The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity: A Priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity: A Priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan
St. Luke 10:23-37
by William Klock
“Behold,” St. Luke writes in Chapter 10, verse 25 of his Gospel. “Behold, a lawyer stood up and put Jesus on the spot.” That sort of thing happened a lot to Jesus and it was no surprise. Even when he didn’t say it outright, it was obvious to everyone because of the things Jesus said and did, that he was making himself out to be the Messiah. That made a lot of people angry. Some, like the Sadducees, weren’t particularly keen on the whole Messiah thing, because if it was true, it probably meant that when and if the Messiah came, they’d lose their status as kings of the Jewish mountain. The Pharisees—like most people in Israel—were hoping and praying for the Messiah. Their problem with Jesus was that in some ways they could see that the Lord was clearly behind him. No one else could do or say the things he was doing and saying, but then he was also doing things they thought the Messiah should not or would never do. So people were always challenging Jesus. And if they paid as much attention to the things he said in response to those challenges, people like this lawyer might have thought twice about challenging him themselves. But this smarty-pants challenges Jesus anyway. And he asks, “Rabbi, what am I to do if I want to inherit eternal life.”
Now, we need to pause there for a minute. Because when this lawyer asked about inheriting “eternal life” he wasn’t asking, “How do I go to heaven when I die?” The Jews expected the Messiah bring an end to the present evil age and to inaugurate the age to come—that age when all would be set to rights and the Lord would return to his temple and the people would live forever in his presence. “Eternal life” wasn’t about the Lord taking his people away to heaven, but about bringing heaven to earth. It was about the restoration of all things and the world set to rights like it had been before human beings rebelled and brought sin and death into the world. And most people expected that God’s people—at least the good and faithful ones—would be part of it, while the nations, the gentiles, would be destroyed in a hail of the Lord’s judgement, fire and brimstone, or at least they’d be left in the outer darkness, wailing and gnashing their teeth. Everyone knew that the Messiah would bring this kingdom so the lawyer is asking, “If you’re Messiah, Jesus, what do I need to do to have a share in your kingdom?” And, again, he’s asking because Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners and that seems to be setting an awfully low bar for who is in and who is out—and, probably most important, it seems like Jesus doesn’t care about obedience to torah.
And Jesus, knows this is really about what torah means, so he dumps the question back on the lawyer. And the lawyer responds with those words that even we know by heart, if for no other reason than that we recite them every Sunday as part of our liturgy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.”
And, much to the lawyer’s consternation, Jesus says, “Yes! You answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” In other words, “Do this and when the Lord comes in judgement, you will live to see his kingdom the other side of it.” To love God and to love one’s neighbour, the whole law boils down to that. All the details and commandments are just the practical outworking of these two basic principles. They’re both right there in the law itself: Deuteronomy 6:5: love God; and Leviticus 19:19: love your neighbour. This love is what marks out and has always marked out God’s people. It’s how he knows them—an abiding love for him and for neighbour borne out of faith in him and in his promises.
That should have been the end of it, but the lawyer can’t let it go. He’s frustrated with the answer, because if obedience to torah is the way into the kingdom, what is Jesus doing hanging out and eating dinner with all the torah-breakers? He knows that there’s something wrong with Jesus and he wants all the people gathered there to know it, so he pulls at this thread. “Ah! But who is my neighbour?” he asks—I expect with more than a little bit of smugness. Because this is where everyone will see that what Jesus means when he talks about loving your neighbour isn’t what the scribes and Pharisees mean—and that Jesus’ is interpreting torah all wrong.
And “Who is my neighbour?” may seem like a dumb question to us, but that’s because we’ve all been raised on the story that Jesus tells here. The lawyer, however, was raised on the teaching of the rabbis. Jews only saw other Jews as their neighbours. Pharisees, for the most part, really only saw other Pharisees as their neighbours. One rabbinical saying ruled that “heretics, informers, and renegades should be pushed (into the ditch) and not pulled out”. Tax collectors and sinners, well, most people wouldn’t consider them neighbours and there was no question about were gentiles stood.
