Luke 10:31

ESV Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.
NIV A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.
NASB And by coincidence a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
CSB A priest happened to be going down that road. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
NLT By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by.
KJV And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

What does Luke 10:31 mean?

A lawyer knows he should show love to his neighbor, but he wants to restrict the command so it's not overly difficult. He wants to know exactly who his neighbor is, so he knows to whom he is required to show love (Luke 10:25–29). Jesus begins His explanation by describing an innocent man, beaten and left for dead (Luke 10:30). Who will show him love?

"Lawyers," in this context, are a type of religious leader. They are experts in the Mosaic law. Jesus describes the responses of other religious leaders—a priest and a Levite—people who should know the specifics of what it means to love others. These men are educated, like the lawyer; like him, they are "wise and understanding" (Luke 10:21). But their position and authority comes through both training and heritage. The culture presumes they will do the right thing. The lawyer should be able to look up to them as examples. But it is not intelligence that draws someone to God's truth; it's the humility of a child to see and listen. The priest "sees," but does not understand (Matthew 13:15–16), unlike Jesus' disciples and Mary of Bethany (Luke 10:21–24, 39–42).

Scholars have different theories for why the priest ignores the man. Some suggest the priest is afraid of becoming unclean if the man is dead (Numbers 19:11). He is traveling "down," however, which means away from Jerusalem. Presumably, his priestly duties are complete and he is headed home. According to the Mosaic law, a priest may only make himself unclean for the death of his father, mother, brother, unmarried sister, or children (Leviticus 21:1–3). But Mishnah Nazir 7.1, written around 200 AD, states that even a high priest may bury a corpse if there is no one else around to do it.

Luke doesn't record Jesus giving an explicit explanation. Jesus is using a story as an illustration, not reciting a factual history, and He apparently does not think the lawyer needs to know a specific motivation for the priest's lack of care. The lawyer understands; the priest and Levite do not stop because they have no mercy for the beaten man (Luke 10:37). In other teachings, Jesus emphasizes that God never intended ceremonial laws to override compassion or mercy (Luke 14:1–6).
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