So here’s something that blew my little Sunday-school-trained mind* as an undergrad. Take the Good Samaritan story, Luke 10:25-37. The priest and the Levite see the man dying in a ditch and pass by on the other side; the Samaritan takes care of him. Who is the neighbor? The one who takes care of him. Great.
Fact number one: I didn’t know who the Samaritans were until I was 14 or 15.
Fact number two: I didn’t know who the Levites were until I was in college.
It’s not as though there was no explanation at all. I had some vague idea that the Samaritans were usually crooks and scoundrels. I’m pretty sure I thought that, since the priests were obviously the people in charge of the temple/religion, the Levites must be the people in charge of the government. (I mean, it makes sense, right?) At some point along the line I learned that the Samaritans were a competing religious group descended from the people who were left behind in Israel during the Babylonian Exile, whose center of worship was not Jerusalem but Mount Gerizim to the north, and that the Levites were (by this time) temple officiants and assistants to the priests. So that was some progress.
Then I hit the lecture on ritual purity and the difference between pollution and sin in my undergraduate Israelite Religion course. And, as I said, my mind was blown
There are lots of ways to become impure in ancient Israel. Some of them you can avoid; some of them you can’t. You can probably, for example, avoid picking up a dead lizard. If you’re lucky, you’ll avoid having mold grow in patches on the walls of your house—but that’s not really under your control. If you’re a woman, you can’t avoid menstruating. If you’re married, you can’t really avoid having sex. Some things you’re required to do: bury your parents, for example. Any of these things will make you unclean. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re sinful or wicked, or that it’s a bad thing to be a woman or to have just had sex or just moved that cow that died in your backyard—they just put you in a position where it’s dangerous to approach God, and so you have to perform the appropriate rituals before you can come to the temple. The priests and the Levites, who are closer to the divine presence in the temple and mediate between God and the people, must live up to accordingly more stringent standards while they’re doing their jobs. Some aspects of the sacrificial system have to do with ethical considerations, but some don’t, and it isn’t always clear on which is which. (It doesn’t help that prophets use the language of impurity as a metaphor to talk about the moral defilement of Israel.)
So, tearing ourselves with reluctance away from Leviticus and getting back to the New Testament: The point isn’t that the priest and the Levite were terrible, cold-hearted people who saw a dying man and said, “So long, sucker.” The man was on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, no? Meaning—as I understand it—that they were probably on their way back to Jerusalem and back to service in the temple, and here’s this dead or dying guy on the road. If they help him, they’ll become impure—and then they’ll have to wait, and sacrifice, and so forth, and they decide that their role in the Temple is more important than their duty toward their fellows. The story’s still about helping people who need it, but it’s really a much more subtle thing. In prizing care for those in trouble over adherence to ritual norms, Luke’s Jesus is putting himself in the role of an Israelite prophet, and situating himself within a dialogue on the role of ritual and sacrifice in Israel’s relationship with God that goes back to some of the earliest Biblical texts.
*I’m not denigrating Sunday school as such. Much.