Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side.”
One always wonders to what extent Jesus is loading meaning on the seemingly innocuous details of His parables. Does it mean something the “certain man” went down from Jerusalem to Jericho? Is there some “descent” theme going on? Is there something going on with the meanings of Jericho, as “City of Fragrance” or “City of the Moon”? I suppose we could run around all over the map in terms of interpretation on this score.
One new age website interprets it thus: “Jericho is the opposite of Jerusalem. One represents the spiritual; the other, the material. We often start from Jerusalem with high spiritual resolves, but are robbed by outlaw thoughts on the way.” [http://www.truthunity.net/mbd/jericho]
Who would have thought the priest and Levite represented “outlaw thoughts”? In fact they represented an (albeit misguided) adherence to the Law, insofar as they were attempting to stay clear of what appeared to be a dead body.
I do think we may be able to mine some interpretive gold from the idea of “descent.” In the Gospels, you didn’t just “go to Jerusalem,” but very often you “went up to Jerusalem.” Why? Because it was literally higher. But this did have spiritual meaning as well. The temple was the highest part of an already high area, so it was like literally going up to heaven.
Therefore, the “certain man” going down from Jerusalem to Jericho could be understood as a distancing from the divine truths of Sinai to the abuses of the Law we get with the priest and Levite.
Also, given the “certain man” ends up being the lawyer, that adds a dimension. The further the lawyer gets from the spiritual heights of the Law, represented by Jerusalem, the more he is open to being robbed of his person through a conspiracy of bad people and bad theology.
Of course, one of Jesus’ big points is that He came to fulfill the truly spiritual heights of the Law, and do this in Jerusalem, through His death. But in the meantime, the lawyer has to descend into the depths of his own thinking. Lets probe that.
The lawyer’s methodology, as witnessed in the Gospel for this week, is to see the Law as a limit on love. “Who is my neighbor? Who exactly do I need to love? How do you define ‘neighbor’?” This is the lawyer’s game, and it was an abuse of God’s Law. What Jesus teaches here is, the one who descends into this game will always end up hurt.
Consider how some abuse biblical rules on marriage and sexuality. They’ll play games of exegetical Twister to justify a divorce, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, or all number of abuses. But in a world created out of that thinking, they will surely end up hurt, as we see over and over again in our sexually promiscuous world. And of course, the children have gotten most hurt, to say nothing of our pre-born children. “What really is sexual intercourse? And what really is the purpose of marriage?” OK, great. And now we have a society of wounded spirits lying on the side of the road dealing with the fallout.
The same goes for all the commandments. “What does honoring parents really mean? They have to earn respect!” OK, then don’t complain when the police lose all authority and we descend into a feudal society run by drug lords cutting the faces off people.
“What does killing really mean? What is human life?” OK, then don’t be surprised when suicide becomes a celebrated rite of passage for the truly woke, or when mass extermination of certain demographic groups becomes the norm, or when humans are harvested for body parts, or when cannibalism to prevent global warming becomes a thing.
“What does bearing false witness really mean?” OK, then I guess the world is nothing but an illusion crafted from projected constructs and narratives, and we are all two-dimensional characters in an the internal psycho-drama of the elite message-makers. Police man = bad oppressor. Have fun not ending up injured in that world!
“What does coveting really mean?” OK, then let’s live in a world of pure desire, with minds numbed by the “I want” drug, living in an online bubble arising solely from my personal desires, a world surrounded by gods of my own making that I worship non-stop. Who can even see his injured neighbor outside of that bubble?
A descent indeed!
The point is, when someone plays that “What does [x law of God] really mean?” game, someone ends up hurt. Always. And Jesus doesn’t like people getting hurt, nor does the Father, which is why the Lord didn’t set up the Law this way.
He set up the Law in response to a fallen world, to teach what is. Corpses are unclean because God is a God of life. Corpses are where Beelzebub, Lord of Flies, reigns, and God wants nothing to do with Beelzebub.
But the finger of God – that is (as we learned last week), God made flesh – casts out demons. Jesus defeats death. He did this by dying Himself, but not being subject to corruption. Flies came rushing to Jesus, sensing death, but did not find decomposing material. They found life. Therefore in Christ the dead are no longer unclean. Baptism makes that happen.
And in the Old Testament, there were given instructions on how His gracious act of salvation could been done, albeit in type. That is, anyone could become unclean for a day, in order to take care of a corpse properly, and then be clean the next day after a ceremonial washing of water. Why did the priest and Levite not take advantage of that aspect of the Law? Because they were not compelled by mercy, which is what love of God and love of neighbor entail.
Jesus had that ceremonial washing of water in His baptism, and the baptism of His death, and we do as well. He became unclean – a cursed thing hanging on a tree – so that He might have contact with us, reach down into our grave and save us. That is the true way of loving neighbor. That true way of love leaves no one injured.
The Old Testament Law, given from the heights of Sinai and taught from the spiritual heights of Jerusalem, truly allowed for that understanding. But indeed, something happened with Israel’s thinking – it descended down from there, and got hurt.