Of priests and neighbors (part 2)

David AyresBaustelle Berlin

We have considered the priestly function of the church—bringing our neighbors and their needs to God and bringing God and His blessings to our neighbors. The priestly function is a mediatorial role of standing in between. It is a function we carry out, as it were, between the two great commandments of loving God and loving our neighbor.

An expert in the law asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked him what the Law required. He answered by rehearsing the two great commandments: To love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said to him, “Do this, and you shall live.”

Perhaps, admitting the impossibility of measuring up to this summary of the Law, and wanting to justify himself, the law expert replied, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, which we read and considered as our appointed Gospel text several Sundays ago.

The story is familiar. A man going down to Jericho was attacked on the way by robbers, who left him half dead on the road. A priest and a Levite passed by without stopping to help, maybe too busy or unwilling to risk their lives on the dangerous road. But a Samaritan (an avowed enemy of the Jews) stopped in compassion, rescued the man and provided abundantly for his needs.

“Which of these was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Jesus asked. The lawyer replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

I think we are often unaffected by the parable. We have a bias against the priest and the Levite, whom we recognize as typical “religious hypocrites.” We know we tend to make excuses for not helping, but at least we’re not hypocrites, or so we think. And we have no racist attitude toward the Samaritan, so we congratulate ourselves on that point, as well. If we are sometimes pricked by a guilty conscience, we try harder for a week or two to be more aware of the needs of those around us. But all in all, I think we generally remain unmoved.

But perhaps we have missed the point.

It seems the law expert was looking for a loophole by which he could feel satisfied about keeping the law. But Jesus, as He was prone to do, raised the bar, making the law even harder to keep. Rather than narrowing the definition of neighbor, he widened it. (Jesus’ hearers must have been incredulous that a hated Samaritan was the hero of the story.) In another place, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies . . .” (Matthew 5:43-44)

Jesus meant for us to recognize that our efforts to love God and men as the law requires always fall short, that we can never attain eternal life by our own righteousness. Indeed, because of our unrighteousness, we are dead in sin. We are the ones in desperate need, for we are unable to meet the requirements that perfect love for God and neighbor demands.

So when we hear the parable, rather than trying to determine where we stand in comparison to the priest, the Levite or even the Samaritan, let us always identify ourselves with the man lying on the Jericho road. For it is precisely there that Jesus meets us in compassion. It is there our great High Priest not only risked His life, but gave it, bringing the great blessing of God’s mercy and salvation to us. And it is there where He lifts us up and brings us back to God.

Jesus, too, is qualified in the role of priest, being subject to all human weakness and temptation, even as we are, and yet He is without sin. He perfectly kept the great commandments. His love for God was manifest in subjecting His own will even to death on the Cross. His love for His neighbor was manifest in that while we were yet sinners (enemies) He died and gave His life for us.

We stand as priests between the two great commandments—striving to love God with all our hearts and our neighbor as ourselves, but we find we cannot. And so, we must fall regularly upon the mercy of Jesus, our great High Priest, who does not pass us by. We can only be priests, if He is our Priest. We can only give mercy when we have received mercy. We can only love, because He first loved us.

“Go and do likewise,” is an impossible imperative. But with God all things are possible.