samaritan

On love for the ritually impure

The recent legalization of gay marriage in America has generated a great deal of debate and discussion among Christians, some of it very hurtful and unkind. I’m not writing this article to try to add to that mess, at least I hope not. While I don’t claim to have all the answers or the authority to tell anyone else what they should or shouldn’t do, or believe, hopefully this adds in in a positive way to the present discussion.

It is impossible to be a Christian and not have heard of the parable of the Good Samaritan, but let us just briefly review the account anyway. It goes like this, a Jewish law expert comes to Jesus to test him and asks him what he thinks is the greatest of the laws in the Law of Moses. Jesus replies with the well known words that the greatest commandment is that we must love God with all our heart and soul and body and mind, and the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves. Then the lawyer tells Jesus that he answered well, but then he asks “Who really is my neighbor?”. Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan which goes something like this: A Jewish man is beaten and robbed and left for dead in the ditch beside the road. A Jewish priest travelling on the road sees him, but walks by without helping. Next a Jewish levite does the same thing. Finally a Samaritan man sees him, and stops to help, he takes him to the nearest inn and pays for his lodging. Jesus asks the Jewish law expert, which of these men acted as neighbor, he answers “the one who stopped to help”, and then Jesus tells him to go and do likewise.

An often overlooked aspect of the parable of the good Samaritan is the reason why the priest and the levite passed by the injured man without helping, it had nothing to do with them being good or bad people and had everything to do with ritual purity. The man Jesus was speaking with was an expert in Jewish law, and the Jewish law contains very strict regulations concerning the purity of priests and levites. No one was permitted to serve at the temple, or even go into the temple if they were not pure, and one of those regulations was the prohibition on touching blood, so helping an injured and bleeding man on the side of the road was absolutely out of the question.

So that explains the priest and the levite, but what about the Samaritan? Well, actually, the Samaritans also followed strict purity laws and were also prohibited from touching blood or they would also become ritually unclean. The Samaritans used to be Jews in fact, but due to the tossing and turning of history the Samaritans found themselves outsiders from the Jewish nation, yet they still followed the Law of Moses, and still performed sacrifices at their temple and still maintained strict ritual purity. So what about him? The Samaritan man is called “good” not just because he helps a man in need, but because he is willing to break his own purity regulations to do so. Furthermore, culturally speaking, Jews considered the Samaritans an unclean people, in fact they were not even permitted to enter a Samaritan city! And in a tit-for-tat way of thinking Samaritans also viewed Jews as unclean and tended to avoid them, so the Samaritan was totally breaking his cultural norm by going out of his way to help this injured man.

The great thing about the good Samaritan parable, in my opinion, is that Jesus gets a Jewish Law expert to admit that those who follow the law codes on purity would fail at the second greatest commandment, the commandment to love their neighbor.

It is hard for us to understand these notions of ritual purity today, because most Christians in the west are not very ritually minded, and they tend to only think of purity in terms of morality, but even if we only think of it in that way… I must ask myself: would I be willing to sacrifice my purity, as the Samaritan did, to show love to someone in need? Or do I value my purity more than their need, as did the priest and the levite? Something for me to think about.

Now getting back to the discussion of homosexuality and gay marriage, some might say that we should completely scrap all Christian regulations which prohibit such things, after all, in the parable the one who Jesus praised was the Samaritan who broke the purity laws, not the priest and levite who kept them, but I think this is the wrong way to look at it. What the Samaritan did was such a great act of love exactly because he was willing to do it even though it broke regulations and norms. If there had been no such regulations and norms then would he really have been doing such a great thing?

I do not believe that the moral regulations and norms of Christianity are up for debate, they are what they are, and they aren’t going to change. I am a traditionalist after all. However, if there is such a thing as a valid reason to break rules and regulations I think that reason is love. If there is a valid reason to sacrifice our own purity I think that reason is love. When we see someone spiritually left for dead in the ditch, if we fail to show them love and we just pass them by, for whatever reason, then we are no better than the priest or the levite.

I am not advocating that we approve or condone sin, but rather that we show love regardless of the sin, and that we not be stingy with our love, or view loving the sinner as something which will make us dirty. The world only lacks one thing, and that is love, may we not be the bottleneck which continues to block it.

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