal life.
And so the first person he chose to use as an example in this story was the priest. As I stated before, according to the arrangement of the tribes of Israel, the priests were to be chosen from among the Levites. The rest of the Levites were all associated with the maintenance of the temple or tabernacle, the other places of worship, with the preparation of materials, with the keeping of the temple and synagogue records, with being musicians to help worship, with counselling, dealing with religious law, being scribes for the records, accounts, or the most holy job of writing new copies of the scrolls of the Law and the Prophets, and so on. This tribe was not allocated land in Israel, and so there was the institution of the tithe, so that the Levites would not be hungry.
The role of the priests was to receive the offerings of the people, and to place them as a sacrifice before God. So they also heard the confessions of the people, in some ways like present day Catholic priests, and then took the sin offering, the sacrifice to bring before God. They would perform the religious rites on the Sabbath and on the special religious holy days. They would offer up prayers and pray with the people. And there are many other duties that you can read of in the books of the Law. The main thing to notice is that people needed the priests as a go-between for their access to the Lord. It did not mean they could not come to the Lord directly themselves in prayer and praise, and to feel that they had a direct relationship in that way. But in terms of the religious obligation of the Law, these things were performed with the priest as intermediary.
So it is interesting indeed, that a person who is acting as an intermediary for God, in a sense representing God to the ordinary people, is a person shown to have walked by on the other side. This is like saying to the stricken person that God is walking by on the other side.
This makes me think of times in my own life when things have gone wrong, when there have been problems. Times of loss or misfortune, failures or missed opportunities – we have all had such times. And at such times, we can feel that maybe God has turned his back on us. We can feel abandoned and alone, and yes – as if God has passed by on the other side.
Of course, this is not true at all. This is just a personal impression, and one that the devil likes to use to place a wedge in the relationship between ourselves and the Lord. And of course, we nearly all have friends who, like the friends of Job, get it completely wrong and say that our misfortune is because of personal sin or negligence before God.
But God sees things differently.
There is even more that is interesting to think of about the first example being a priest. This is something that we can see from modern politics that has certainly entered the church. A very worldly way of thinking, but also a very understandable way of thinking. And this is the expectation of a ‘squeaky clean’ life for our representatives, whether they be priests or politicians.
Many a politician has had their career ruined or even ended by a single night with a prostitute, or a revelation that years ago they were involved with a disreputable club or person. There is the expectation, somehow, that these people must be better than the rest of us in terms of morals and personal history.
Of course God sees and does things differently. Jesus choosing a hated tax collector as one of his disciples, and a common fisherman. He did not choose ‘respectable’ or ‘squeaky clean’ people. That is a human expectation, not a godly one. So when we select a person to be our priest or pastor, we use the human expectation that they have an unblemished life.
This is a little strange, actually, because if the person had a ‘history’ then they would certainly know and feel more of the Lord’s forgiveness and love and have a passionate reason for bringing this to others. We compromise and say that maybe it is OK if a ‘shady’ life had only been before salvation, so that we can praise the Lord about the things this person was saved from. But even this is not quite as in scripture, not as the Lord chooses.
There are many who went through a bad patch in their Christian lives, who did bad sins in that time, and yet who the Lord has restored. The Lord calls some of these to ministry, but the church tends to reject and to sideline such people. And I would like to ask, what about Peter? He had responded to the call of Christ and been at his side for three years. Yet when he was in a challenging situation, he denied Christ. Some old-fashioned church authorities would even say that if a person did such a thing, they were guilty of apostasy. Yet what did Jesus do? He told Peter to look after his sheep, and he is remembered as the rock on which the church was built (yes – I know about the evangelical interpretation of the scriptures there. I am quoting church history and the way millions of Christians view Peter, so don’t accuse me of false doctrine please).
So, here was a priest, and so in one sense he had to keep himself ‘respectable.’ Not only that, but a priest could not ‘afford’ (in one sense) to get involved in some things. This was because of certain things that would have the possibility to make him spiritually unclean for a period, or until he could offer a certain sacrifice and go through cleansing ceremonies.
And it is possible to imagine the thoughts. He could see a man who was unconscious, possibly bleeding, certainly wounded. He was naked. And the priest knew nothing about the man. He did not know if the man was Jew or gentile. He did not know if the man carried any diseases. Maybe to touch the man would make him unclean, because maybe there was a disease. Some priests of the time did not want to physically touch a gentile. Maybe the man was in difficulties because he was a bad man and had bean beaten off by more respectable people defending themselves. So what would he be getting involved in if he helped this man?
Of course, we can only imagine the thoughts. Some things are there by implication, but we can only guess the reasons. Yet the implied thoughts can apply to many people today, whether religious or in ministry or even people outside of the faith. But you can imagine the sets of thoughts going through the mind of someone who wants to remain with the image of being ‘respectable,’ and who would never mix with the ‘riff-raff’ of society. Or even the homophobia of a religious man, also bigoted, who would be afraid of being too close to a strange man who was also naked. There are many things implied by this desire to maintain the image of ‘respectability.’
This even affects churches themselves. I can think of one church that likes to be very ‘respectable’ and yet the church building is in the middle of the ‘red light’ district of the city. I often wondered how they would cope with the visit, at a Sunday service, of 2 or 3 of the local ‘working girls.’ Especially if these girls had no experience of church or ‘respectability.’ Maybe they would not be ‘decently’ dressed, and smelling too strongly of cheap perfume. Maybe they would not know how to speak correctly, and still use ‘bad’ language. (For the ‘respectable’ among you, you need to realise something important: there are some parts of society where children grow up hearing words all the time that ‘respectable’ people would never allow to pass their lips. And that for these people, these words are not at all ‘bad’ words, but exist more as punctuation and, especially, as exclamation marks. They do not realise that these are ‘swear words’ are offensive to some people. It is important to realise this. It is important to have patience about this once they are saved and not to keep bugging them about it – because that can only make it harder for people to become free.)
My personal feeling about such a visitation to a ‘respectable’ church is that they would find themselves sitting alone with a wide space around them. Or they may be asked to leave and to return when suitably dressed (which is something that they may not even understand). I certainly feel that an opportunity would be missed. And I will be clear here: when you deny a person the gospel because of your own personal sensitivities and bigotry, you may have their blood on your hands if they die without Jesus.
Bigotry, by the way, is to put wax in the ears of those you are bigoted towards – and so prevent them from being able to hear or receive the gospel from you or the church that you represent. Maybe you even make it impossible for the other to accept the message from anyone, because for that person the gospel will always be associated with bigotry, hatred, and, sadly these days, even violence.
Brothers and sisters, bigotry is always 100% sin! And maybe it was even bigotry that Jesus was addressing in regard to the priest in his story.
So, for today, I feel that the message is to know, firstly, that the Lord will not pass by you on the other side, whatever the reason for the problems you are in. He is always ready to help you, and sometimes begins to do so even before you ask him. Our Lord wants to bless and not to curse you. Even if you feel like he is a million miles away from you, you need to know that such a thing is impossible, because he is omnipresent, and so is right by your side wherever you are and no matter what the circumstance.
And the second part of the message is, please, to stop being ‘respectable’ and expecting others to be ‘respectable.’ Rather be like Jesus who approached all, and accept others just as they are with love. You can be the one to bring the love of the Lord into the lives of all that you meet. This would certainly bring glory to God if you would but allow it.