The Flaw in the Law(1) – The Golden Rule and the Good Samaritan

As you wish that men would do to you, do so to them  [Luke 6:31]

Where I work as chaplain, for this month’s anniversary of the Society’s founding, the theme is the Golden Rule, and I was asked to do a Bible study on the this topic. That has proved to be an interesting assignment.

On one hand, the concept of this Rule starts in the Old Testament and is repeated in the New.  It is indeed a good way for people to think about how they treat one another.  Under the umbrella of this Rule are found such characteristics as respect, compassion, kindness, love, dignity, forgiveness, patience, mercy, generosity, faithfulness, tolerance, hope-giving, friendliness, sincerity, help, and ultimately, neighborliness.  The list could simply go on and on.  It is indeed impressive just how much of relationships is covered by those two words.

But there is a major problem with the Golden Rule.  It is in theological terms, “Law,” and the problem with Law is that it can tell us what we should be like, but has no answers when we are not, other than condemnation.  That is why of all the different versions of the Golden Rule which different religions present to us, Christianity is able to bring something additional to the table – a Savior.

In considering this topic, a good place to begin is how Jesus answered the question “Who is my neighbor?”: the Good Samaritan parable.

The Good Samaritan Parable – Luke 10:29-37

You may remember how the story is about a Jewish man travelling on the notoriously dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho, who is attacked and left for dead by robbers.

A priest and a Levite come upon him and pass by.  Of course, they are the bad guys of the story (aside from the really bad guys, the robbers), but what can be uncomfortable is that we may find ourselves in them.  Consider some of the reasons that they may have used which really are not that unusual even in our world of today.

For one thing, people in institutional and political offices frequently become distanced from the people they are to serve.

A glaring example is in Matthew 27:4, where Judas realized that what he had thought he was orchestrating was not going to happen.  He likely had viewed Jesus as according to the popular expectation of the Messiah, the King and Leader Who would throw off the heathen (Roman) domination (over God’s People, no less!!) and re-establish David’s Kingdom and glory.  Jesus probably was just being reluctant, so perhaps He just needed a situation to nudge Him into revealing Himself, – and – not  only could Judas make a buck off the side, but he just also may get a decent office in the new kingdom from a grateful Jesus.

Of course, that was not what Jesus was about, so Judas, horrified, watched the whole situation go sour.  He wanted to repent, and went to the only place that God said forgiveness was to be found – to the temple.  The priests, upon hearing a confession, should have gone about the process of bringing forgiveness to this guilt-stricken man.  But they did not care: “What is that to us?  See to it yourself.”

There was no other place to go.  Judas was abandoned in his enormous load of guilt and despair.  I tend to lay the blame for his suicide on these priests who were utterly negligent of their duty.  But that is just the point in the Good Samaritan parable!  One reason why the priest and the Levite passed by could easily have been that they were that far removed from the suffering of the people they served, so why would this man be any different?

This we see too often in glaring examples in a variety of officeholders, but uncomfortably it happens to us as well.  The homeless person, the handicapped, the people starving somewhere – perhaps just like the priest and Levite we also are too far removed from their condition that we easily sidle past on our business.  Perhaps just like them who may have been badgered by those in need, they had seen so much of suffering that they had become desensitized – just like with us after repeated fund-raising appeals and documentary appeals on the TV.

Another reason why they may have been reluctant to help their fellow Jew was particularly if they were on their way to Jerusalem.
David had divided the priests into 24 groups where every group would rotate through a one week of service every half year (I Chronicles 24).   But suppose they stopped to help this man and he died.  Now that they touched the dead, they would become ritually unclean and would have to go through a seven-day cleansing period [Numbers 19].  They would be unqualified for the temple service, and so they might as well as turn around and go home.  Yet even there they would be consigned to stay outside the city and could not even touch their families until they were clean.
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So for “good” religious reasons it might be best not to have anything to do with a man who was obviously dying, because they just may end up unable to do their work – and a noble work it was in their service to the Lord and to His People.  Sometimes we too can be “spiritually too busy” to do the compassionate thing for another person.

Another reason might have been the fear that the man was left as bait by the robbers, so that anybody stopping to help would be under considerable risk themselves.  Has not fear also prevented us from, for instance, picking up that hitchhiker?  If I were a hitchhiker, I would want to be picked up – that is the Golden Rule!  Yet a genuine concern for personal safety makes us pass sometimes even on the other side of the road.

