[This little piece is offered as a companion to a more philosophical discussion I am writing on virtue ethics. This is the devotional side of that discussion and is intentionally less technical.]
Quite often, Jesus is known for giving difficult or seemingly evasive answers to ordinary questions. They make you scratch your head a little bit and think, which I assume is the point. “He that has ears to hear let him hear” is Jesus-speak for “think about it.” With that in mind, I am a little concerned when Jesus gives an easy answer for once. I’m not the only one.
This happens in Luke 10:25-28. A lawyer, an expert in Jewish religion, comes to test Jesus with a difficult question. The question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?,” is difficult because it is so open-ended. The answer could be anything and everything contained in God’s law. After all, what would you leave out in good conscience?
Jesus responds by asking the lawyer to do the hard work and answer himself.
The lawyer, not to be outwitted, offers an answer that we have heard Jesus himself give before in other Gospel accounts, “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 neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus responds succinctly, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” Do this and you will live.
However, the lawyer is frustrated and for a reason we can all understand. There is a reason that preachers don’t get up each Sunday morning, say, “Love God and love each other,” and then dismiss the church. It’s a little too simple for everyday living, isn’t it? We know it’s true, but none of us are actually very good at working out the details.
Trying to apply this kind of command brings us into the muddy waters of ethics. Ethics is the study of what is good and how to do it. The challenge of living ethically is in the application, especially when one or more good things run into conflict with each other. It is good to tell the truth, and it is good to save someone’s life. What if you face a situation where you need to tell a lie to save a life, or where telling the truth might cost someone their life? Would you lie to a Nazi SS officer to save the life of a Jewish child, or would you tell the truth and let her be taken to a death camp? Ethics just got hard.
The lawyer in this little story is probably exactly the kind of guy who sat around and worried about questions like that. He wasn’t the sort to be satisfied with easy answers. So in the verse that follows, he asks Jesus a probing ethical question, “Who is my neighbor?”
This is not an easy question! Do not be fooled!
Jewish rabbis had struggled with this one for ages. What if my “neighbor” isn’t Jewish? For example, in Jewish traditional teaching, it was forbidden for a Jewish midwife to help deliver a Gentile baby, because she would be bringing another child of idolatry into the world. Here, the ceremonial laws and the rules of national identity came into conflict with ordinary kindness. The lawyer knew of these kinds of problems and is asking Jesus to do a better job of explaining himself. He is almost suggesting that Jesus is a superficial teacher who knows how to amaze the crowds, but isn’t ready to dialogue with the real masters of the law.
You may feel the same sentiment and even resentment when preachers give you “too easy” “just so” answers.
The church is told be “in the world but not of the world.” That’s easy to say, but how do I do that? Can I live next to sinners? Can I work with sinners? Can I go to school with sinners? I am told to honor God and honor my government, but how do I do that? What if my government does not honor my God? I am told to love my neighbor as myself, but what if my neighbors are homosexuals? What if my homosexual neighbors invite me to their wedding? Who is my neighbor?
Don’t assume this lawyer is just a troublemaker trying to avoid true religion. This lawyer is you and me. This lawyer is everyone who has ever wondered how to do all the many things God’s law teaches in a world that seems determined to make that difficult.
And Jesus is our teacher.
He tells a story in the following verses that acknowledges this difficulty, rather than dismissing it. He tells the story of a man who is robbed and left for dead, and he tells a story of two good religious people trying to make a decision about how to deal with it. They are challenged by the conflict of helping this man and their own personal goals. They are travelling this road for a reason after all. They may very well be off to do good. What if this Levite is off to help some other family? What if this priest is running an errand to help his own family? What if your good personal goals get in the way of doing good for others?
