We are familiar with Jesus talking with the woman at the well in John 4 and the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, and we are familiar with the trouble that Jesus’s disciples had in finding accommodations in Samaria in Matthew 8. However, because we are not acquainted with Samaritans, we miss the point. We also miss the point of all the times that Jesus interacted with people who were not worthy of His attention.
The twelve tribes of Israel formed one country under David and Solomon, but after Solomon’s death, they split into two kingdoms, with ten tribes in the north, which called themselves “Israel” and two tribes in the south, which called itself “Judea.” Judea was mountainous and thus spared from much foreign influence, but Israel was on the northern plains and eventually became part of the Seleucid Empire. When Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175 to 163 BC) came to the throne, he took most of the ten tribes into captivity and moved gentiles in to fill the vacuum. He caused his empire to adopt Greek culture and language and he attempted to standardize worship throughout his empire.
Meanwhile, the remnants of the ten tribes intermarried with the gentile settlers among them, becoming what were known as the Samaritans. They still exist today as a minority group in Israel. They practice a modified form of Judaism that recognizes the Torah, but rejects all the other books of the Jewish Bible. They also maintain that Mt. Gerizim, not Mount Zion, is the proper site for the Temple.
This resulted in three countries in the New Testament era. Greek-speaking Jews in Galilee in the north, Greek-speaking Samaritans in the middle, and bilingual Jews in Judea in the south, with particular tension between the Samaritans in the middle and the Jews in the north and south. Greek had, in fact, become the lingua franca of the entire Roman Empire by that time, which is why the apostles evangelized the entire region in Greek, and why our New Testament was originally written in Greek.
The Samaritans and the Judeans (whom we call Jews) had religious differences that were very important to them, even if some of us might think the differences were trivial. Each group felt that it was the true heir of the pure Hebrew religion and that the other was aberrant. Because of the Samaritans’ mixed ancestry and their rejection of the prophets, Jews considered the Samaritans to be half-breed heretics. As a result, the two groups weren’t on speaking terms. They avoided social and commercial contact with each other as much as possible.
Now we can begin to see a new dimension to Jesus’ three interactions with Samaritans in the New Testament.
“Foxes have holes…” (Matthew 8:19-20)
While Jesus and His disciples were passing through Samaria on their way southbound from Galilee to Judea, they had trouble finding a place to stay because of the enmity between Samaritans and Judeans. This is when a scribe approached Jesus and tried to become a disciple. Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Jesus said the equivalent of “I can’t even get a hotel room in Samaria, and you want to be my disciple?”
The Woman at the Well (John 4:3b-20)
Again, we find Jesus and His disciples passing through Samaria, this time northbound from Judea to Galilee. Jesus relaxed at a well while the disciples went to find someone who would sell them provisions.
When they returned, they were astonished to find Him speaking to a woman—not because she was a woman (Jesus didn’t have a problem with talking to women under other circumstances), but because in this case, it was a conversation between a Jewish rabbi and a Samaritan woman.
The Parable of the “Good” Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)
I put the word “good” in quotation marks, because to first-century Jews, the idea of a “good Samaritan” was a contradiction in terms.
Jesus told a lawyer to love his neighbor as himself. The lawyer, wanting to know precisely what that meant, asked Jesus for the definition of “neighbor.” Jesus answered his question by telling him a parable about a Samaritan who came across an unconscious, battered Judean. The Samaritan tended to the Judean’s needs, took him to an inn, and paid his expenses while he recuperated. In fact, the Samaritan even told the innkeeper, “put everything on my tab” and then left, so he had no way to know what the Judean was charging to his account.
Jesus asked the lawyer who the Judean’s neighbor was. The lawyer could not bring himself to say that the man was a Samaritan, so he said, “the one who showed him mercy.”
How We Miss the Point About Samaritans
Here is how we miss the point. The Jewish lawyer would have expected the Samaritan to be the bad guy in the story, not the good guy. For us, “good Samaritan” is a tautology, but to the Jewish lawyer, it was an oxymoron. Jesus made the point that our duty to love our neighbor includes taking care of people with whom we have important religious differences.
