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Levite Tells All

July 18, 2013

Luke 10: 25-3716467_ferdinand_hodler_the_good_samaritan


Gosh that was scary. I think I just saw a dead body.


I had just finished a week of work at the Temple and was on my way back home to my place in Jericho for the weekend. I was quite tired and minding my own business and there it was… cuts all over it, blood everywhere… it looked awful… in the ditch at the side of the road. … I can’t really get it out of my mind.


I assume it was dead. That’s the problem. What if it wasn’t dead? It wasn’t moving, so I’m pretty sure it must have been dead. My first thought was that perhaps I should have gone closer, you never know. But it’s difficult in my position. A lot of people don’t understand the pressure I’m under.


I am a Levite, my Father is a Levite, my tribe is Levi (it’s in the genes you could say) going back many generations. We are temple people. All Israel pays tithes to keep our work going. Our whole lives are dedicated to the temple of the Lord God. It is a very important role.


At risk of being anachronistic let me give you some idea what it’s like … it’s like I work in a nuclear power plant [h/t James Warren for this great metaphor]. The whole temple is like a nuclear power plant. Every thing we do has to be precisely according to protocol, by the book you might say. The nuclear reactor we call “the holy of holies”… Of course it’s out of bounds. We only go in for special maintenance once a year, or at least the high priest goes in wearing, special clothing (protective clothing you might say). In the smoko-room we have stories on the wall about times when people haven’t followed protocol resulting in a radiation leakage… we just say that “fire came forth from the presence of the Lord and devoured them” (Lev 10:1-2) but you could say its like Yahweh, the reactor having a meltdown. Like the day the Ark of the Covenant (it’s the way they used to transport the nuclear reactor around) nearly fell of the rails it was being carried on. The guy who tried to rescue it (without following protocol)… died instantly… as we say ‘at the hand of Yahweh’


I have been trained since childhood in the protocol we call “the law of God”. I have learnt to read the scholars and teachers… And don’t get me wrong it’s not all about ritual. That’s a key part of my life. But if you were to ask me what the Law is all about in a nutshell I would say something like this “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbour as yourself”. That’s the whole deal in a nutshell. And I don’t want to blow my own trumpet here, but I spend my life attending to the commands of God, giving my energies to the work of God, maintaining the worship of God in the midst of the people of God. It’s a great privilege being a Levite. Loving God is a discipline – you have to put your whole life into. And I don’t think I’m being too presumptuous to say that that is what I am seeking to do – its my career path.


Which is really why an awful lot of stuff goes through your head when you see a dead body in the ditch on the side of the road. One of the key protocols in my life is to remain pure and not to touch dead bodies. Loving my neighbour means loving my fellow Israelite, loving God’s people (not the gentiles)… but the problem is, when you see a dead body lying there semi-naked you can’t exactly tell if it’s a Jew or a Gentile. What’s more I didn’t know for sure whether it was dead or not.


Now I know that the scholars debate about these matters and many would say that if the body is still alive (and it is a Jew) then my duty is to care for my neighbour. It should be my priority and should outweigh any impurity I accrue by helping. And they are probably right. But that doesn’t make it any easier for me. The guy lying in the ditch might be (heaven forbid) a Samaritan and then I would be up the creek without a paddle.


Either way if do intervene I would be responsible for the guy’s burial. I would be duty-bound to rip my expensive Levitical robes, because they would no longer be pure. I would go into religious quarantine for a period and my family and myself would get no income from the tithes to feed ourselves. Then I would have to go to Jerusalem for ceremonial cleansing.


Are you getting the picture? Everything within me from childhood is saying to me ‘don’t touch the unclean’. Sure it bothered me that it might be somebody dying. But it was a well travelled road. There was bound to be someone else coming along in a few minutes, it’s not like he didn’t have a good chance of surviving. And on top of all that I had to get home, it was getting dark…


Don’t look at me like that! I’m a good man! At least I’m doing my best. I’ve got a family to look after. In fact, if you think about it, I’ve got a whole nation to look after. This is a matter of national security. You’re looking at me as if I were some kind of Samaritan scum. In my shoes, you would do the same thing.


Question: How is the Levite different from the good Samaritan?



A concluding short discourse on Compassion


The Samaritan does many things differently. In fact his response is extraordinary, he loves this neighbour, with his heart and mind and soul and strength over the long term, but it all starts with one word: compassion. Chris Marshall says “The term denotes a deep physical stirring in the innards, since the intestines (to splangchna) were thought to be the seat of the natural passions”. In Luke’s gospel this term applies particularly to God. It’s also at the centre of Jesus whole life. John Donahue describes it as ‘that divine quality which, when present in human beings enables them to share deeply in the sufferings and needs of others and enables them to move from one world to the other: from the world of the helper to the one needing help’. In other words it’s related to what we talked about last week, the capacity to ‘bear one another’s burdens’ to put oneself imaginatively and sympathetically in someone else’s shoes.


The Levite had a whole career dedicated to being good, that included working out the appropriate ways to be good and who to be good to. So the body in the ditch was an obstacle to be negotiated a tricky situation for a man living in his own world. It was another occasion for him to ask the question ‘who is my neighbour?’


On the other hand the Samaritan has one overwhelming characteristic – compassion. He sees the body in the ditch as a person like himself, with hopes and needs and aspirations. Rather than living in his own world of self-justication, he moves from one world to the other. He puts himself in the other guys shoes. And everywhere he goes he creates neighbours, because of his way of seeing the world. Rather than living in his own world, he is a veritable neighbour-creating machine!


In the end there are two perspectives here. You can live life from the perspective of the temple worker – a good person trying to live a good life (as he understood it) in threatening conditions. Or you can live life like the Samaritan (and Jesus) … from the perspective of the ditch.



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