Jesus had something radical and controversial to say about those who are “active” in their faith. And so do I. Look closely at this painting of the famous story–The Good Samaritan by Pelegrin Clavé y Roqué:
Where do you see yourself? Are you the one beaten and broken on the wayside? Are you the priest down the road with his back turned to the wounded? Are you the Levite in the right foreground with his nose so buried in the scriptures that he fails to see the needs of the injured? Or do you see yourself as the Good Samaritan?
Before you decide, you need to remember something about the role each played in Jewish society and culture.
The essential idea of a Hebrew priest was that of a mediator between his people and God by representing them officially in worship and sacrifice. By virtue of his office he was able to draw nigh to God, while they, because of their sins and infirmities, must needs stand afar off. The priest exercised his office mainly at the altar by offering the sacrifices and above all the incense (Num. 16:40; 18:2–3, 5, 7; Deut. 33:10) but also by teaching the people the law (Lev. 10:10, 11; Deut. 33:10; Mal. 2:7), by communicating to them the divine will (Num. 27:21), and by blessing them in the name of the Lord (Num. 6:22–27). The work of the Levites was to assist the priests (Num. 3:5–10; 18:1–7). They acted as musicians (1 Chr. 6:16, 31; 15:16; Neh. 11:17, 22); slaughtered the sacrifices (2 Chr. 29:34; 35:11; Ezra 6:20); and generally assisted in the temple (Neh. 11:16, 19). (Taken from LDS BD.)
In contrast to the pure and pious priests and Levites of mainstream Judaism, the Samaritans were a racially mixed society with Jewish and pagan ancestry. Although they worshiped Yahweh as did the Jews, their religion was not mainstream Judaism. They accepted only the first five books of the Bible as canonical, and their temple was on Mount Gerazim instead of on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Because of their imperfect adherence to Judaism and their partly pagan ancestry, the Samaritans were despised by ordinary Jews. They were the “apostates” of their day. They were unorthodox. They didn’t believe the right things. They certainly didn’t support the culture or leadership of mainline Judaism as authentic or authoritative. They were therefore deemed unrighteous and “unsaved” by the Jews.
So when Jesus made the Samaritan the hero of this story (and made the “righteous” establishment figures his villains) it was a radical critique of contemporary Jewish culture and belief. Jesus was being outrageously controversial and openly criticizing the mainstream culture and belief systems of his own religion. This attack on Jewish authority, the culture of the temple and the culture of scripture was a brave thing to do and ultimately got him killed.
Jesus seemed to be saying that orthodoxy (teaching and believing the right things and the right people) does not produce orthopraxy (correct practice). In fact, as Jesus points out, the orthodox and observant–the “active” or “righteous” temple goers–can be some of the most cruel and neglectful people there are. Throughout his ministry Jesus repeatedly pointed out the evil of allowing orthodoxy to trump orthopraxy. In fact, his greatest frustration with the Pharisees was that they thought orthodoxy was orthopraxy. Teaching and believing the right things became righteousness, itself. This perversion, making the means an end in itself, was deeply disturbing to Jesus. Yet it was just as culturally pervasive and diabolical as it is today.
Having had occasion to be beaten, battered and left along the wayside of life by gastroparesis, EPI, degenerative disc disease and a host of other health problems that have left me to subsist on a feeding tube for 15+ hours per day, all of which was preceded by lung disease and a tragic accident that left my father paralyzed, people often ask me about the help I have received from my own faith community–the archetypal “priests” and “Levites” of our day. I wished my typical response was more optimistic than what Jesus offered two millennia ago. But, unfortunately, it is not, which is precisely why I wrote Built to Love and used this painting for its cover.
Praying. Reading the scriptures. Going to the temple/church. Believing the right things. Saying the right things. Believing the right people. Did all of that orthodoxy really impress Jesus? If it did, then why did he make someone who wasn’t doing all those things the hero of his story?
Where is your focus? Where are your priorities? Are you more concerned with orthodoxy or orthopraxy? Are you, like the Levite and the priest, so immersed in the practice of your checklist orthodoxy that you forget (or don’t have time) to go visit the sick, call the weary and offer an encouraging word, mourn with those that mourn, or comfort those that stand in need of comfort? Do you even know how to do those things effectively? Do you study how to do those things? Do you know how to listen? Do you know how to show empathy?
Please listen to someone who lives in a community of believers but often feels all alone in his fight against some pretty horrible health problems. Please listen to someone who lives in a faith community where one of its own recently killed himself. Put down your scriptures. Skip church if you need to. But, please, go and visit someone today. Pick up the phone and call that person you’ve been meaning to call. Do something to help encourage those who need encouragement. Do something to help the lonely not feel so all alone. Do something to surprise someone with your kindness. Make the priorities of Jesus your priorities.