It’s the perfect opportunity for Jesus to tell another story and that’s just what he does. “Once upon a time,” Jesus says, “a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and was set upon by robbers. They stripped him bare and beat him and ran off leaving him for dead.”
Everyone could picture this. They all knew the winding road that went down the mountain for Jerusalem to Jericho. They knew it was dangerous. They knew that it wasn’t wise to travel it alone. In their day, the Roman army was having constantly to deal with the robbers that camped out along it. A thousand years later it was still a problem and the Crusaders built a fort half-way up the mountain to protect pilgrims.
“A priest,” Jesus said, “happened to be going down the road.” Oh, that’s good. A priest will surely stop to help the man. But Jesus goes on, saying, “When the priest saw the man, he went past on the opposite side of the road.”
A lot of people will say that this was expected, after all, the priest didn’t know if the man was dead or alive, whether he was Jew or gentile, and he couldn’t risk defiling himself and becoming unclean. That would keep him from his priestly duties. But the longer I think about this story as Jesus tells it, it’s pretty clear that Jesus’ story hinges on the expectation that the priest—a man who should be setting an example for Israel of love for God and love for neighbour—the story hinges on the expectation that he, of all people, would stop to help. If anyone should care for the lost sheep of Israel, it’s Israel’s religious leaders. But instead of stopping the priest goes out of his way to avoid this poor man.
“Next, came a Levite,” Jesus goes on. “He saw the man too and went past on the opposite side.” A Levite was a member of the priestly tribe, he just wasn’t an actual priest. They took care of the temple and supported the ministry of the priests. Again, this man wasn’t necessarily a leader of Israel, but we might still think of him as a holy man, so you’d expect this second man to stop and help. But he doesn’t stop either.
The tension is building as Jesus tells the story. On the one hand, even the lawyer knew that the priest and the Levite should have stopped. But he—and probably most of the other people listening—were thinking of all the good justifications the priest and Levite would have for not stopping. Leviticus 19:17-18, for example, equates one’s brother and a “son of your own people” with one’s neighbour. The man was naked. The priest and Levite couldn’t tell from his clothing if he was a Jew or not, so maybe they were justified in not helping. And then there was Jesus ben Sira, the great teacher of wisdom. The Pharisees stood very much in his tradition. He had this to say on the subject:
Do good to a godly man, and you will be repaid…Give to the godly man, but do not help the sinner. Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly…For the Most High also hates sinners and will inflict punishment on the ungodly. Give to the good man, but do not help the sinner. (Sirach 12:2, 4, 6-7)
So, again, as much as the lawyer knew the priest and Levite should have stopped to help, the fact that he could think of any number of justifications for why they wouldn’t stop is starting to expose his hypocrisy—and that’s the brilliance of Jesus’ storytelling.
Jesus goes on and now he really gets everyone’s attention. There was a formula to this kind of story. We have the same kind of formula. If I start telling a joke by saying that three men walked into a bar and that the first two were a priest and a minister, you all know before I even say it that the third will be a rabbi. Well, in Jesus’ day there was a formula for story-telling that also included three men. If the first two were a priest and a Levite, the third was supposed to be an ordinary Jewish layman. So Jesus goes on:
“But then,” he says, “a travelling Samaritan came to where he was.”
That would have startled everyone. “Wait…what? A Samaritan? No, Jesus, that not how the story’s supposed to go.” But that’s the point. “When the Samaritan saw him he was filled with pity. He came over to him and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine. Then he put him on his own beast, took him to an inn, and looked after him. The next morning, as he was going on his way, he gave the innkeeper two dinars. ‘Take care of him,’ he said, ‘and on my way back I’ll pay you whatever else you need to spend on him.’”