Ultimately, of course, they might have been just lazy and just did not want to be bothered.

A Certain Samaritan Came

There was a lot of dark history between the Jews and the Samaritans.  Samaria was the capital of the ten tribes who had rebelled after the death of Solomon and who had therefore left David’s kingdom.  The feelings were hard enough that there was talk of a civil war to reunite the kingdom, although God stepped in to forbid it.

However, what was worse was that King Jeroboam, to prevent people from worshipping in Jerusalem and therefore risking reuniting again, set up two golden calves as a replacement of Jehovah [I Kings 12:26-29].  So now, Samaria had not only rejected the kingdom, they now have even rejected the God of David’s kingdom.

After the lessons of the Babylonian Captivity the Jews were firmly resolved to have only one God, Jehovah of Covenant.  But, a couple hundred years later and about a hundred and seventy years before Jesus, a very cruel ruler tried to force the Jews to convert to the Greek gods.  For those who refused, terrible things were done to them.  The ruler did his best to desecrate their temple by sacrificing pigs (an unclean animal) on the altar and turning the temple courtyards into brothels.

In the midst of this anguish and suffering, their “brothers,” the Samaritans, sided with this king.  They abandoned the Jews to the horror, and even renamed their Mt Gerezim temple in honor of Jupiter.  The hatred toward the Samaritans was complete and ran deep – a Jew would rather die than be touched by one of them.

In spite of this atmosphere, where a Samaritan could easily have reacted with reciprocal animosity, in contrast this one crossed the boundary and sacrificed his time, plans, safety, finances and convenience for the sake of the Jew.  He helped even someone who was “an enemy.”

So not only can we see ourselves much too easily in the priest and the Levite, we also are reminded that our “neighbor” can even be an enemy.  Well, at least, following the Golden Rule should be no problem with the people who are nice.

Or is it?

Stay tuned.

(Continued in “The Flaw in the Law(2) – The Good, the Righteous, and the Overwhelmed”)

4 thoughts on “The Flaw in the Law(1) – The Golden Rule and the Good Samaritan”

  1. Interesting post Jim. Of course, another feature of the Christian version of the Golden Rule is that it is formulated in the positive/affirmative, whereas in other traditions it is cast in the negative.

    Your example of the hitchhiker is a good one – related to that are stories of folks stranded on the highway because their vehicle broke down and no one stops to help them, again for the suspect reason [some based on real events] of placing themselves in danger. So yes, we are not much different than the priest and Levite.

    1. Thanks Garth (Dim Lamp) for your comment.

      I had not quite thought in that direction, but you are right.

      It is interesting that there would be that difference. That gets into the the discussion in part 2 (“Blameless”): Framing the command in the negative means that as long as we don’t do the negative we can stand approved by the law – as long as we don’t actually kill, then the law can’t condemn us, even though, for instance, we may simply ignore the person and his needs. But when framed as a positive, it is far more inclusive and demanding, although by following such a law (as best as we can) would build relationships because it compels us to take the initiative.

  2. There is another flaw in this statement, or proverb, or Law… whatever you want to call it.

    Treat others as you wish them to treat you.

    Sounds good, and for many people it is the right direction to leading a better life.

    However, this ‘Law’ undermines basic rules of Goodwill towards men and women.

    Treating others the way you want them to treat you is inherently a reward based idea. You treat someone kindly in hopes that they will, in turn, treat you kindly. Others treating you kindly, for treating them kindly, is the expectation of a reward for a good deed. Goodwill has no reward. Goodwill simply is, because it is the right thing to do. This ‘Law’ suggests that you will be rewarded, and therefor completely destroys the true lesson of why you should treat others kindly: because it simply is the right thing to do.

    1. Thank you, Kris, for your comment. You are quite right. Once the proper conduct is legislated or even just encouraged, then a lot of other motivations march in and subvert the intent behind the right deed. I am reminded of when CS Lewis was going to tackle self-pride in himself. He found it to be an endless loop – not only was he catching the different ways self-pride would occur, but then he found how proud he was at catching his self-pride. We have something in us which turns good intentions inside out and gives them a selfish ring. It is true that even when we do the good, we can’t escape the desire to be thanked, or congratulated, or treated reciprocally. It is indeed another inadequacy of legislating what is good.

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