Better to Be a Good Samaritan Than a Good Priest
“Good Samaritan” has entered our English vocabulary to mean someone who helps a person in a tough spot. The phrase comes from a story Jesus told of an unlikely hero who crossed ethnic lines to rescue someone who would otherwise have died (the “Parable of the Good Samaritan”). Jesus ends the story by inviting us to be “Good Samaritans” too. He concludes by saying, “Go and do likewise.”
So, what does it mean to be a “Good Samaritan”? If you look at the story, it’s more than a heartwarming story of doing good for people. It’s an unsettling reframing of what it means to follow God. It means a making the choice to defy conventional boundaries and delve deeper than mere religious duties—and really, truly love people you wouldn’t typically like.
Here’s the context: An expert of the law asked Jesus two questions: The first was how does a person inherit eternal life, to which Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, answered with a question: “What is written in the Law?” When the expert answered with “Love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus commended him for his summary of God’s Law. But there was something about the answer that the expert himself wasn’t comfortable with. He wanted to make sure that this “love your neighbor” thing wouldn’t take him further than he wanted to go. So, the expert asked a second question:
“Who is my neighbor?”
“The expert in the law wanted to make sure that this ‘love your neighbor’ thing wouldn’t take him further than he wanted to go.”
Again, in typical Jesus fashion, Jesus answered the second question with a story, the “parable of the Good Samaritan.”
“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. 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. 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, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 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.’” (Luke 10:30–35)
The irony that would not be lost on the expert in the law was this: The good religious people busily doing their religious duties were the ones missing the point of the law: love.
“The good religious people busily doing their religious duties were the ones missing the point of the law: love.”
Three people walk by the man: a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. The priest happens by, sees the man, crosses over to the other side of the road, and continues on his way. He must have reasoned that he couldn’t stop, because the man was either dead or almost there. Any contact would mean the priest would become unclean which would cause him to not be able to do his job. Consider the following passages from the Law in Leviticus and Numbers:
“A priest must not make himself ceremonially unclean for any of his people who die,except for a close relative.” (Lev. 21:1–2a)
“Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days. They must purify themselves with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then they will be clean. But if they do not purify themselves on the third and seventh days, they will not be clean…For the unclean person, put some ashes from the burned purification offering into a jar and pour fresh water over them. Then a man who is ceremonially clean is to take some hyssop, dip it in the water and sprinkle the tent and all the furnishings and the people who were there. He must also sprinkle anyone who has touched a human bone or a grave or anyone who has been killed or anyone who has died a natural death. The man who is clean is to sprinkle those who are unclean on the third and seventh days, and on the seventh day he is to purify them. Those who are being cleansed must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and that evening they will be clean.” (Num. 19:11–12; 17–19)
“How was this priest supposed to serve Israel if he was unclean for seven days?”
How was this priest supposed to serve Israel if he was unclean for seven days? These sections of Scripture describe the rules for being a priest. Apparently the priest in the story took them very seriously, which is typically honorable. Obedience to God’s Law is a characteristic you should see in a priest.
Although the man on the side of the road was not quite dead, the priest did not get close enough to see if the man was still alive because, if he were dead, just being near him would make him unclean.
He was just trying to be a good priest.
But here’s the kicker: he wouldn’t be unclean forever. God in his wisdom provided a way back to ritual purity. But the way back was hard and just inconvenient. Between the choices of risking being inconvenienced for a short term and helping save a man’s life, the priest’s value system was clear. The Levite had the same response.
It was the Samaritan—more likely to be the villain in a Jewish story—who saw, stopped, and served the man. He was willing to be inconvenienced because the care of a person in trouble was more important than the plans he had.
“The Samaritan was willing to be inconvenienced because the care of a person in trouble was more important than the plans he had.”
“Go and do likewise,” Jesus said (Luke 10:37b).
So what does “go and do likewise” look like in today’s society?
How Do We “Go and Do Likewise”?
I am married with four children, part of the leadership team as the children minister, and am part of a discipleship group. There is always something going on, someplace to be, and something to do. And yet sometimes true kingdom work interrupts and inconveniences these typical ministry duties. Will I see these interruptions as what they really are?
A while back God challenged my heart on my inflexibility when it came to true kingdom work.
A lady in our Discipleship group was sick, to the point where she couldn’t get out of bed and honestly should have called an ambulance. And, of course, it was the night we were supposed to be meeting for our Discipleship group. So instead of going to Discipleship group, I went to her house. I made sure she was okay, made her food, and sat with her. We were able to FaceTime into the meeting, even though we popped in late. And because of that, she got what she needed physically and I got the opportunity to serve the way God wanted me to. As a bonus, we were both able to still be a part of the group even though it looked a little different that night.
Was it easy to shuffle my plans around? Absolutely not. Was it worth it? Absolutely yes!
“Was it easy to shuffle my plans around? Absolutely not. Was it worth it? Absolutely yes!”
Next time such an opportunity comes our way, how can we have a “go and do likewise” attitude? Here are three suggestions:
- Mentally prepare yourself to be inconvenienced. God knows what he is doing when he throws a wrench in our plan. As Proverbs 16:9 says, “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.”
- Be willing to adjust your plans in order to serve God. In such times, I have to hold on to Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
- Be more concerned with what God has for you today than what you perceive you need to accomplish. You have to trust that God knows what he is doing.
We can allow ourselves to get so busy doing things for ministry within the church that we forget that ministry is something we “go and do.”
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36–37)