30 In reply 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. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 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 took care of him. 35 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.’
The thing about this story is that the priest and the Levite do exactly what they are supposed to do, and everyone listening to Jesus tell this story would do the same. The Law REQUIRED them to pass by on the other side. And nobody would think any higher of the Samaritan for doing what he did because, well, he’s a Samaritan, and they didn’t keep the Law anyway.
That’s because the Law as they understood it was a Law of limitations. They were required to know the minutiae of the Law so that they would know what to do and what not to do. The expert in the Law who prompted Jesus to tell the story, given that he was an expert, had probably kept the Law in its entirety as they understood it, but his question is important. “Who is my neighbour?” said the man (Luke 10:29).
The form of the question is critical to understanding an approach to Law that was the common heritage of many Jews of Jesus day, and, if we’re honest, of many Christians todayl. The intent of the question is to elicit a response which will direct me towards those to whom I owe the duty of neighbourliness, and by extension those to whom I have no responsibility. It is a Law of limitations.
For the priest and the Levite in Jesus story, as well as the expert in the Law who questioned Jesus, the Law always trumped compassion. Faced with a situation in which I am challenged to extend neighbourliness in such a way as would break the Law, then I must ALWAYS keep the Law.
So the priest and the Levite do the right thing. The Law always trumps compassion.
At the end of the story though, Jesus very cleverly changes the question in a quite fundamental way, which reveals Jesus attitude to the Law. Jesus asks “Who was a neighbour to the man?” (Luke 10:36)
For Jesus there is no limitation on neighbourliness and compassion. This is quite revolutionary, even today.
For in Jesus’ understanding, neighbourliness ALWAYS trumps the Law.
Faced with a situation in which I am challenged to extend neighbourliness in such a way as would break the Law, then I must ALWAYS be a neighbour.
Therefore in this parable, the priest and the Levite should have broken the Law to extend help to the beaten man.
I should never hide behind Law, if doing so relieves me of being a neighbour.
And if I am ever in a dilemma of the right thing to do in a situation, then best to err on the side of compassion. Always.
God of love and grace
It would be so much easier to be a disciple
If I could just keep the rules;
If I didn’t have to navigate
The dangerous territories of compassion.
But you seek disciples
With hearts of flesh
And not of stone.
You seek disciples
Who are always willing
To lay aside the law
To bind up wounds.
Make me one of those kinds