This week we engage part two of a two-part blog posting. Today we look at Jesus’ response to last week’s question, “Teacher, what must I do to be saved?”
Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.” – Luke 10:30-31, NASB
The eighteen-mile route from Jerusalem to Jericho begins about 2,500 feet above sea level, taking the traveler through rough, rocky terrain to an endpoint about 825 feet below sea level.1 The route is notoriously dangerous, sparsely populated, and a haven for bandits.2,3
It is reasonable to hypothesize that the bandits in Jesus’ story staged this event in order to use the man as bait. At one particular point, a traveler on this road reaches a pass known as “tal `at ed-damm” meaning Ascent of Blood, a location referenced twice by Joshua.4
Some argue that the name comes from the red rock that is found throughout the area, while early church father Jerome says the name refers to the blood spilled by bandits at this specific location and suggests that this is the site Jesus had in mind for the peril that befell the traveler in his story.
In the Middle East, there are a couple of options for identifying who someone is. We can make our determination by how a person is dressed. Even today, different cultures clothe themselves in distinctive ways, and this often allows us to identify them as belonging to their unique culture. The other way to identify someone, if the clothing is of no help, is to speak with the person. By talking with them we are able to learn what we could not tell by looking at their attire.
The priest in Jesus’ story has neither of these options available to him. He cannot learn anything from the man’s clothing because the man is stripped naked. Neither can he learn anything from the man by speaking to him. The man is unconscious.
Priests in Jesus’ day were divided into twenty-four courses. Twelve courses were permanently stationed at the temple in Jerusalem, while the remaining courses were scattered throughout the land. It is estimated that about one half of those scattered ended up in Jericho, and they were reputed to frequently support their priestly brethren in Jerusalem, and through their supportive service this difficult and dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho was well traveled by priests. When a course of priests was on duty, their entire membership journeyed to Jerusalem to carry out their duties until their cycle was completed. It is speculated by many that the priest in Jesus’ story could have just completed such a duty cycle.5,6
As the priest in Jesus’ parable happens upon the victim, he faces a fundamental problem. Before he can render aid, he must determine if this wounded man is a member of his community. While it may seem like Jesus is being critical of the priest, I do not believe that is the case at all. Rather, I believe Jesus is highly critical of the system of ethics under which this priest must operate.
Everything for the priest is defined by a system of laws and traditions. This priest’s religious system contains a dictate for every possible situation he could ever imagine encountering. He has all the answers to all the questions at his fingertips, yet he is helpless; completely unable to respond to the needs of a wounded man lying by the side of the road. His own ethical system has paralyzed him.
If the wounded man is a Gentile, the priest has no responsibility toward him whatsoever and he can continue his journey with a clear conscience. If the man is dead, the priest will become defiled if he touches him, regardless of the man’s identity. If the priest becomes defiled, he has to return to Jerusalem, the city from which he has just come, he has to produce a red heifer to sacrifice, he has to burn it, and he must complete all of the ceremonial cleansing rituals to remove his defilement. If he becomes ceremonially unclean, he cannot collect tithes, and neither can he or his family or his servants eat from them. Neither can he pass out benevolence to the needy.
All of this is going to cost the priest time and money, and it comes to pass if the priest does touch the body and if the man is, in fact, dead. If the priest becomes unclean, and after the fact learns that the man is not a member of his community (or worse, that he is a Gentile), then the damage is both frustrating and unnecessary. Everything in this priest’s experience screams at him to pass by the man, and that is precisely what he does.
I suspect every scribe and Pharisee in the audience nodded in approval.
Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. – Luke 10:32, NASB
The next character in our drama is a Levite. A Levite is something of an assistant to the priest. He is a descendent of the priestly tribe of Levi, but he is not of direct patrilineal descent from Aaron, as the priest is required to be.7
The Levite seems to have come a little closer to the victim than did the priest, certainly close enough to actually see the man. Where the priest came “down the road,” the Levite came “to the place.” Later, the Samaritan will come “to the man.” Now that the Levite is here, what should he do? If he is an experienced and wise Levite, he will know that the question has already been answered for him.
In the 1970s, much of the United States was taken with the craze over Citizen’s Band Radios. Very quickly, long-haul truckers claimed channel 19 on the citizen’s band as their channel for communicating while traversing the countryside. Monitoring channel 19, one would often hear, “How’s it lookin’ over your shoulder?” The inquirer wants to know any number of things about the roadway he or she will soon encounter, statuses of which the person on the other side of the conversation has first-hand knowledge. What are the road conditions? Is there ice or snow? Is there construction? Is it raining? Are there speed traps? All of this information allows one to be better prepared for what will soon be encountered.
The situation with our Levite is very similar. He knows there is a priest on the path ahead of him. When walking a trail in this part of the world, especially this trail, one must know who is on the trail ahead of them, because one’s life may depend upon knowing.
