by Doug Ward

Jesus taught that the precepts of the Torah are encapsulated in the two "great commandments" of love for God and love for neighbor (Mt 22:36-39). "On these two great commandments," he said, "depend all the Law and the Prophets" (v. 40). His apostles faithfully communicated the same message in their own inspired writings (Ro 13:9-10; Gal 5:14; Jas 2:8; 1 Jn 4:20-21).


This summary of God's commandments was among the least controversial of Jesus' teachings. One scribe who heard it heartily agreed (Mk 12:28-34). Luke mentions a Torah expert who endorsed it (Lk 10:25-28), an indication that it was a familiar formulation. For example, the great commandments are also juxtaposed in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a Jewish work of the Second Temple period (T. Issachar 5:2; 7:6; T. Dan 5:3).


Although pairing the love commandments was not unique to Jesus, his emphasis upon them was distinctive. We see such an emphasis in the parable that he told the Torah expert in Luke 10:30-37, the parable of the good Samaritan. This parable makes a statement about the relative importance of the commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:18).


Dueling Commandments

In the parable a man who had been assaulted and robbed was lying half dead by the side of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho (v. 30). A priest walking down the road saw the man and had a decision to make. If he checked on the victim and the man turned out to be dead, he would have violated the commandment of Lev 21:1-4, which forbids priests from having contact with the corpse of any person who is not a close relative. The priest decided not to risk breaking this commandment and gave the man a wide berth (v. 31).


Later a Levite came down the road and saw the man. For the Levite there presumably was less at stake in coming in contact with a dead body. If he checked on the man and the man turned out to be dead, the Levite would contract a temporary ritual impurity and would not be allowed to serve at the Temple for a seven-day period (Nu 19:11-13). Still, the Levite decided to avoid the possibility of corpse defilement. He walked by the man on the other side of the road (v. 32).


Finally, a third traveler came along, a Samaritan, who made sure to check on the man. When he found that the man was still alive, he transported him to an inn and provided for his care. The Torah expert agreed with Jesus that it was the Samaritan who had made the best choice by treating the assault victim as his neighbor (vv. 33-37).


Jesus carefully constructed the parable to create a hypothetical situation in which two commandments are in conflict. Situations of this type were frequently discussed by Jewish sages of his day and afterwards. When faced with such a dilemma, one has to decide which commandment takes precedence. Appealing to mercy and compassion, the parable makes a persuasive case that the love commandment of Lev 19:18 should carry more weight than the stipulation for priests in Lev 21:1-4.


To make his point, Jesus could have had the third person in his parable be any lay person who was obedient to the Torah. Having a Samaritan play this role added an additional twist to the story. Samaritans, who did not recognize the authority of the Jerusalem Temple, were deemed to have an inferior understanding of the Torah. But in the parable, it was the Samaritan whose obedience surpassed that of the priest and the Levite.


However, the parable should not be taken as a condemnation of priests and Levites or a rejection of the rules in Leviticus about ritual impurity. In fact, following the Samaritan's example by saving the lives of people in danger would tend to decrease the amount of ritual impurity in the world.1 Rather, Jesus was making a point about the overriding importance of the love commandments.


Burying the Dead

We do not know what the majority of first-century priests and Levites would have done in the situation described in the parable. One additional consideration that could have influenced their thinking was the obligation to give every deceased person a prompt burial, based on Dt 21:23. This obligation was taken very seriously, as illustrated by the book of Tobit, in which the title character is diligent to bury abandoned corpses (Tob 1:17-19; 2:3-9; 12:12-13). A priest or Levite who deemed Dt 21:23 to outweigh Lev 21:1-4 would have checked on the man beside the road.


We do know about a relevant decision made by later rabbis. The Mishnah, the written compilation of Jewish oral law dating from around 200 AD, proposes another hypothetical situation in Nazir 7:1. In this scenario, a priest and a Nazirite come upon a dead body. (Nazirites, during the time of their vows, were also forbidden to go near a corpse-Nu 6:6.) The rabbis agreed that one of the two should bury the body, and they discussed the question of which one should do it. For them, the obligation to bury the dead clearly took precedence.


It is worthwhile to compare Nazir 7:1 and Luke 10. The rabbis in the Mishnah ruled that burying the dead had more urgency than the instructions for priests and Nazirites. In Jesus' parable, the implication is that the love commandments have the highest priority of all.2 In his life and death, Jesus demonstrated the kind of love he was advocating. Our calling now is to “go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37).


1See the discussion by Matthew Thiessen in Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels' Portrayal of Ritual Impurity Within First-Century Judaism, Baker Academic, 2020, pp. 113-119.


2New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham believes that Jesus was unique in the emphasis he placed on the love commandments. See "The Scrupulous Priest and Good Samaritan: Jesus' Parabolic Interpretation of the Law of Moses," New Testament Studies 44 (1998), 475-489.

Issue 36


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