According to the Torah, both the koheyn (priest) and the Levite were prohibited from touching a human corpse in any fashion. They could not lift it, prepare it for burial, or even to accompany it to the funeral site. The rules were even more stringent for the high priest. He could not care for or accompany even the dead body of his mother or father.
After discussing this prohibition, the Mishnah concluded that “a high priest or Nazirite may not contact uncleanliness because of their [dead] kin, but they may contact uncleanliness because of a neglected corpse.” Specifically, according to Rabbi Eliezer, “If they were on a journey and found a neglected corpse…the high priest may contact uncleanliness, but the Nazirite may not.” If the high priest could draw near to deal with a neglected corpse, so could all lesser priests.
Sadducees, who did not recognize the teachings of the Mishnah and followed their own interpretations of the Mosaic law, would have approved the actions of the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable. They were fulfilling God’s commands, avoiding contamination as Leviticus demanded, and maintaining their ritual purity. Even an ordinary Jew who touched a human corpse was unclean for seven days. He could not have intercourse with his wife, hug his children, or use the same utensils they used, since his contact would spread the impurity to others. On the third day and the seventh day, he underwent a complicated cleansing ritual to remove the impurity. On the completion of his ritual cleansing, he could rejoin his family and community. The consequences of touching a corpse were enormous for a priest or Levite.
Most Jews, however, followed the teachings of the Pharisees and accepted the Mishnah as their guide. Imagining the victim unconscious and abandoned on that lonely road, Jesus’ listeners would have condemned the priest and the Levite for not stopping for what they presumed was a human corpse. If they had examined the injured man, they would have discovered he was breathing and needed attention. They might have saved his life. According to the sages, every Jewish law could be broken to save a human life. Even if he were dead, they could have covered his nakedness, brought his body to safe place, and searched for his relatives.
For the Jews in Jesus’ audience, the priest and the Levite had broken the very laws they were expected to uphold.
Frank Stern, A Rabbi Looks at Jesus’ Parables (Lanham, MD, Boulder, CO, New York, Toronto, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006), 213-214.