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The Priest and the Levite

September 16, 2019

We are all familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. To many of us, it illustrates Christ’s call to love thy neighbor. In various ways, we all answer that call. We help our neighbor when a storm causes a limb to fall on his driveway or we feed our neighbor’s fish when they are gone on vacation. We might even do more difficult things for our neighbors. Some people volunteer time at community shelters, helping with the homeless. Others may serve as foster parents for neglected or abused children. These are certainly examples that would fit Christ’s call. In these examples, we realize that we are modeling the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel.

But we can’t overlook the priest and the Levite in this parable, even though it is easy to do. In fact, we may intentionally look past the priest and the Levite because we see too much of ourselves in these figures and it makes us uncomfortable. These two figures cause me to think more deeply than the Good Samaritan himself.

St. Teresa of Avila says that one of the keys to knowing you have a deep and personal relationship with Christ is your love for your neighbor. She says that it is difficult for us to recognize our love for God, but that we can all have an awareness of how much we truly love others. It is in our love for others that we can gain some consciousness of the depth of our love for God. But it isn’t just for situations in which love comes easy. We do not achieve discipleship when we show love for those who are close to us and those to whom we have a deep affection. Christ said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” (Luke 6:32-33) We achieve discipleship when we show love for the sick, the unfortunate, the disabled, the victimized, even our enemies. The love Christ expects us to show is love for which we cannot be repaid.

I suspect that the priest and the Levite would have stopped and helped the victim along the road to Jericho if they knew him and liked him. But the priest and the Levite decided not to render assistance for two reasons. First, they were religious men who looked at everything in the world through the lens of a very strict set of laws. The laws they followed meant that touching a person who was dead, wounded or diseased, made them unclean and unfit to carry out their religious rituals until they were cleansed themselves. To them, the stranger lying by the side of the road was not worth the hassle. They likely rationalized that he was already dead or beyond help and that stopping to render any assistance would be fruitless. The second reason is related to the first, but it is exposed by Christ’s constant rebuke of the Pharisees throughout the Gospels. Many of the religious leaders were so tied up in the ritualistic Mosaic laws, they had a very minimal relationship with God and very little love for their neighbors. Christ called these men to a new way of life but many refused to listen. Christ’s new covenant called for an increase of love and a decrease in ritual perfection. Christ made frequent examples of the Chief priests and other religious leaders because of their inflexible adherence to ritual cleanliness and lawfulness, while at the same time, these religious men totally failed to love.

The very first time a child hears this parable, the child knows the right thing to do. The child knows that the priest and the Levite are wrong for ignoring the victim and that the Good Samaritan is right. But somewhere along the path of life, we all lose sight of the divide between the right and wrong in this parable. We all have moments in our life when we behave more like the priest the Levite and the Pharisees.

There are occasions in my life when I have avoided someone because of their disability or illness. I have shown frustration or indifference toward someone who is distraught or victimized. I have avoided a neighbor who needs my help with a problem in his or her life. Each time I have rationalized that it is too messy to get involved and that it would take me away from all the other important things I’m doing in my life. As a child, I would have been drawn to these people in their need but as an adult, I don’t want to get dirty.

If St. Teresa of Avila is right, and I’m betting she is, I have a long way to go in my relationship with God. I think this is what Pope Francis means when he says that a shepherd must smell like his sheep. I’m not a shepherd in the same sense as the pope, but I do need to be willing to get dirty and risk some uncleanliness in my life if I have any desire to love my neighbor and love God.

The priest and the Levite were oblivious to the amazing love shown by the Good Samaritan. They may have gone on to live their lives without any interruption or epiphany. But because they chose to remain clean and upright, they will forever be known as examples of indifference.