There may be fresh tracks in the dirt, and it may even be that the Levite can see the priest ahead of him through the clear desert air. If he cannot see the priest, he will certainly ask someone coming the other direction who it is that is walking ahead of him.
As a Levite, one who knows there is a priest on the same path, going the same direction, it would be completely improper for him to second-guess a priest. He knows that a priest has encountered this unknown, unidentifiable, unconscious man, and in all of his wisdom and his training has decided that the correct course of action is to leave the man as he is. The Levite passes by on the other side, giving a wide berth to the wounded man.
Again, the crowd nods its approval.
At this point, Jesus has the crowd’s interest and their approval. It is also at this point that Jesus drops a bomb on the listeners.
If Jesus had told the story of a good Jew who helped a Samaritan, while that thought is distasteful, it could be absorbed. But we cannot subscribe to is a good Samaritan offering much-needed help to a Jew. Dr. Craig Blomberg, Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, drives this point home, saying:
Put more prosaically, the parable is indeed more powerful and poignant because Jesus reverses the lawyer’s original question and forces him to imagine himself receiving help from one to whom he can barely imagine offering help.8
It takes tremendous courage to tell a story of the hated enemy, making him the hero of your tale.
But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.” Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands? And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.” – Luke 10:33-37, NASB
Jesus is rubbing sandpaper on a sensitive nerve while making a deep and profound statement on the subject of prejudice and hatred. The crowd has heard of the priest who passed by, and then the Levite, so now they expect some layman or other national representative to enter the story. But what they get is a Samaritan pig, and it is shocking to them. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews, at times even more so than were the Gentiles.
Samaria lies between Judah on the south and Galilee on the north, placing the land mass directly in the hostile-glare sightline of their Jewish neighbors on both sides. There is not universal agreement on the exact origin of the Samaritan sect.
During the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the city of Samaria was the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel. The city, and the hill upon which it sat, was purchased by Omri from Shemer, and Omri named the city Samaria in Shemer’s honor.9
In the Old Testament, we read of an exchange of peoples following the fall of Israel to Assyria in 722 B.C. Following that defeat, Shalmaneser V, the king of Assyria, flooded the region with other conquered peoples from Babylon, Kuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, while deporting the Israelites to other lands.10 Extricating people from their homeland in this way is one means of controlling them.
From the Samaritan vantage point, the story differs dramatically. They saw themselves as descendants of the Jewish tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, as evidenced by the statement from the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s gospel,11 and they further claimed that the deportation of Shalmaneser V was neither full-scale nor permanent.12
The Samaritans asserted that the Jews were guilty of apostasy, based on their establishment of multiple idolatrous shrines during the time of Eli (which was true), and therefore considered themselves the true descendants of Israel who kept vigil on the only holy place, Mount Gerizim.
The book of 2nd Chronicles seems to affirm the Samaritan assertion that a full deportation of Israelites did not occur. Thus, with the inflow of foreign peoples, we ended up with a heterogeneous composition of peoples, comprised of the non-exiled Jewish remnant, and the foreign exiles brought to the land by Shalmaneser V. The inevitable result of such a diversified population is an assimilation of many customs and beliefs proffered by the varying factions. This undoubtedly included intermarrying between sects.
As a result of the intermarrying of Jews and non-Jews, the Samaritans were considered half-breed traitors, despised because of their violation of God’s call to marry only within their own people.13 The Law and the Torah are very clear on the topic of intermarrying.
You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.14
Tensions between the Samaritans and the Jews were intensified by the return of the exiles to Jerusalem by Cyrus, the ruler of Persia, around 538 B.C. The region of Judah at that time was under the control of Sanballat, a native Palestinian ruler under Persian authority. With the return of the exiles, and their clear intention to rebuild the Jerusalem temple and city wall, the threat to Sanballat’s political position was very clear.15
Further cementing the rift between the peoples was the construction of a competing temple in Samaria atop Mount Gerizim, and it is this place of worship to which the Samaritan woman at the well referred in her John 4 conversation with Jesus, saying, “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”16 This temple was later destroyed by the Jewish ruler John Hyrcanus, when he marched against Shechem and Samaria in 128 B.C.
The rampage of Antiochus IV in 167 B.C. further exacerbated the tension and hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans, as the Samaritans opted not to aid in resistance to Antiochus’ campaign. Antiochus adopted the surname Epiphanes, meaning, “the visible God,” but the populace tagged him with the surname Epimanes, meaning, “the madman.”
Antiochus is most noted for forbidding the worship of God in the Jerusalem temple, slaughtering a pig on its altar, and then erecting an altar to Jupiter in its place. He forbade circumcision, sold thousands of Jews into slavery, destroyed all copies of the Hebrew scriptures he could find, and slaughtered anyone found to be in possession of such scriptures.17 When the Maccabees managed to stage an organized resistance to Antiochus, the Samaritans did not lend assistance.
