…Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’
The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’
Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Now we begin to take a look at the third person to see the wounded man in this parable, the Samaritan. But who were the Samaritans?
One thing we do know is that there was a lot of racial tension between the Jews and the Samaritans. When the Samaritan woman asked a question of Jesus, we have one of the most uncomfortable verses in the gospels. Some have suggested that Jesus even made a racist remark. Certainly he called the woman a dog, and maybe that is even a polite translation (because we all know the word for a female dog…). This did not even cause comment among the other people he was with, because it was usual for the Jews to avoid having dealings with the Samaritans or even speaking with them.
The word Samaritan comes from the Hebrew word ‘samerim’ which means keepers of the Law. They were originally of the Israelites, but adhered to the Samaritan pentateuch, which they believed was the original version of the Law. The split came during the time of the captivity. The Samaritans came mostly from those who remained in the land and were not taken away at the time of the captivity. Their argument was that they had preserved the original form of Jewish worship, whereas those of the captivity had been influenced by the nations they were forced to live among.
As Israelites, they claim that they are descendants mainly from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. They believed that the original Holy Place for Jewish worship was Mount Gerazim, rather than Mount Zion in Jerusalem as most Jews believe today.
Because of the Law and its interpretation, the Jews felt that the Samaritans had cut themselves off from the Covenant between God and Israel, having created their own religion. So now they were treated by most Jews as a separate people – a very large bone of contention with the Samaritans. Scripturally, and in the gospel record, Jesus stood with the Jews in this belief, and treated the Samaritans as a separate people outside of the Covenant.
We find the evidence for this again in the story of the Samaritan woman. In Matthew 15:26 Jesus said to her: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” And in this verse it is always taken to mean that the ‘children’ are those of the Old Covenant Jews, and the dogs referred to the Samaritans.
It is also accepted and recorded in historical records outside of the gospels that ‘dogs’ was the racist terminology that the Jews used of the Samaritans. And it is this that makes the words of Jesus rather uncomfortable. Many evangelical commentators sidestep this issue, but it is what it is. I am sure there will be some reading this who will say that I accuse Jesus of racism, but I do not. I merely report what is there for all to read and you can come to your own conclusions.
But the main thing to learn here is that the Samaritans were, essentially, Jews from the original ‘stock’ of Israelite descent. Like the mainstream Jews, there were proselytes to the faith from other races, and this added a certain ‘mix.’ The Samaritans were also hated by the mainstream at the time of Jesus because they did not oppose the Roman rule to the same degree, and were more compliant. So understandably, there was a degree of feelings of betrayal.
It is analogous to the sad situation in the Holy Land today. The modern nation of Israel is taken and understood to be the mainstream Jewish land. But they occupy and continue to take more of the land of Palestine. The occupants of Palestine may be mostly Islamic in faith, but in descent they are much more closely related to the original tribes of Israel than the current inhabitants of the nation of Israel, who came mostly from Slavic and central Soviet regions.
In a similar way to the Samaritans, the Palestinians were those who remained in the land after the diaspora enforced by Rome. But of course over 2000 years there has been much to add to the mix, not least of which was the long occupation by the Islamic empires, and much intermarrying with the new peoples. To purist Jews, this is anathema. And, as was the case with how Jews viewed the Samaritans in the time of Jesus, this has resulted in Jews viewing Palestinians as less than human.
Again, some may misread me and accuse me of anti-Semitism as a result of this. But I am simply reporting what is, and what can be read and found on many sites, in many journals – and NOT anti-Semitic sites and journals. The situation is very complex and very sad, and it is an act of deliberate self-blinding to unconditionally support the acts of either one side or the other in the ongoing conflict.
You know, if the parable were to be told for the first time in the present day, I think Jesus would have been telling the, possibly Hassidic, Jew about the Good Palestinian. Just a thought, but an interesting one that fits in with other ideas from Jesus – like loving your enemies.
And if Christ had been sent in the present day, maybe he would have visited western countries and told the parable of the Good Moslem. There are many ways we can take something positive for our present day from the clear and obvious racial aspects from this story.
For those who have thought I was suggesting racism in Jesus, I would challenge that. Because Jesus used this very racism as the challenge to the expert in the Law, and to show how love is to be directed – even across racial divides and hatred. It is of note to me that this expert in the law did not simply answer Jesus’ question by saying ‘the Samaritan,’ but instead said, ‘the one who had mercy…’ and thereby avoiding associating something good and positive with the hated racial group.
And in that sense, maybe Jesus was also waking up his followers by using and then ignoring completely the normal racism when approached by the Samaritan woman – and so showing that the love of God can also reach out to her. It is not easy to solve the problem of that problematic verse, but this is a possible positive solution for our understanding.
What I will not do is to jump through linguistic hoops and twist words to try to make scripture say what it does not say. That is the curse of a lot of bible exposition in these times, it is sad to say. And it is especially true among those who wish to prove that the bible is infallible.
The scriptures are and always will be what it says in the letter to Timothy – inspired by God and good for teaching and correction.
So I hope you have a better understanding of who the Samaritan was and why there was great racial tension, even hatred sometimes, between the Jews and the Samaritans. And, as I have pointed out before, the expert in the law was most likely an expert in the religious law and also a Levite. And it is these who taught the reasons why the Samaritans were not of the Covenant and so not a part of the Lord’s people.
So, for Jesus to choose to speak of the Good Samaritan, this parable became a direct challenge to that divisive teaching and the racial tensions produced as a result. A deliberate provocation, if you like, to the sensibilities of this expert of the law. And yet the story of the parable was cleverly designed such that there could still only be one answer to the question that Jesus asked at the end. And it would have been a real challenge to the sensibilities of the teacher of the law to accept Jesus saying, ‘go and do likewise.’
I wonder how Jesus would tackle the racial tensions today? The fact that we have ‘black’ churches and ‘white’ churches is in itself an evil stink in the nostrils of the Lord. There should only be the church, with it’s peoples united as one and working together as one and in love for one another.
I think we need to see the deliberate provocation of the sensibilities of the teacher of the Law by Jesus, and allow the same provocation to touch our hearts and to challenge our hearts.
The sad truth is that, even for those like me who greatly oppose any degree of racism and see all as equal, yet there is still a ‘seeing different.’ I have to acknowledge that I am born of racist parents, and into a racist society, where racial jokes were the norm. To act as though these things had no influence on me at all is to be deliberately ignorant and blind to the obvious.
I actively oppose anything racist in myself, and speak out against racism when I see it. But I know that I am not ‘squeaky clean’ about this. And it needs to be said that incredibly rare is the white person who is clean about it. It is also incredibly rare for there to be the same lack of racism in persons of other colours.
Yes, it may have been white man’s fault. But racism is racism no matter the race of the person who has this as part of their being. I only ask not to be blind about it.
I know I am not completely clean on this one and can only continually submit this to the Lord and ask that he cleanse me. But it has also been revealed to me that it is incredibly rare to find any human alive who is not tainted to some degree by this same thing. It is good simply to acknowledge this and bring it to the Lord occasionally so that he can purify our hearts and make his love flow through us, unconditionally to all people. Just as the love of Jesus was poured out unconditionally on the cross of Calvary.