1.23 Synoptics -- Jesus and the Samaritans

Lk 9:51-56Lk 10:29-37Lk 17:11-19. At this point, we can group together three separate incidents involving Samaritans. These events and teachings are found in Luke alone. In his actions and stories, Jesus used the racial stereotypes of his audience. Sometimes he offended his hearers by reversing the negative valuations attached to these groups. Other times, he shared in the Jewish sense of superiority (as we saw with the Canaanite woman).

        1. Lk 9:51-56. On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus went through a Samaritan town. The Samaritans did not recognize the authority of the Temple at Jerusalem (since the Jews excluded them from it). They did not allow Jesus to stay with them, but sent him away. James and John felt their master had been insulted.

        "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" (Lk 9:54)

         This was a reasonable question. They had just been with him on the Mount of Transfiguration. Who were these "Samaritan half-breeds" to deny the Chosen One of God? But instead of commending them for their loyalty, Jesus scolded them. Some manuscripts include the following:

        "You do not know what manner of spirit you are of; for the Son of man came not to destroy men's lives but to save them" (Lk 9:55 RSV).

        This is one of the only times in the Bible that men are rebuked for their faith. The problem is that the two disciples, who were part of Jesus' inner circle, were out of sync with his spirit. That spirit was one of redemption, not judgment -- even towards hostile Samaritans. Jesus' reaction was similar to his rebuke of Peter when Peter told Jesus not to speak of his sufferings and death in Jerusalem (Mat 16:22-23). How quickly even the well-trained and zealous disciple can get off the track!

        So there was mercy even for Samaritans, even before the Crucifixion. Yet the disciples were not entirely wrong. It was just that their timing was off. At the End of the Age there will be fire from heaven, and it will come upon every town and city and nation that rejects the Lordship of Christ (Mat 11:21-24).

        2. Lk 10:29-37. The parable of the Good Samaritan was told by Jesus as a followup to the Great Commandment:

        "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Lk 10:27).

        A lawyer (of course) asked for a definition: "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus answered by means of a story:

         A man was robbed and left for dead along the road. A priest and a Levite passed by and avoided the hurt man. If he were dying, touching him would have made them unclean. But a Samaritan helped him, tended his wounds, carried him on his donkey and paid for his care at an inn. Jesus finished the lesson, "Go and do likewise."

        The story gains its power from the crossing of moral categories, as we discussed earlier in section 1.10 The Centurion's Servant. The "bad person" according to common stereotypes becomes the righteous man. And the supposedly righteous men (priest and Levite) act in a cowardly and callous manner. This is a story with a double whammy: it exalts the Samaritans, whom everyone in his audience despised, and insults the Levites, who were leaders in the community. Jesus was not saying merely that the Samaritan had compassion and the priest or Levite did not. More than that, he was saying that the two Jewish leaders did not obey God's Commandment. In other words, they had sinned against the Lord, while the Samaritan, who was lowest of the low in Jewish eyes, acted rightly before God.

        One can try to paraphrase his unspoken teaching:

        "The purpose of obeying the Law, of offering sacrifice in the Temple, of studying the history of God’s revelation, is to produce a man who acts for God in the world. Those activities are intended to produce a character that impacts others around him in redemptive ways – helpful, positive, merciful. But if all you can show is an endless record of devout exercises, without impact on others, your religious practices are useless, fraudulent. You are a fig tree with green leaves and no figs, a vineyard with long vines and no grapes. You have even used your religious obligations as an excuse not to get involved in your brother's life. His need threatens your own sanctity, and you run away from him. Therefore, your religion will be a curse to you and not a blessing. And the man who knows nothing of God's ways, who has never read the prophets or offered a single sacrifice at the altar, yet who helps his brother, will go into the Kingdom of Heaven in your place."

        The sad thing is that this incendiary story is now a staple of junior Sunday School classes. His original audience would have booed and thrown stones at him. In the Old Testament, at the end of his life, the blind Samson stood in the temple of Dagon, leaned against the pillars and pulled, and the whole edifice came crashing down. In the New Testament, in stories like the Good Samaritan and deeds like cleansing the Temple, Jesus stood at the foundation of the Jewish religious system, leaned against the pillars and pulled. Like Samson, he died in the wreckage. But in place of the ruins arose a greater work of God on a new foundation – the outpoured and indwelling Holy Spirit.

        3. Lk 17:11-19. On the way to Jerusalem, near Samaria, Jesus was met by ten lepers calling out to him for mercy. He didn't touch them, but just commanded them to go show themselves to the priests. On their way, they were healed. One man returned praising God, and fell in gratitude at Jesus' feet. Jesus replied,

        "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Rise and go; your faith has made you well" (Lk 17:17-19).

        There is a lot in this passage:

        a. It is another one of the very few examples in the Bible of a man being praised for disobedience: the Samaritan never went to the priests, as Jesus had commanded.

        b. If he had gone to them, what would they have done with him? As a Samaritan and a leper, he was doubly unclean. The priest probably would have refused to examine him.

        c. In the co-mingling of Jew and Samaritan lepers, we see an example of the fellowship of the dispossessed, the freedom of the damned. The ordinary rules of prejudice maintained by both sides no longer applied. Since they were all alike outcasts of their respective homes, they formed a third community among themselves. The wall of racial segregation dissolved in the shadow of the wall of disease. These men (and women?) found that their common bond outweighed the social categories of their contemporaries.

        d. This is the other "good Samaritan" in the Gospels. As with the Roman centurion and the Canaanite woman, Jesus was taken aback by the man's response. Where were the Jews who were healed? Why was it a foreigner (Gk: "allogenes") who gives praise to God? The racial note adds impact to the story: if this had been about ten Jews being healed and only one returning to give thanks, we would have pondered the common fact of human ingratitude. As it is, we are meant to share Jesus' wonder: while the children take their bread for granted, the dog that eats the crumbs that fall from the children’s table licks the Master’s hand.