They may be thinking of their own safety. This could be a trap. We have all seen a Western movie where a fellow poses by the side of the road and looks like he fell off of his horse. Some “good Samaritan” stops to help and ends up getting robbed. That’s not a new trick, folks. Even if this injured man is not planning a trap, somebody robbed him and left him for dead. Where did they go? Are they lying in wait? Isn’t it good to see to my own safety and security? If I am robbed and left for dead, my wife and children are now widows and orphans. Wouldn’t it be good to play it safe and move on?
What happens when doing good gets in the way of doing good?
Worse still, this may not have been the only concern for the priest and the Levite. We tend to think of these two as mean, self-involved men, but that is not by any stretch the only way to view them. I looked at art depicting this scene, and in almost every case, these two are depicted as passing by with a sneer on their face. Then I found an exception. The image I’m showing with this post is from an ancient Christian painting of this parable. It was painted on the side of a church wall as a teaching aid. Look at how the priest is painted. He is wrapped in a cloak covered in Hebrew letters. He is passing by, not out of meanness, but because he is wrapped up in the law.
A priest had certain rules he had to live by. God tells Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: No one shall make himself unclean for the dead among his people” (Leviticus 21:1-4). Ezekiel repeats it, “[The priests] shall not defile themselves by going near to a dead person” (Ezekiel 44:25). Though slightly different, for a Nazarite the rules are even spelled out more severely,
All the days that he separates himself to the LORD he shall not go near a dead body. Not even for his father or for his mother, for brother or sister, if they die, shall he make himself unclean, because his separation to God is on his head. All the days of his separation he is holy to the LORD. And if any man dies very suddenly beside him and he defiles his consecrated head, then he shall shave his head on the day of his cleansing; on the seventh day he shall shave it. On the eighth day he shall bring two turtledoves or two pigeons to the priest to the entrance of the tent of meeting, and the priest shall offer one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering, and make atonement for him, because he sinned by reason of the dead body. And he shall consecrate his head that same day and separate himself to the LORD for the days of his separation and bring a male lamb a year old for a guilt offering. But the previous period shall be void, because his separation was defiled (Numbers 6:6-12).
Suppose for a moment that these men did not pass by out of malice but because of piety. It is hard enough to choose wisely when one good gets in the way of another good, but what if God seems to be in the way of good? What are we to do?
Do you see how well Jesus understands the lawyer’s question? Do you see how well Jesus understands the plight of living for God in everyday life?
The first half of this story shows that Jesus understands the question. The second half of the story shows that Jesus has and is the answer. A Samaritan passes down the same road as the Levite and the priest. A Samaritan. A half-breed. A heretic from the faith of Israel. A man with no heritage and no hope. A Samaritan has no reason to help a man from Jerusalem. A Samaritan has his own business to be about. A Samaritan has his own life and safety to care about.
A Samaritan helps anyway. A Samaritan does not do the least he can get away with but the most he can do to love his neighbor as himself. A Samaritan does not ask, “Who is my neighbor?” The Samaritan asks, “How can I be a better neighbor?”
What Jesus shows us here is a lesson that cuts to the core of ethics, especially for the religiously minded like the Levite, the priest, the lawyer, and the people like us listening to this story told anew.
God’s law is given to produce good, not reduce good.
If ever you find yourself in a situation where God’s law seems to keep you from doing good, then either you misunderstand God’s law or you misunderstand God’s good. Paul says it to Timothy like this:
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted (1 Timothy 1:8-11).
God’s will is to create a people who do good works and to save a people from evil works. God’s law never prevents God’s good.
If your personal goals or personal safety get in the way of God’s goodness, then Jesus teaches us to reevaluate those values. He is the true and better Samaritan. The Samaritan of the parable risks himself but in the end only loses coin. Jesus enters the dangerous world of human sin and loses his life. He did not only touch a dead body; he became a dead body. He became a defiled corpse on a shameful cross because that is what it took to do God’s good will. He frees us from the shackles of our hypothetical dilemmas and shows us true goodness. It is he, himself, who is good, and we must follow him down any road and at any cost.