August 29, 2016

The story of the good Samaritan has been thoroughly domesticated over the centuries into a call to help the person who has been beaten and left to die at the side of the road.

That is certainly an excellent moral precept, one we should strive to follow.

Jesus' reason for telling the story, however, was more likely aimed at pointing out that any notion of the moral superiority of one nation or group over another is deeply sinful and contradicts God's will. God would rather have us build bridges than erect walls.

The conflict between Judah and the 10 tribes of the Northern Kingdom was long and bitter. When the Assyrians conquered the North in the eighth century BC, many Assyrians moved in, Jewish culture was diluted and mixed marriages became common.

Seventy years after the Babylonian exile of the two southern tribes in 587 BC, the Jewish leaders were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. However, the Jews refused to let the Samaritans from the North help in the rebuilding because of their impurity.

The Samaritans responded by raiding Jerusalem, killing many Jews and trying to halt work on the Temple.

When Alexander the Great allowed the Samaritans to build their own temple on Mount Gerizim, the Jews were outraged since only one temple was allowed by Jewish law, and it had to be in Jerusalem.

Two centuries later, the Jewish leader Hyrcanus attacked and besieged Samaria, destroying the capital city and the Samaritan Temple, and leaving the Samaritans themselves in poverty and famine.

The aggression between the two kingdoms continued with the worst incident - from a Jewish perspective - coming shortly after the birth of Jesus. Some Samaritans secretly took part in a Passover pilgrimage and defiled the Temple by placing human bones in one of the porticoes.

And what is the attitude of today's Christians toward Muslims? Do we want to build walls to keep them away or bridges to work toward dialogue and lasting peace?

And what is the attitude of today's Christians toward Muslims? Do we want to build walls to keep them away or bridges to work toward dialogue and lasting peace?

In short, the tensions between Jews and Samaritans were no mere rivalry; they involved a deep hatred based on centuries of the vilest attacks on one another.

Yet, Jesus wanted nothing to do with this hatred. Indeed, Luke's Gospel provides three incidents where he tried to end it.

When Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem (9.51-56), he sent messengers to the Samaritan village up the road to prepare for his stay.

Not surprisingly, the people rejected Jesus and his followers. James and John asked Jesus whether to call fire down from heaven to destroy the village. Jesus, however, rebuked, not the Samaritans, but his own disciples and went on to another village.

Then, there is the story of the good Samaritan (10.25-37), which immediately follows the story of Jesus sending out 70 disciples on mission - a clear harbinger of the Church's mission to the entire world.

Our NRSV Bible describes the Samaritan as "moved with pity" at the sight of the man left for dead at the side of the road. A more accurate translation, according to Pope Benedict XVI, was that his heart "was wrenched open" by the sight. He experienced a deep solidarity with the injured man.


On one level, this is a call to us to "do likewise" (10.37). Given the history of Samaritan-Jewish hatred, it is more. Scripture scholar G.V. Jones stated: "The parable is not a pleasant tale about the traveler who did his good deed; it is a damning indictment of social, racial and religious superiority."

(In fact, recent scholars say the story may not be a parable, but based on an actual event or events.)

Third, Jesus heals 10 lepers, one of whom is a Samaritan, and asks them to show themselves to the priests (17.11-19). Doing so would mean entering the Temple, and so the Samaritan prudently returns to Jesus to give thanks. By that act, he recognizes Jesus as both the high priest and the new Temple.


In the last two stories, the Samaritan has a more acute religious sense than do the Jews. The stories would be an enormous affront to Jewish nationalist sentiment and indeed to all forms of narrow nationalism since then. Concerns for national or racial purity are a distortion of God's will.

In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (6.27-28). This has direct relevance, above all, to relations with the hated Samaritans.

The principle that God's kingdom is open to all is not an abstract notion that only applies after we all die and live happily ever after in heaven. It affects our worldly dealings today.


Protestant theologian Miroslav Volf writes, "In a world so manifestly drenched with evil, everyone is innocent in their own eyes." How can this be? It can only be the case if we believe our own evil is minor while the evil of others is entrenched deep in their souls. We are pure; "they" are radically impure.

But this is a lie, a lie that Jesus in Luke's Gospel denounces at every turn. Jesus calls us to new relations of equality and respect, not so much with those who are like us, but with those who are different.

Bridges need to be built with the enemy, and the horrible abuses of previous generations - or even of this generation - need to be cast into the sea of forgetfulness.