I think everyone understood what Jesus was getting at now. They were all squirming after the priest and Levite parts, because they knew that both men should have stopped to help, but they could think of all sorts of good reasons to justify why they didn’t—and they all knew that if it weren’t for the way Jesus was telling the story, they probably would have been totally sympathetic with the uncaring priest and Levite—and that didn’t sit well. It was convicting. But now the person who does help the man turns out to be a Samaritan? Everybody hated the Samaritans and you could say bad things about them—you could even do bad things to them if one happened to show his face in Judah—and it wasn’t like today where some politically correct do-gooder would call you out on it. Samaritans were the worst of the worst. The Jews could sort of excuse gentiles for being gentiles, because they didn’t have the torah. But the Samaritans, they had the torah. They had been Jews once, but then they intermarried with the pagan Canaanites. And they adulterated the scriptures. And they had their own rival temple so that they didn’t have to go to Jerusalem. And in Jesus’ day, most of them had become thoroughly hellenised, compromising their philosophy and religion with the Greeks. They had no excuse. They were scum. Again, to quote Jesus ben Sira: “There are two nations that my soul detests, the third is not a nation at all: the inhabitants of Mount Seir, the Philistines, and the stupid people living at Shechem” (Sirach 50:25-26 NJB). Those stupid people at Shechem, those are the Samaritans.
But it’s one of those stupid people who does the right thing. Not the priest, not the Levite, but the stupid Samaritan—someone who did everything else wrong. He had compassion, Jesus says. And that compassion put everything else: the law, defilement, race hatred, fear of robbers—it put everything else in perspective. He treated them man’s wounds with wine and oil and bound them up, then he put the man on his own animal and took him to an inn. He risked the return of the robbers. He risked the Jews of Jericho or whatever town he took the man to. If anyone figured out the man on his horse was Jewish, they would have come after the Samaritan. The Samaritan risked being ripped off by the innkeeper—which was apparently a very common thing. But without the innkeeper having been paid, the dying man would have been stuck with no way to pay and likely sold into slavery as a debtor. And in conclusion Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three do you think turned out to be the neighbour of the man who was set upon by brigands?”
And as the lawyer answers Jesus, I think you can hear that he’s been convicted by the story. “The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer said—I think, probably, fairly sheepishly.
And then back to his question: “What do I need to do to have a share in your kingdom, Jesus?” Jesus says to him, “You go and do the same.” This is what it looks like to love God and to love your neighbour. This is what it looks like to be faithful to torah and to the Lord’s covenant. This is what it looks like to be one of his people. Do this, and when the Lord comes to judge Israel, you can be sure to escape his judgement and to have a share in the age to come.
The lawyer wanted to expose Jesus. To show everyone how Jesus was misinterpreting torah, but Jesus’ uses the story to turn the tables and to show how the lawyer and those like him were the ones who had got torah the wrong way around. They, the most righteous people in Israel, are here exposed for their unfaithfulness. I think this is obvious even if we don’t dig any deeper. Just on its face the story exposes the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of Judah in Jesus’ day. But there is more to the story. The imagery that Jesus draws on comes from the sixth chapter of the prophet Hosea. Roughly seven-and-a-half centuries earlier, Hosea had spoken words of warning to the king and people of the northern kingdom of Israel—otherwise known as Samaria. Samaria had been unfaithful to the Lord and imminent judgement was coming if something didn’t change. Hosea writes:
“Come, let us return to the Lord;
for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord;
his going out is sure as the dawn;
he will come to us as the showers,
as the spring rains that water the earth.”
What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? (That’s the northern kingdom)
What shall I do with you, O Judah? (That’s the southern)
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes early away.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets;
I have slain them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgment goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
But like Adam they transgressed the covenant;
there they dealt faithlessly with me.
Gilead (a prominent city in Samaria) is a city of evildoers,
tracked with blood.
As robbers lie in wait for a man,
so the priests band together;
they murder on the way to Shechem (the place of Samaria’s rival and unsanctioned temple);
they commit villainy.
In the house of Israel I have seen a horrible thing;
Ephraim’s whoredom is there; Israel is defiled.
In the end, Israel (or as it’s called here, Samaria) was defeated by the Assyrians and the people scattered and lost forever to the nations. In telling his parable, Jesus shifts the story of the northern kingdom’s judgement and destruction into his own day. This time, instead of Israel being under imminent judgement for her sins and faithlessness, it’s Judah. And instead of the Assyrian armies hovering threateningly, it’s the armies of Rome.
