(Thanks to Kevin for the inspiration!)

In Luke 10, Jesus tells the famous story of the Good Samaritan.  In this narrative, the behavior of the Samaritan toward the injured man is juxtaposed with that of the a priest and a Levite to reveal the nature of the message of love which Jesus was teaching, a love which treats one's "neighbor" as oneself.

Obviously, the various facets of this story have been mulled over for countless centuries.  However, while listening to a exposition of this passage this weekend, I was struck by something of an interesting idea: that the nature of love and generosity transcends morality. 

Let me explain.

Generally, the attitudes of the Levite and priest are characterized quite pejoratively–after all, it is they who walked so callously by the injured man, with seemingly little regard for his life or injuries.  While there is certainly a measure of truth to this characterization, I think some other considerations are warranted.

One of these considerations is that these men did not bypass the injured man out of gross neglect or comfortable apathy.  In fact, it is quite possible that their hearts were moved to compassion.  If this is so, why did they not then act?

Part of the answer may be that their moral systems prevented them.  For a priest especially, coming into contact with the injured (or perhaps dead) man would have brought ritual defilement.  The priest would have become ritually unclean and would have been unable to perform his normal priestly duties.  This would have brought shame and embarrassment, and both he and his entire family would have borne the consequences.  So then, perhaps some of their motivation for passing by may have been honest commitments to upholding some system of morality, notwithstanding what we may think of them in hindsight.

Now of course, the natural reaction to such a conclusion is that their systems of morality are simply <strong>wrong</strong>.  After all, what kind of moral system would prevent–actively or otherwise–basic acts of humanity toward another?

Let us not forget, however, the Samaritan was not without his own moral orientation.  For hundreds of years, the Samaritans had been religiously, socially and economically oppressed by the Jews.  Samaritans and Jewish children were raised to despise and hate one another, and it is said that Jews would often go hundreds of miles out of their way simply to avoid traveling through Samaritan territory.  Fast-forward to Jesus' time, and it is clear that the Samaritan more than likely saw the man (who was probably a Jew) as an enemy.  For any self-respecting, moral Samaritan, an injured or dead Jew is but a small step toward recompense for a long history of violence and oppression. 

So that is the story of our 3 men.  All of them have strong moral systems that clearly define their identity in relation to each other and, for the purposes of this story, to the injured man along the side of the road.  Each of their moral systems would have held them in the "right" to pass on by, to look the other way.  None of their moral systems would have condemned them for not bothering themselves with the troubles of this poor, bloody man.

If this is true, what is it that made the Samaritan stop?  What prompted him to load the man on his donkey?  What compelled him to seek medical care for the man's wounds, going so far as to put out his own hard-earned money to see that his every need was met? 

Despite the rhetorical beauty of it, the reason is not that the Samaritan was an unnaturally moral man, nor that his moral system was somehow superior to that of the priest or the Levite.  Quite to the contrary, the truth of Jesus' teaching in this parable is that the Samartian's actions were so exemplary precisely because they  transcended the man's moral categories.  Here, Jesus is teaching that true, divine love is not bound to the vacillations of human morality–in fact, he teaches that by necessity love must transcend human categories of morality in order for love and generosity to not be corrupted or subverted by the same.

I think this is an important distinction to make.  After all, if the premise of this discussion is sound, it is clear how powerful systems of morality can be.  For the Levite and the priest, they were strong enough to convince each of them that is was appropriate to leave the man to his death.  But the more profound point here is not simply that their systems of morality allowed such an action; the devious nature of these systems is that <strong>each of these men went on their way fully justified in their actions</strong>.  Because they had maintained right standing within their particular moral systems, they could return to their lives in peace and self-assurance, easily putting the man out of their thoughts.

Lest we despise these men for their seeming callousness, we should remember that we are not immune from the same pitfalls.  How many places in our cities do we avoid because we do not want to be "morally corrupted?"  How many people do we turn away–actively or passively–because our moral "compasses" cause us to look the other way because we don't want to get involved?  How often do we withhold our wealth because of pre-moral determinations about how others will use (read "waste) these resources? 

No, within each of us are all three men.  Without trying, we can easily be the priest and the Levite.  We can sleep soundly at night and walk securely through the day, self-justified in our own feelings of morality while the world lies bloodied and dying along the side of the road.  However, we can also be the Samaritan.  This does not mean that we are thoroughly holy people for whom generosity and love come as easily as breathing.  No, it will be a struggle and it will require that we set aside a lot of assumptions we have about the nature of love and morality.  But rest assured, just as with the Samaritan, it will transcend every category we'd like to lock around it.  True love is revealed, perhaps only when the nature of grace explodes every preconception we have.  It is in this moment that the Spirit of divine love is released to do that which we could never do ourselves.