But [the lawyer] .... said unto Jesus, "And who is my neighbour?"Some interesting background information on this parable: Jerusalem was a holy city, the place where the temple was located. Jericho, near the Dead Sea, is some 846 feet below sea level. So when Jesus says that a certain man "went down" from Jerusalem to Jericho, he means it literally as well as figuratively. Priests and Levites were considered very holy men, people who presided over sacrifices and other rites in the temple. Samaritans were a people related to the Jews, but whom the Jews went out of their way to shun, mostly because the Samaritans had intermarried with other people from the region and were thus considered half-breeds.
And Jesus answering said, "A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, 'Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.'
Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?" And he said, "He that shewed mercy on him."
Then said Jesus unto him, "Go, and do thou likewise."
-- Luke 10:29-37
When I first heard this story as a kid, I was confused. Why would the priest and the Levite have gone past without at least stopping to check on the man lying there by the roadside? I later learned that priests and Levites, because they were meant to be ritually clean and separated from all corruption, were not allowed to touch the dead. If the man on the road looked dead, perhaps they were erring on the side of caution by choosing not to touch him -- but even so, they were not wholly justified. As long as there was any possibility the man was alive, it was their duty to check on him and render aid if necessary.
Just recently, though, it's occurred to me what else the priest and the Levite might have been thinking when they left a man for dead.
The parable indicates that the man "fell among thieves," who took him for everything he had and nearly killed him. I can't help wondering whether the priest, having walked this road before and knowing its dangers, thought to himself, "Look, a body on the roadside. I suppose I should help -- but what if it's a thief, pretending to be dead, waiting for me to get close so that he and his band can attack and rob me? No, it's too dangerous. I shouldn't get involved." And so he walked over to the other side of the road, avoiding any potential danger.
I wonder whether the Levite thought to himself, "No, I'm not going to stop. After all, it's not really my problem, is it? He doesn't look like anyone I know. He might not even be a Jew. And I have responsibilities to attend to in the temple. Someone else will come by here eventually and take care of things." And he too walked to the other side of the road, carefully sidestepping any feelings of guilt, and continued on his way.
I guess I've been thinking about this particular parable in the wake of recent news stories about how numerous Americans -- many claiming to be Christian -- have been pushing hard against the notion of the United States taking in any Syrian refugees. "It's too dangerous! They could be terrorists! They're Muslims, and Muslims aren't like us! Anyway, it's not our problem; let someone else do it!"
Some Americans claim that, had they lived during World War II, they would have stepped forward to save European Jews from the Holocaust. Do we now sidestep the opportunity -- the duty -- to help other people bleeding on the roadside because there's a possibility that they might be dangerous? Does America, the Mother of Exiles, the land of "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," try to pretend that these refugees are someone else's bailiwick? Are we afraid to take them in because they are different, because too many Americans openly despise these people of an unfamiliar faith and culture?
And are we using the fig leaf of "security issues" to cover our hatred and cowardice?
No. I refuse to believe that this is what Americans have become.
Worried about security? Fine, then let's get to work at putting some screening measures in place -- not allowing ourselves to say, "That's impossible," but to say instead, "That's going to be difficult. Let's figure it out."