Hosea’s all here in Jesus’ story. The lawyer talks about loving God, but Hosea condemns him when he says that the love of Israel and Judah for God is “like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away”. Hosea condemns the priests of Israel for lying in wait like robbers on the road to Shechem, ready to murder the very sheep they were supposed to shepherd. There’s a reason Jesus sets his story on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. In his day the priests preyed on the people of Judah when they went up to Jerusalem to visit the temple.
And the Samaritan who stops to help. He’s a reminder to the people of Judah of the Lord’s judgement on his people. The Samaritan—or at least his ancestors—knew that judgement. Just a few verses back Jesus had warned that on the day of the Lord’s judgement, it would be better for the gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon than for Jewish Capernaum (Luke 10:13-15). Would Judah take the lesson of Samaria to heart? Or would she continue to cling to her hypocrisy and face judgement as the Samarians had?
And then there’s another contrast between the priest and the Levite and the Samaritan that Hosea brings out. The priest and the Levite were on their way home from the temple having taken part in the sacrifices offered there, but they weren’t the ones who showed mercy”. I don’t think anyone could have helped but hear Hosea’s words as Jesus spoke, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than whole burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). It echoes what Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13). Think of his other parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Jesus came for the sick in Israel, while people like the Pharisees passed them by on the other side of the road.
That’s the point of the story. Jesus isn’t in the story, he’s the prophet, like Hosea, telling the story to rebuke the shepherds of Israel—the priests and Levites and people like the lawyer—for their lack of mercy and compassion. They’ve condemned the lost sheep, when they should have been out looking for them. They couldn’t be bothered to search for the lost coin. And they’ve mocked the father of the prodigal son as they saw him waiting day in and day out for his son to return and then rebuked him for receiving him back. This is why they were so hostile to Jesus, who came not to condemn, but to redeem. They just couldn’t wrap their heads around that. And so Jesus does everything, from pleading to rebuking to rampaging through the temple with a whip to make his point and to call his people to repentance—that they might understand both the coming judgement and the mercy the Lord is ready to pour out on those who believe.
Now, two thousand years later and on the other side of the judgement that Jesus was warning the people of Judah about, what do we take away from this? As a people who live with the law of the Spirit written on our hearts rather than with the torah carved on stone tablets, what does this mean? On one hand, Jesus’ warning to people who thought they were being faithful to the Lord, while treating others without mercy and compassion is always going to be applicable. If anything, we—people who have known the redeeming love of God made manifest in Jesus and his death and resurrection—we ought to understand and value mercy and compassion more than any other people on earth. If that lawyer stood there convicted for loving the law, but failing to show mercy and compassion, how much more ought we to feel convicted if we fail to show mercy and compassion. There’s that.
But I think, too, much as Jesus brought Hosea’s denunciation of Samaria into his present to convict the people and leaders of Judah, we need to bring Jesus’ parable and denunciation of Judah into our present to convict the church where we have failed to be faithful. A lack of mercy and compassion is certainly one way that we’ve sometimes failed, but we compromise the scriptures and the gospel and the life of the Spirit in other ways. What the parable highlights so well is that we’re so often blind to our compromises, either because everyone else is making the same compromises or because the compromises come from the cultural air we breathe and the cultural water we swim in—things like materialism, commercialism, individualism. And so we put ourselves first, we act selfishly without even realising it. We treat the gospel or the church like a commodity without even realising it. We squander our time and talent and treasure on the things of this world without even realising it. And because everyone—or most everyone—is doing the same things and because it’s in the cultural air and water, we just keep on doing it without giving it any thought. Brothers and Sisters, this is where we need to let the scriptures and the gospel and the Spirit speak to us—to expose our idols and our points of unfaithfulness to the Lord—and to let them drown out the voices and values of the world that we might see our hypocrisies and repent and follow Jesus and love God and love our neighbours all the more thoroughly. We need to want, to desire to follow Jesus and the Spirit more closely—to pray for that renewal of our minds and regeneration of our hearts—and then to let the scriptures and the gospel and the church and the Spirit do their work to make us the people God has called us to be in Jesus the Messiah.
Let’s pray: Almighty and merciful God, by whose gift alone your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
 Joachim Jeremias The Parables of Jesus (New York: Scribners, 1972), 202.