“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of 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.” - Luke 10:30-32
The priest walks by.
The Levite walks by.
Many of us may look at that and naturally ask the question, “Well, how can the religious leaders leave the man on the side of the road? How can the priest do something like that?” And we think of our own church leaders and pastors and how appalling it would be to see them leave a man dying on the side of the road.
But when the expert in the law hears Jesus telling this story, he would not be surprised at this point. Because as Jesus is telling the story, the expert in the law knows the Hebrew Scriptures very well, and he knows the culture very well, and he knows that what the priest and the Levite do is exactly what priests and Levites do. The expert in the law whom Jesus is telling this story to is familiar with the Levitical laws and the priestly system.
He knows the text:
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, ‘A priest must not make himself ceremonially unclean for any of his people who die except for a close relative, such as his mother or father, his son or daughter, his brother, or an unmarried sister who is dependent on him since she has no husband. For her, he may make himself unclean. He must not make himself unclean for people related to him by marriage, and so defile himself.” - Leviticus 21:1-4
And like it Leviticus 21:11, which gets more specific about high priests:
“The high priest must not enter a place where there is a dead body. He must not make himself unclean, even for his own father or mother.”
When the expert in the law hears this story, he would not be surprised at the behavior of the Priest and the Levite. They are simply doing what Priests and Levites do. In fact, to this day, Orthodox Jewish priests still avoid going to cemeteries or funerals of people who are not in their family to avoid breaking the Levitical law. And so, as the expert in the hears the story, he is not surprised. Of course the Priest and the Levite don’t help the man on the side of the road, because he was dying. And if he were to die on their watch, they would no longer be able to fulfill their priestly duties. Helping the man on the side of the road would risk their obedience to the law.
And so a man is left dying on the side of the road because a Priest and a Levite are focused on their religious rules.
As the expert in the law hears this story, the question would quickly become, “Where is he going to see himself in the story that Jesus tells?” It’s unlikely that he’s going to see himself as the priest or the Levite. As an expert in the law, he would likely not only be not surprised by the choice of the priest and the Levite, but he would be a little frustrated. He would get the feeling that we get when we turn on the news and see people in the name of the Jesus, declaring or doing things in the name of Jesus that are contrary to his message.
The expert in the law would be thinking, “Here are the religious people; more religious hypocrites, who follow their laws but ignore the law to love your neighbor.” And so as he hears the story, in his frustration, he couldn’t imagine himself as the priest or the Levite.
This only leaves two characters.
Jesus continues the story.
‘But a Samaritan, as he traveled, 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, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins 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 neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’
Jews despise the Samaritans. Out of anybody in the story that Jesus tells, the last person the expert in the law would resonate with is the Samaritan. The Samaritans were the half-bloods. They are the hated; they didn’t truly follow God. The plot twists in Jesus story as a Samaritan shows up as the hero. This presents a problem for the expert in the law. If he’s not the priest and not the Levite and he’s definitely not the Samaritan, that only leaves one person.
The man dead and dying on the side of the road.
When life and sin leaves us beaten down on the side of the road, where do we turn? In this story, religion leaves a man dead and dying. The religious behavior of the priest and the Levite don’t come to the rescue. They may have been following the rules, but the man on the side of the road was still left for dead. The only one that does anything while we are beaten and dying on the side of the road is the one who is hated, who was despised and rejected. The despised and rejected comes when nothing else could rescue and picks us up, bandages our wounds, and takes us to the inn.