Help, Guidance, and Protection

Daily Devotional for Thursday, October 22, 2020 from Rev. Eric Douglass

Today, we continue our trek through the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). One author has noted that, when Jesus told this parable, it likely took an hour! What we have in our text is only the bare-bones outline of that story. These meditations are designed to breathe life back into that outline, with each adding to the meaning of the parable. Before we turn to the parable, we open with some background on ‘priests’ and ‘Levites’ in the ancient world.

The priest in this parable was one of the common priests, and not a high priest. The high priests were rich and known for their political treachery, with some even buying the position of the high priest (e.g., Jason in the book of Maccabees). But this was not the case with the common priests. They were poorly paid and often had a second profession, just to make ends meet. Indeed, Josephus (a first-century historian) states that the high priests would steal the tithes that supported the common priests, so that “those of the priests who in olden days were maintained by the tithes now starved to death” (Ant. 20.207). One might imagine these priests as working the land with us, shoulder to shoulder, while studying and proclaiming the Torah in their spare time. These priests were often beloved by the populace, with whom they spent their time. A Levite was a person from the tribe of Levi (the non-priestly branch), and these served as temple functionaries, policing the temple, planning the singing, and the like. In short, both were respected religious folk.

Benjamin, the local priest, was in the synagogue early today. It was sunrise, and he longed for the quiet of these first few hours. He turned to Eli—a Levite—who was sweeping the floor, uttered his usual greetings, and then hurried past him to the back room. This was why he had come so early, for the back room held the scrolls of the Torah, and early in the morning allowed him to read without distractions. The room itself was sparsely decorated, with a small table for study and a case for scrolls. Sitting down with the text, he was reminded of his last time in Jerusalem, where one could spend all day moving from table to table, replete with candles and scrolls and discussions and arguments. He sighed, and whispered to no one but himself: “Two more years.”

He opened the text where he had stopped yesterday. It was a section on the Sabbath, stating that no work was to be done. Benjamin could still hear the Rabbi droning on about the Sabbath in his reedy voice: “It is sacred time…time set apart to God…how dare anyone steal this time for their own use.” So, of course, the common work of daily life was prohibited: no harvesting, no sewing, and no healing. This was a time for joyful community with God and one another.

Just then, a nagging inner voice thought of an objection: “But what if one’s wife is sick?” Immediately Benjamin’s other inner voice chimed it: “To do the common work of healing is to pollute sacred time!” The inner argument expands. The first voice responds: “But humans have value to God.” The second voice: “With sacred time polluted, we risk God’s wrath…or even worse, God’s abandonment!” Benjamin shivers to even think of these consequences, for a people without a god are a people without help, or guidance, or protection. Help, guidance, and protection were so important to Benjamin that he called them his HGP. No God, no HGP.

“Yes,” Benjamin thinks out loud, “Healing one’s wife is prohibited during sacred time.”

Then that pesky inner voice speaks one more time: “What if she is dying?”

“Well, his wife is made in the image of the Almighty, so she should not be allowed to die…but is a single woman worth the loss of God’s presence?” Benjamin wrinkles his forehead in thought, but cannot solve this problem. In the end, he picks up his robes and turns to leave. Then an inspiration hits him: what if he took this problem to the rabbis in Jerusalem? Yes, that’s the ticket. His gate quickens. If he leaves right now, he can reach Jerusalem while the rabbis are still in temple.

In his hurry to leave, Benjamin hardly thinks about where he is going. Jerusalem is always such a joy. That’s when he runs into Eli…literally. The collision leaves both on the floor. As Benjamin helps Eli to his feet, he remembers that Eli always talked about such a trip. “Next year in Jerusalem,” he would say. What better time than the present.

“Eli,” he says: “This year in Jerusalem.” Eli looks confused, but when he hears the plan, a smile breaks out on his face like the sun on a cloudy day.

“Together then,” is all he can mouth.

Before the next hour has passed, Benjamin and Eli begin their journey. Only Benjamin wants to be sure that he, as the priest, is given priority over the Levite. So, he tells Eli to follow at a short distance…just enough so that they can talk during the long journey. And so the odd pair, priest in front and Levite behind, walk the dusty roads to Jerusalem, shouting to one another to pass the time.

After some hours, the desert wind and the burning sun begin to extract their toll on the couple. Talking all but stops. Sweat soaks their headbands. They drink to allay their thirst. Jerusalem cannot appear quickly enough.

That’s when Benjamin sees the man in the road. Even from a distance, it is clear that this man was the victim of bandits. Benjamin glances cautiously around, wondering if they’re gone…or still in hiding for their next victim. His footsteps quicken. Best to leave this place.

Then the man in the road raises his hand and utters a hoarse whisper for help. Benjamin glances furtively about, too afraid to stop…too afraid to even answer. Besides that, he notes to himself, he has an important question for the rabbis, and time is running out. In addition, there are others on this road, and surely they can help the man. Furthermore, he has no supplies on this quickly conceived trip. He is not the best one to help.

He pauses to think about what he is doing, but never stops walking. He crosses to the other side of the road and pretends that he cannot see the man. He refuses to look into the man’s eyes. Somewhere, deep inside, that voice again springs to life: “But what if he is dying?” Benjamin tries to squelch the voice: “This isn’t about the Sabbath.” “But,” the voice whispers, “isn’t that all the more reason to stop and help.” After a pause, the voice adds: “If this action pollutes common time, will God provide health, guidance, and protection to you?”

Benjamin sets his jaw and walks rigidly past the man in the ditch.

Eli, following close behind, sees Benjamin cross the road. He also sees the traveler, and hears the coarse whisper…the desperation in the man’s voice, the despair that motivates his cry. He starts to slow down, but then whispers to himself: “I cannot lose sight of Benjamin. He is my friend.” Besides that, he doesn’t know his way around Jerusalem. In addition, he could never afford to make this trip again. Furthermore, he has no money to help the man. He is not the right one to help.

Our Lord:
Too often we think that our work is so important,
that our mission is so critical,
that we ignore the need
in front of our faces.
We make excuses, excuses that are reasonable,
that make sense, that are defensible.
But the Lord of All see them
for what they are…
And then we pride ourselves on the paltry work we do,
while blindly passing by the broken people
who inhabit the ditches of our lives,
crying out to God for help.
It is time to wake up.

About the Author
Eric Douglass is the covenant pastor at New Hanover Presbyterian Church, where his work emphasizes adult education. Writing meditations is a natural extension of this. During the current pandemic, his goals have been to ensure that the folk at New Hanover see the deep connection that they have to God and the community, even though the community can’t meet in person. This connection is not just one of continued fellowship, but of God’s presence in the community. God stands with us, no matter what path we are on. In this way, God acts like the father and mother who refuse to abandon their child, no matter how wayward that child, or how difficult the situation. Psalm 23 captures this perfectly: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Eric is a graduate of the University of Missouri, initially earning a degree in biology, and then his medical degree from that university’s Medical School. After practicing medicine for many years, he earned a Masters in Divinity and a Masters in Theology from Union Theological Seminary, here in Richmond. Since that time, he has authored two books, frequently delivers papers at the Society for Biblical Literature, and is an adjunct professor at Randolph-Macon College. But the work he enjoys the most is teaching at New Hanover. Whether in casual discussion during the coffee hour, or a structured Sunday School class, or a Wednesday night special event, this is where he finds authentic people engaged in living out their life with God. Eric lives in Mechanicsville, VA, with his wife (Felecia). He enjoys doing fine cabinetry work and hiking. He has two children, Michael and Daniel, who both live in the DC area. His family is especially fond of playing board games, though which they have whittled away many a winter’s evening.