Following the rules


Scripture, Luke 10: 30-37. Nigel Bunce

Last Sunday, I set the parable of the Good Samaritan in the context of neighbourliness.  However, we can also view it as an example of when to follow, or to break, socieity’s rules of behaviour.

Parable of the Good Samaritan

Last Sunday, on the occasion of Melissa Varga’s baptism, I spoke about this parable in the context of neighbourliness. Tonight, I want to explore something else about this parable. When should we ‘follow the rules’, and when is it appropriate to break them?

First, let’s think again about the priest and the Levite who didn’t stop to help the injured man. Judaism had very strict purity rules. A very important one was a prohibition on touching blood. The priest and the Levite were both members of the priestly caste. The rules applied especially strictly to them.

Contact with blood (or, even worse, a corpse) would make the priest or the Levite ritually impure. Maybe they had good reasons for not stopping to help. The injured man might be bleeding or even dead. Perhaps the priest was off to Jericho to perform a wedding. If he became ritually unclean, he couldn’t have officiated at the wedding. He was in a bind. Either he helped the injured man, or he performed his religious obligations. But he could not do both. Unless, that is, he felt that he could make an exception about “following the rules.”

Breaking or following the rules

Breaking or following rules is a recurrent theme in Jesus’ ministry. Examples, he healed a crippled man on the Sabbath. His disciples plucked ears of grain on the Sabbath. Both activities were “against the rules”. However, Jesus said that the rules were made to fit people, not the other way round. Therefore, the question in the parable of the Good Samaritan is not whether the priest was inconsiderate and uncaring.  Instead, it was whether the rule about uncleanness took precedence over care for another human being. Jesus consistently took the side of love for neighbour.


Casuistry is a word that talks about when the rules apply or don’t apply. Originally, the idea came from priestly penance books in the Middle Ages. Thus, the penance for a given sin was harsher for an educated person than for an illiterate serf. Why? Because the educated person should have known better.

Therefore, casuistry means considering every case on its merits. It means trying to choose the right course of action in the particular circumstances. In the modern courtroom it is why judges have latitude to try each case on its merits. It’s the opposite of fixed minimum sentences. Thus, a judge might treat very differently someone who broke into my house to steal my TV, than someone else who stole milk from my fridge to feed her hungry child.

Unfortunately, casuistry has for many people lost its original meaning. Letting the punishment fit the crime. Because defence lawyers have argued vociferously against severe sentences for scoundrels. Thus, casuistry has become associated with he idea of a ‘get out of jail free’ card. That wasn’t its original meaning or intent.

Problematic circumstances

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, I see the priest and the Samaritan both trying to do the right thing under morally ambiguous circumstances. For the priest, rituals and rules got in the way of caring for someone in need.

The Samaritan was conflicted, I assume, by old and ingrained prejudices against Jews. But he was able to overcome his prejudices and help the injured man. He saw the injured man as ‘neighbour’ even though he wasn’t “one of us”. He felt comfortable enough in his own skin to act as a neighbour. The priest did not feel comfortable enough in his skin to risk breaking the rules.