A priest, a lawyer and a prophet walked up to the pearly gates… You can imagine the rest of that scene if you like. This type of joke is based on the idea of final judgement, admittance to heaven or being turned away. This will not, I hope, come off as a sermon on how to get to heaven. In Amos 7: 7-17 we read that Amos saw God with a plumb line in his hand. Holding it up to a building that had been built plumb, the lines would have been parallel. Then God said he was going to hold the line up to Israel and it would show just how far they had tipped. Please note that this was not an individual measure, but of a whole nation in which the king and very many subjects had strayed from God to worshiping pagan gods. If that plumb line itself were the measure to be used for us, would our nation be straight? If it was used individually to determine admittance to eternal life, would any of us pass that test? In Luke 10: 25-37 he question of being granted eternal life in our is the context of Jesus’ telling of the parable of the good Samaritan.
Today I want to focus, not on the good Samaritan, the “hero” of the parable we read, but on the other characters. Who were these men? They represented normal everyday Godly people, just like us, going about their business amidst a myriad of obligations and interactions. When we read the parable of the Good Samaritan I think most of us read it with the Priest and Levite as the bad guys, I get an image in my head from Godspell with them walking with their noses in the air and pretending they didn’t see the victim, and the Samaritan as the good guy. While they may have opposite roles for illustration of our idea of a neighbour, they are not the bad guys of the story. The bad guys, if we need to place blame, were the robbers who fell upon a man walking down the road, robbed him, beat him, and left him to die.
Priests and Levites were two of the religious leadership groups in the Israel. The priests were those who performed the sacrifices and were able to enter the holy of holies. Levites were also serving in the temple with the more every-day tasks and were not permitted to perform the sacrifices. Some people equate the Levites with lawyers as they tended to do particularly close study of the law. To perform their daily tasks these men would needed to remain pure. From their earliest days they would have been taught how to avoid becoming unclean. One absolute was not touching dead bodies. If unclean, the Priest and Levite would not have been able to perform their duties of the day. It would have been possible that the man in the ditch was already dead. They made judgement calls and chose in favour of their service at the temple rather than their obligation to an individual, their neighbour. We gather, through the parable, that they made poor choices that day but this was a snapshot of one day, one choice made, it does not mean that these were bad men, selfish men, or unfeeling men.
The lawyer who was questioning Jesus, and actually giving the answers, wanted to justify his own decisions and actions, to prove himself worthy of eternal life. He knew the answers, but he didn’t really want to follow them. He likely wanted to explain away any choices he had made to avoid unpleasantness or dealing with someone he didn’t like. We know that our own actions can not justify us. How easy is it for us to look at our decisions from the perspectives of our daily lives and commitments, and how hard is it to truly care about everybody?
Driving to work you see a car in the ditch with several cars stopped to give assistance, you drive by relieved that someone is helping…and that you won’t be made late for work.
Reading through the newspaper you read of people whose lives are in upheaval due to major floods or train wrecks. You feel for these people, but see all the people already helping out, assume that the government is going to give financial compensation, and turn the page.
Filled with a sense of justice you have worked with groups to help bring justice to the oppressed. After time, feeling defeated, you start to delete emails on the topic unread.
When we vilify the Priest and Levite we set ourselves up to constantly feel like failures or bad guys. The truth is, we are called to make choices every day which, if taken out of context, might cast us in the same light we have shining on the Priest and the Levite from the parable. If we choose not to give in to our kids are we bad parents? How do we maintain our plumb?
Amos was a simple man, a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. In short he was a shepherd. He was called to proclaim God’s messages to the people and so he was called as a prophet. The messages he passed along were far from welcome to the leaders of the day such as Amaziah. If he was choosing what was best for him, it would likely have been to stay amongst the animals and sycamore trees and not mess with people of power. He was not speaking with his authority, which was very limited. His words, and his justification, were from God. The fact that they were ignored and he was sent away did not diminish God’s message.
Amos spoke words that the leaders of Israel, as well as the people when it had filtered down to them, didn’t want to hear. The lawyer’s own answers to Jesus gave a message the lawyer didn’t really want to hear. What do we hope to hear?
We know the answers as well as the Lawyer did. We are to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls, all our strength, and all our minds. And we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. We know that every person is our neighbour. Alone we cannot keep our lives 100% plumb, but we know that through the grace of God and the love of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit our record will be straightened.