Yesterday, a Christian friend put a quote from a famous pastor up on facebook which ended with this little gem:
You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.
Which is what we like to tell ourselves, but it’s not true. Jesus even told us a story to show that it’s not true. You know, the story of the good Samaritan. That story is Jesus telling us that sometimes we do have to compromise our convictions in order to be compassionate.
You see, we read the story and understand right away that the priest and the Levite who walked by the injured man are wrong. They should have stopped and helped. Except we’re wrong. They behaved just the way they were supposed to.
Stopping and helping the injured man would have required breaking purity laws, especially if it turned out he was dead or he died while they were trying to help him. The man would have been stripped of his clothing by the bandits so there was no way to know if he was a fellow Jew, a hated Roman soldier or Gentile or some other sort of unclean person. There were certain policies and procedures to be observed.
If they did stop to help the man, they would have been putting themselves at risk. Bandits weren’t above waiting to ambush anyone who came to help on of their victims. They were a constant danger on that section of road. It was foolish to put yourself in danger for a potentially unclean man who may well be too far gone to help.
Plus, the process of becoming ritually pure could be long and even expensive. If they were traveling on business, having to go through ritual purification could interfere with their ability to execute their other duties and responsibilities.
It wouldn’t have occurred to many in Jesus’ audience until the end of the story that either the priest or the Levite had acted improperly. They had important teachings to uphold and no greater duty than to faithfully execute their duties under the law. Far from doing anything wrong, the priest and the Levite behaved just as they were expected to as faithful keepers of the Torah.
It’s entirely possible that the priest and the Levite had compassion on the beaten man as they passed by. Maybe each man sent up a prayer or meant to bring up the problem with safety on the road with government officials or resolved to put a few extra coins into the widow’s fund in honor of the man. They may well have done any or all of those things. Or thought about doing them. Perhaps they had compassion in their hearts, but it certainly did the injured man no good.
Into this story walks a Samaritan. A person whose religious credentials were seriously questionable. Just the sort of person who would compromise convictions when it served their purpose to do so. And that’s exactly what he does. He crosses over the boundaries the priest and the Levite respected in order to take care of the man. He did it at great cost and inconvenience. He even went so far as to make himself vulnerable to the robbers who continually prowled that road looking for victims. He behaved very irresponsibly, really.
But as Jesus said when he told the story, “who showed love to their neighbor?” It wasn’t the ones who kept to their convictions. It was the one who loved his neighbor as himself. Even when it meant compromising his convictions.