A Lesson for Us
The list of hateful acts between the Samaritans and the Jews is long and notorious, cataloging acts of desecration and slaughter on both sides. The animosity between the peoples continued into the lifetime and ministry of Jesus, but he refused to participate in the hatred and bigotry. It is to a Samaritan, a woman – one who was shacked up with a man – to whom Jesus made one of the most profound revelations on the concept of worship recorded in the pages of scripture.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” – John 4:21-24, NASB
Jesus rejected the bigotry and malevolence between the Jews and the Samaritans. When his disciples saw that Jesus was not received by the Samaritans, they offered to call down fire from heaven to consume them, and it would have been interesting to see if they could have pulled that off. But Jesus rebuked them, telling them that he came not to destroy lives but to save them.18
Jesus healed ten lepers and honored the Samaritan among them, the only one who returned to thank him.19 And now in the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus shatters traditional, cultural prejudices by making the hated Samaritan the “neighbor” in his story rather than the societally-respected priest or Levite. Dr. Blomberg, again, puts this rather poignantly:
If a conservative evangelical white Scottish farmer is told that a liberal atheist African-American feminist lesbian is his neighbour, there can be quite an element of shock and even resistance!20
What Jesus has done is to present to the United States citizen, an Islamic Jihadist helping victims of the World Trade Center collapse. He has chosen the most unpalatable, immoral, extreme example available to his day, and his culture. Jesus speaks to Samaritans, drinks with them, resides with them, and accepts their worship and faith in him as the Messiah. Dr. David Carlson, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Franklin College said:
Jesus redefines righteousness not according to descent or religious practice, but according to faith in himself. In so doing, he shatters the racial and cultural distinctions of his day and lays the foundation for the gospel’s subsequent spread to the entire gentile world.21
The Samaritan in Jesus’ story helped not only a man who hated him, but a man who had been ignored by the religious leadership of his own people. Jesus said the Samaritan “bound up his wounds,” intentionally using language that would resonate with the audience who had heard this language used of Yahweh their entire lives.22 He took him to the inn and paid for his lodging and care. From this story, we are called not only to be a neighbor to all, but also to acknowledge neighborly acts by those we despise.
The priest and the Levite had a rule for every circumstance and every particularity at their disposal, and yet they failed to be a neighbor to the wounded, half-dead man. In this story, Jesus teaches us a great deal about jettisoning our bigotry, our nationalism, and our prejudices, but he teaches us even more about righteousness that cannot be found in following laws, regulations, and traditions. We can never live up to the standards we set for ourselves in our religious systems.
The original question asked by the lawyer in last week’s blog posting illustrates this all too clearly. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The answer frustrates him because it calls for an impossible task.
The follow-up question, “Who is my neighbor?” is never answered but rather redefined by Jesus as, “To whom should I be a neighbor?”. We can strive to follow an impossible system of rules, trying to color inside the lines, or we can break free of that and have the unearned redemption of Christ.
1. American Bible Society Resources (n.d.). From Jerusalem to Jericho. Retrieved 06/03/2016 from http://bibleresources.americanbible.org/resource/from-jerusalem-to-jericho
2. Wade, J. W., (1985). Dear Theophilus: Two Letters From Luke. (p. 112). Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing.
3. American Bible Society Resources (n.d.). From Jerusalem to Jericho. Retrieved 06/03/2016 from http://bibleresources.americanbible.org/resource/from-jerusalem-to-jericho
4. Joshua 15:7, 18:17, Joshua refers to the location as the Ascent of Adummim, meaning “red objects.”
5. Chumney, E., (1998). The Temple: Its Ministry and Services. Retrieved 06/03/2016 from http://www.hebroots.org/hebrootsarchive/9808/9808_g.html
6. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible Exposition Commentary (Vol. 1, p. 212). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
7. Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (p. 1754). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
8. Blomberg, C., (2013). Article Title. Foundations, Spring 2013(64), 24-37.
9. 1 Kings 16:24
10. 2 Kings 17:24
11. John 4:12, 19
12. Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (pp. 1886–1888). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
13. Manser, M. H. (2009). Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies. London: Martin Manser.
14. Deuteronomy 7:3-4 (ESV)
15. Ezra 4:7–24, Nehemiah 4:1–9
16. John 4:20, NASB
17. Bible History Online, (n.d.) Antiochus IV Epiphanes Bust. Retrieved 06/04/2016 from http://www.bible-history.com/archaeology/greece/2-antiochus-iv-bust-bb.html
18. Luke 9:55-56
19. Luke 17:11-19
20. Blomberg, C., (2013). Article Title. Foundations, Spring 2013(64), 24-37.
21. Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (p.1888). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
22. See, for example: Psalm 147:3, Job 5:18, Hosea 6:1