Proving That You Love God

You have heard Jesus’ story all your life. I’ll add a few historical details, so we can hear it as Jesus’ first audience did. A “man” was “going down” from Jerusalem to Jericho. Jesus doesn’t specify that he was a Jew, though the fact he was leaving Jerusalem leads us to assume that he was. The road went “down” quickly—Jerusalem is 2,500 feet above sea level, while Jericho sits 770 feet below it. The road drops 3,300 feet in just 18 miles (Nolland 593; Fitsmyer 886).

On the road he was assaulted by robbers who took his possessions and clothes, beat him, and left him. Such was a common experience on this road. Its many turns, crags, and rocky shadows make it an ideal place for bandits to hide. Herod the Great dismissed 40,000 men who had been employed in building the Temple in Jerusalem (Josephus, Antiquities 15.7); many turned to highway robbery, and many of them to this very highway.

Jerome said that the road was still called the “Red, or Bloody Way” in the fifth century after Christ (Barclay 139). Even in the medieval era it was a dangerous road, so that the famous Order of Knights Templar was created to guard those who traveled it (Bliss 189). I’ve traveled it twice, in a tour bus during the day. Both times, our tour guides were relieved to do so successfully. We stopped at the ruins of one of the medieval inns created by the Knights Templar on the road, and shopped at a tourist stop along the way.

It was no surprise to Jesus’ audience that robbers would assault a man on this road. But those who would help him, and those who would not, would be a surprise indeed.

First came a priest. Jericho was preeminently a city of priests (Geldenhuys), home to no less than 12,000 priests and Levites (Barnes 68). About half of the priestly orders in Israel lived in Jericho (Ellis 161). This man was on his way to his religious responsibilities in Jerusalem, or returning from them (Jesus didn’t specify which way the man was traveling).

The priest saw the injured man but “passed by on the other side” (v. 31). He literally “stepped over to the opposite side of the road” (Robertson 153). Why did he not stop to help?

He may have had a religious motive. Numbers 19.11 specifies, “Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days.” If this priest were on his way to his Temple responsibilities, and touched this apparently dead person, he could not do his duty. Robertson calls this “a vivid and powerful picture of the vice of Jewish ceremonial cleanliness at the cost of moral principle and duty” (153).

And he likely had a personal motive as well. Robbers would often make one of their number lie alongside the road as though injured; when a traveler stopped to help, the other robbers would attack him. This could be a ploy, and a sign that other robbers are in the immediate area. Whether from religious or personal motives, the practical consequence was that the dying man is left to die.

But all was not lost: a Levite came along next. Levites were non-Aaronic descendants of the tribe of Levi, Joseph’s third son by Leah. By Jesus’ day they had assumed secondary roles in the worship and life of the Jewish people (Nolland 594). This man “saw him,” perhaps indicating that he drew even closer than did the priest. But with the same result: he “passed by on the other side” (v. 32).

We easily condemn these men for their lack of compassion. But are we so different? Do we put the needs of people ahead of our own? What will we risk to serve? I read years ago about an interesting experiment. An ethics professor at Princeton Seminary asked for volunteers for an extra assignment. At 2:00 PM, fifteen students gathered at Speer Library. The professor divided the students into three groups of five each, and gave each group an envelope.

The first group’s instructions said to proceed immediately across the campus to Stewart Hall, and gave the students fifteen minutes to arrive; if they were late, their grade would be affected. The second group was given 45 minutes to complete the task. The third was given three hours.

Unknown to the students, the professor had arranged three students from the drama department to meet the ethics students along the way, acting as people in need. One would be covering his head with his hands, moaning in great pain. The second lay on the steps of the chapel as though unconscious. The third, on the steps of Stewart Hall, acted out a seizure.

How many ethics students stopped to help? Of the first group, not one. Of the second, only two. Of the third, all five.

In which group are you? Do you see your friend, colleague, or family member lost without Jesus, dying spiritually? Assaulted by life, laying on the side of the road to Jericho, needing your help and heart? When was the last time you gave time you didn’t have? Helped a person you didn’t hurt? Stopped to care at a great cost?

Sharing life

Now comes our hero, the “Good Samaritan.” No one in Jesus’ day would have called any person by this oxymoron. It was ironic that a foreigner, a man not included in the Jewish legal definition of a neighbor, would show himself neighbor to this hurting man (Rienecker 171). And it was even more ironic that the foreigner was a Samaritan.

When Assyria captured the ten northern tribes of Israel in 722 B.C., they left some Israelites behind in the land. Some of those who were left intermarried with Gentiles, making a race of “half breeds” in Jewish eyes. They settled in the area of Samaria, between Galilee to the north and Judah to the south. When the southern kingdom of Judah returned from their Babylonian captivity (ca. 586-522 B.C.), they refused Samaritan help in rebuilding their temple.