The good Samaritans (part 1)

Jesus fed the 5,000. Then he was transfigured on the mountaintop. And after that, in the gospel of Luke, he set his face toward Jerusalem (10:51), where he knew he would be arrested and killed.

He decided to take the scenic route through the region of Samaria. This must have surprised his disciples, given the tense relationship between Jews and Samaritans. Everyone knew that good Jews didn’t set foot in Samaria.

The conflict stretched all the way back to the time of David and the divided kingdoms of north and south, and was exacerbated by the way the Promised Land was resettled after the exile. But Jews and Samaritans were at root cousins — albeit mutually despised cousins, the ones you didn’t invite to Thanksgiving dinner. They worshiped the same God, albeit in different places. And the Samaritans, who only recognized the books of Moses as Scripture, were waiting for the prophet that Moses had promised (Deut 18:15-19), or perhaps for Moses himself to return as their deliverer.

What would happen, then, when Jesus came through the neighborhood?

It didn’t go well.

As Jesus and his entourage entered a Samaritan village, the Samaritans rejected him because he was headed toward Jerusalem. Seeing that, James and John humbly and lovingly asked Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven to teach those sinful Samaritans a lesson.

Jesus scolded them, and everyone moved on.

But the lesson wasn’t over. Soon thereafter, probably as Jesus approached Jerusalem, an expert in the Law tested Jesus by asking him what he had to do to have eternal life (Luke 10:25). Jesus, like a good rabbi, flipped the question around, and asked the lawyer what he thought was the answer. The lawyer’s answer was sound: love God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself.

“Right,” Jesus replied. “Now just go do it.”

But the man wasn’t done asking questions. Maybe he felt uncomfortable that the spotlight had been thrown on his own personal piety. Maybe he felt annoyed that Jesus had slipped too easily out of his rhetorical trap. Maybe both.

So the next question, I imagine, was more arrogant: “All right then, Mr. Smarty Pants, tell me this — who is my neighbor?” An honest question would have been about how to love; the lawyer’s question was about whom he was obligated to love.

Jesus turned the question inside out by telling a story about neighborliness. And to make his point, he made a Samaritan the hero of the story. 

The so-called Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) is one of the best known and best loved of Jesus’ teaching tales. In it, a priest and a Levite have the chance to help a badly wounded stranger but refuse. Only a hated Samaritan has the compassion to help the man, even at risk to himself. By the end of the parable, the cagey lawyer was forced to acknowledge that God’s idea of neighbor-love — maybe, just maybe — might include mercy toward one’s enemies.

Note that Jesus told the story this way despite being unwelcome in Samaria himself. In that way, he embodied the neighbor-love of which he spoke. The gospel that would later be preached in his name would have to model the same love, the same breaking down of age-old rivalries and ethnic boundaries.

And that is exactly what happened, as the gospel moved beyond Jerusalem and Judea and into Samaria, as we’ll see in the next post.