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Are You Passing By on the Other Side?

June 1, 2021 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Luke 10:30-37 (NRSV)

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Focus

In Jesus’s Parable of the Good Samaritan, when a man was beaten, robbed, and left for dead, two eminent religious leaders came upon him. Both of these men avoided the victim on the road, leaving plenty of distance as they walked by. The leaders were privileged in that they were born into their honored roles. They were used to being treated in a special way, not inconveniencing themselves to care for a victim of injustice. From their example, we learn that we mustn’t let the advantages we have in life keep us away from people in need. It’s easy for that to happen, but it’s not the way of Jesus.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.

Devotion

In the parable of Jesus we call The Good Samaritan, a man is beaten, robbed, and left for dead along the side of a road. While he’s lying there, two potential helpers come along. Both are honored Jewish religious leaders. One is a priest; the other a Levite. Levites assisted the priests, taking on a variety of duties in the temple. Both priests and Levites received financial support from the tithes given to the temple. A Jewish man did not earn the right to become a priest or a Levite. Rather, this was a matter of heredity. Levites were descendants of Levi, the third son of Jacob, a grandson of Abraham and Sarah. Priests were also descendants of Levi, though they traced their lineage back through Aaron, the brother of Moses and the first high priest.

Jesus doesn’t tell us very much about the priest and the Levite in his parable. All we know is that when they came upon the wounded man, they “passed by on the other side” of the road (Luke 10:31-32). In particular, we are not told why they avoided the injured man.

In my work at the De Pree Center, I am one of the leaders of our Road Ahead cohorts. A crucial exercise in this cohort experience is regular engagement with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. One of the things we talk about is why the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side of the road. In this conversation, someone usually brings up the possibility that the victim, being “half-dead” (Luke 10:30), might have appeared to be completely dead. The priest and Levite would not want to touch a dead body because that would defile them ceremonially (see Leviticus 21), keeping them from performing their temple duties. Others in the Road Ahead groups wonder if the religious leaders are too busy to help someone in need, or if the men fear that robbers might still be lurking nearby. All of these explanations are possible and not mutually exclusive.

I wonder if something else is going on here, in addition to what I’ve already mentioned. Priests and Levites were people of high status. They were used to being special people in their cultural and religious context. Yet their specialness, as I noted above, was not a matter of earning or accomplishment. It came by virtue of their ancestry. They were classic examples of people with privilege.

We hear the word “privilege” quite a bit these days. It shows up in the familiar phrase “white privilege,” but also in phrases like “male privilege” and “ableist privilege.” Basically, privilege is an unearned advantage or status, especially an advantage or state that some people have while others do not. Priests and Levites had many advantages by virtue of their birth. They were treated specially and had special benefits. They were clearly privileged.

Privileged people are used to living in a different way from unprivileged people. They receive unearned advantage, perhaps without even thinking about it. It’s a normal aspect of their reality. So, it makes sense to me that the priest and the Levite avoided the wounded man because they were used to living as privileged people. They were not used to going out of their way, compromising, inconveniencing, and perhaps even endangering themselves in order to assist a man badly in need of help.

As I reflect upon the story of the Good Samaritan, I see myself naturally fitting into the roles of the priest or the Levite. I have plenty of privilege as a white male, a citizen of the United States, a person born into a loving family that was committed to my personal and spiritual growth. Even what I have earned, such as my educational degrees, depends to a considerable extent on what I did not earn. Being privileged is part of my reality.

Thus, I find the Parable of the Good Samaritan troubling because I’d much rather be like the Samaritan rather than the people I’m naturally like. I want to be someone who cares for people who are victims of injustice. I don’t want to “pass by on the other side of the road.” Yet, as I reflect on my life, I recognize that I have done this very thing. I expect in some ways I continue to do it, even though I wish this were not true.

What can we who are privileged do so as not to be people who pass by on the other side of the road? A couple of things emerge from Jesus’s parable, one of which I’ll save for tomorrow. What I want to mention today is so obvious that it almost feels simplistic. But, in practice, I don’t believe it is. Here’s what I’m thinking: If we want to be people who love in the way of Jesus, then we shouldn’t pass by “on the other side of the road.” Notice that the priest and Levite didn’t just walk by. They made an effort to avoid the injured man. They got as far away as they could. Distance allowed them to be disengaged, to avoid any feelings of empathy or compassion. And distance from people in need, from victims of injustice, from those Jesus wants us to love, is something that goes hand-in-hand with privilege.

In tomorrow’s devotion, I’ll suggest another way the Parable of the Good Samaritan helps us overcome the limitations of our privilege. In the meanwhile, I’d invite you to consider the following questions.

Reflect

Why do you think the priest and the Levite in Jesus’s parable didn’t stop to help the injured man?

Can you think of times in life when you have done something similar, when you have “passed by on the other side” of the road, so to speak?

What helps you draw near to people who need your help? What helps you to engage with victims of injustice?

Act

Ask the Lord to help you see people in need and how you might help them.

Pray

Lord Jesus, thank you for the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It continues to speak with insight and power today. It certainly speaks to me.

As I reflect on this parable, help me to learn what you want to teach me. Show me how my own privilege keeps me away from loving people as you would have me love them. May I learn, by your grace, not to walk by on the other side of the road.

Lord, I want to love as you loved. Help me to do so in the real-life situations and challenges of my daily life and work. Amen.


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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: What Do You See When You See People?


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3 thoughts on “Are You Passing By on the Other Side?

  1. Aaron Broussard says:

    You said in your devotion… “you have plenty privileges as a white male” … explain please … so you think other ethics not born a white male don’t have privileges?

    • Mark Roberts says:

      Hello, Aaron. Thanks for your question. Sure, let me give an example of my privilege. I grew up in a very white town. Not far from there was a community that was almost entirely populated by Black people. My public schools were much better than the public schools for the Black children. I did not earn this by my merit. It was a privilege.

      I don’t think white males are the only privileged people in the world. There are many different kinds of privilege. I mentioned two of these in the devotion. I grew up as a citizen of the United States, which means I was privileged in many ways compared to many people in the world. I also grew up in a loving family, which was nothing I earned. It was also a privilege.

      I hope this clarifies things for you.

  2. Jonathan Russell says:

    Thanks for another thoughtful devotional, Mark. As to Aaron’s point above, I wondered how your use of the term “privilege” would be received.
    I think what is difficult in the present usage of the term “privilege” is that in the not so distant past it was primarily associated with being born into a family of wealth and power. Wealth, power and privilege seem to be inextricably intertwined in our lexicon. Today’s usage of the term “privilege” seems to support a soft bigotry of low expectations. When we can blame something (or someone) else for our present circumstances, we can excuse a lot of personal responsibility. While under today’s usage of the word “privilege,” it can now be said that you are “two-parent privileged” or “right-handed privileged,” or “heterosexually privileged,” the term still doesn’t seem comparable when it still means and is associated with someone who was born into a family of unlimited means. Perhaps there is a hierarchy of privilege. And perhaps “wealth privileged” is at the top of that hierarchy. Interestingly, the Samaritan was able to use his “wealth privilege” in a way that a poor person could not have.

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