To the first century Jew, particularly those of the Pharisee sect, temple worship and participation meant everything. As is laid out in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), there were a number of laws and rituals surrounding the participation in Temple, particularly on the Sabbath. These were called the Laws of Purity and and Defilement. Of the types of things that would defile a Jew, blood and dead bodies bore the greatest consequence. If you came in contact with either of these throughout the week, you had to separate yourself from the rest of the people and not participate in the temple for a week. Inevitably, everyone came in contact with those things at some point in time, so the laws of purity and defilement were not meant to be seen as issues of sin. It was not a sin to be defiled by a dead body or blood, but it did mean separation for a week.
It wasn’t until recently in my life as a Christian that I began to really dive into the implications of the Old Testament on the New Testament. I am now convinced that the modern American Christian misses most of the full teachings of the New Testament because of a lack of knowledge of the Old. I don’t say this to insult. The Old Testament takes time and without guidance through it, can be almost impossible to tackle in a meaningful way.
One way that I really saw this was in Jesus’ parables. Specifically in the parable of the Good Samaritan. My tendency was always to try and see myself in the Samaritan man and see the priest and the Levite as cold and heartless men who were too busy to care for the needs of the man on the road.
But what if the motivation of the priest and Levite was not callousness or busyness. What if their motivation was religious? I believe it was. Although it’s not wrong to want to be like the Samaritan man who gives everything to care for this stranger on the road, but I don’t think that is the force of the Parable. The implicit question is not so much how are we like the Samaritan, but how are we like the priest and the Levite? How are we like the Pharisee? How does the very thing we think makes us pure actually make us sinners? Below is the parable re-written from the perspective of the priest in order to get us seeing the application of the parable in a different way, the way Jesus initially meant it.
The Parable of the Practical Pharisee:
“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”” (Matthew 9:13 ESV)
A certain Pharisee was going down from his home in Jerusalem to visit his brother in Jericho. The Pharisee had just finished a week of required cleansing as a result of an unfortunate but unavoidable incident. One of his neighbor’s cows had drifted onto his property and then died. He helped his neighbor remove the carcass. This left the Pharisee ceremonially unclean; thus the week of cleansing.
Since he had been out of pocket from his temple duties for a week, he was excited to connect with his brother before heading back to Jerusalem for Sabbath. He played a very important role in burning the excess of the sacrifice, a key part of the sin and guilt offerings, and he didn’t want to disappoint the people by not being there again.
On the road down from Jerusalem, the Pharisee saw in the distance a man who looked to be beaten, lying on the side of the road. He wished this kind of sight on the road was uncommon, but it unfortunately wasn’t. Although Roman law did bring a certain element of stability to the road system in Judea, it wasn’t perfect, and there was usually some sort of violence. As he approached the man, he felt conflicted. . He wasn’t heartless and truly felt sorry for his fellow traveler. But he also knew that if he helped the man, he would be exposed to the impurity of blood and would be excluded once again from his duties at the temple.
The Pharisee knew what he had to do. Despite the pity he felt for the man on the road, he couldn’t let himself be defiled. He did not want to let the people down who faithfully come to sacrifice at the temple every Sabbath. To ensure his purity, the Pharisee went to the opposite side. He decided it best not to look at the man as he passed him.
As he got into Jericho, he met his brother and had a wonderful week. Although the journey back from Jericho to Jerusalem was tiring, the Pharisee made it back in time for the Sabbath. Before entering the temple, he went to wash himself, as was customary for priests before sacrificing. He was so glad to be back. As he walked into the temple, he thanked God for the fortitude in the last week to remain pure and undefiled. The Pharisee burned the excess of the sacrifice with much joy that Sabbath, knowing that God would be pleased by the aroma of undefiled offerings in the Temple of the Lord.