I’m reading Marcus Borg’s challenging and thought-provoking book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (note: I don’t recommend it as a starting place if you don’t already have some exposure to scholarship that addresses the historicity of scripture).
I just finished a section about the purity system in 1st century Palestine’s social world. Borg explains that the purity system was “a social system organized around the contrasts or polarities of pure and impure, clean and unclean.” Purity was decided by such things as birth, behavior, physical wholeness (thus, lepers, eunuchs, crippled people, etc. were “impure”), profession, sex, and one’s identity as Jew or Gentile (with Gentiles being, by definition, unclean).
Christ came, in large part, to challenge the purity system; to replace ritual cleanliness (or what the ancient Jews called “righteousness”) with compassion; to eliminate categories and hierarchies; to touch the untouchables.
One of his most radical parables along these lines was the Good Samaritan. As Borg explains,
The key to seeing this is to recognize the purity issues in the story: the priest and Levite were obligated to maintain a certain level of purity; contact with death was a source of major impurity; and the wounded man is described as ‘half-dead,’ suggesting that one couldn’t tell whether he was dead without coming close enough to incur impurity if he as. Thus the priest and Levite passed by out of observance of the purity laws. The Samaritan (who, not incidentally, was radically impure according to the purity system), on the other hand is described as one who acted ‘compassionately.’ Thus this beloved and often domesticated parable was originally a pointed attack on the purity system and an advocacy of another way: compassion.
To demonstrate how radical this parable really was to the people in Christ’s day, I thought I’d do a little thought exercise. So I recast the parable with characters that I think might be modern-day Mormon parallels of the characters Jesus created. The result was kind of shocking.
This Jesus guy. Who is he?
Anyway, see what came out (compare with Luke 10:25-37)…
Behold, a certain Relief Society President raised her hand and tested him, saying, “Brother, what do I need to do to go to the Celestial Kingdom?”
“What do the scriptures say?” he replied. ”How do you read them?”
She answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy strength, with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.”
“You have answered correctly,” he replied. ”Do this, and you’ll inherit the Celestial Kingdom.”
But she wanted to justify herself, so she asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
“A meth addict lived on the streets in downtown Salt Lake City. One day, he overdosed heavily and fell into the gutter, half-dead. By chance, a bishop was going down that way. But when he saw the meth addict, he passed by, because he was late for a bishopric meeting. So too a member of the Quorum of 70, en route to the temple, saw the meth addict, and crossed the street to avoid him. But a certain drag queen was in her car and came by where he was. When she saw him, she was moved with compassion, lifted him into her car, gave him water to drink, and took him to the hospital. She took out her credit card, gave it to the admitting nurse and said, ‘Take care of this man. Help him get well. Whatever it takes, charge my card. If you max it out, call me, and I’ll return with cash.’
“Now which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the meth addict?”
The Relief Society President said, “The one who showed mercy.”
Then Jesus told her, “Go and do likewise.”