The priest and the Levite in today's Gospel were not heartless people. They simply could not afford to be in close contact with the dying because such people often ended up really dead - and on the very hands of the rescuer.
To these two men - not the Samaritan, however - that would be a disaster, not mere unpleasantness.
Across the ancient world, the act of dying and the dead body in particular, were a source of ritual pollution. It had to be avoided and, if encountered, required purifications.
Rites of purification differed from place to place, religion to religion, case to case, but no belief system could do without them. Contact with the dead seemed to be the worst kind of miasma.
The house in which someone died was often fumigated with sulphur and always sprinkled with bay leaves dipped in water. The family of the deceased had to be purified after the funeral. Burial grounds were always located outside the city gates, separated from the world of the living by the magical line of pomerium, sacred boundary.
While a commoner could get away with a simple rite of purification, the ritual pollution of a priest was a much more serious matter. It annulled the effectiveness of his prayers and sacrifices for at least seven days following the incident.
If he were to regain ritual purity, special sacrifices had to be performed, prayers said, liquids sprinkled. In Judaism, for instance, acts of purification were accompanied by sevenfold sprinklings of a special lustral water which was prepared with ashes of cedar wood, scarlet yarn, hyssop plant and a sacrificed red heifer.
This meant a lot of fuss which could be easily avoided . . . if only you went to the other side of the road and did not stop to look at and touch the bleeding body.
Lack of mercy did not disqualify the priests in the eyes of the worshippers. Their "professional holiness" was not a matter of moral goodness. It was all about their consecration to the Temple service, their knowledge of rituals and the magically understood ritual purity.
Jesus shatters this vision of holiness - both for those priests and for us, people who live in much more complex world.
The heart of holiness is love, that type of wise love that knows that sometimes you have to break external rules, otherwise good and useful, to follow the greater good.
A retired curator of the Warsaw museum I once worked in told me how a nun saved him during the uprising against the Nazis in 1944. He was a member of the Polish Home Army and was wounded while defending the Warsaw Old Town. He was bleeding and in pain.
Two nuns from the nearby cloister crawled towards him under heavy enemy fire and dragged him into the chapel. There they tried to stem the blood flow from his wounds.
They had no first aid materials of any sort. Even their bedsheets and pillowcases, ripped in strips, were used up. The chapel was filled with the wounded lying on the floor. The sisters looked at him helplessly and suddenly one of them lifted her habit and pulled off her cotton petticoat. She tore the garment and bandaged his wounds.
There would be nothing special in this story if these women were not the cloistered nuns of an order similar to the Carmelites. Until the day when war shattered their quiet lives, they had lived in complete seclusion, fasting and praying. Now they were undressing wounded men, washing dirt off bodies, handling urinals, burying the dead in the garden.
The sisters could have gone into shock at this violation of their vows and their way of life; yet they did not. True Christian love adapts to the needs of the neighbour.
Their intense prayer life prepared those sisters for this situation. It made them so focused on Jesus, the loving God, that crossing to the other side of the road was not an option.