Jesus did not say that it was wrong to have religious differences with other people. Rather, He made it abundantly clear that He does not approve of us using religious differences as a reason to refuse commerce, kindness, or even polite conversation.
Jesus said “do not judge or you will be judged.” He said that the criteria we use to judge others will be used to judge us. If we condemn another person for their religious views, then any religious errors we make will be held against us. If we condemn another person for moral reasons, then our own immorality will be held against us.
Jesus Did Good Things for “Bad” People
The Woman Taken in Adultery
We learn think we learn two lessons from the woman taken in adultery (John 8), but there are three. We understand the point that no one is without sin. We understand the point that mercy is better than justice. We miss the point that our religious and moral beliefs do not apply to the way we treat others, even if we are convinced that they are sinners, and can “prove it with the Bible.” The men who were gathering stones could “prove it with the Bible” that adultery was a sin.
Jesus pardoned a sinner’s capital offense.
The Woman With the Hemorrhage (Mark 5:24-34)
Jesus was on the way to heal a synagogue leader’s daughter, who was near death. A crowd of people accompanied him. There was a woman in the crowd who had been suffering menstrual bleeding for twelve years, despite all medical treatment. She touched the hem of His clothes, hoping that would cure her. According to the values of the crowd following Jesus, the synagogue leader was more important than the woman.
According to Leviticus 15:19-30, she was unclean (which means “not kosher”). Everything she touched and everyone who touched her would become unclean and would have to undergo a lengthy process of cleansing. Under normal circumstances, this would make a rabbi unclean and unable to heal the synagogue leader’s daughter in time to prevent her death.
In a very loud voice, Jesus asked who had touched Him, to call attention to the woman’s faith and healing, and to make it obvious that the kosher rule works in reverse in His case. Since Jesus is God, He is intrinsically kosher. If anything or anyone that is not kosher is about to come into contact with Him, it must instantly become kosher before there is contact. Thus the woman is made kosher and healed of her bleeding.
Jesus healed a woman, even though she was unclean.
The Canaanite Woman (Matthew 15:21-18)
Jesus took His disciples on a field trip to an area bordering on a Canaanite settlement. A gentile woman pleaded with Him to cast a demon out of her daughter. The disciples wanted to send her away because rabbis weren’t supposed to associate with gentiles and because Canaanites worshipped idols. Jesus waited until the situation nearly got out of hand. He even told the woman that that they were right, but she persisted. Then he surprised His disciples by rewarding her faith by casting the demon out of her daughter.
Jesus cast a demon out of an idolator’s daughter, even though idolatry is against His religion.
The Tax Collector (Luke 19:2-8)
Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Roman tax collectors had a quota, but they were permitted to seize anything they wanted. It was essentially a license to steal. The difference between what they collected and what they had to hand over to the Romans was their livelihood. Because tax collectors were invariably presumed to be thieves, the Romans recruited tax collectors from among the members of the local community who had nothing to lose because they were already unpopular. Jesus had dinner at the tax collector’s house, which meant, first, that the tax collector was Jewish, and second, that, contrary to neighborhood gossip, the tax collector was honest.
Jesus had dinner with a man who had a bad reputation.
The Centurion’s Slave (Matthew 8:5-13)
A Roman centurion approached Jesus because he wanted Jesus to cure his slave of paralysis. The centurion was a high-ranking member of the Roman army, required by law to worship an idol of Caesar as a god. He told Jesus that he knew of he rule that a Jew could not enter the house of a gentile. He was accustomed to commanding people, so he understood that Jesus could command diseases without even coming to his house. Jesus was astounded by the centurion’s faith. When the centurion returned home, the slave had been healed.
Jesus healed the slave of a man who worshipped Caesar as a god.
What Would Jesus Do?
Sometimes people ask themselves the question “What Would Jesus Do?” which implies that He isn’t here and that He’s not doing it, and that someone must step in to fix the problem. They use the question as an excuse for arrogating to themselves Jesus’ divine authority to judge and punish people.
We should not ask ourselves what Jesus would do; rather, we should ask ourselves what Jesus commands us to do. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, not just with our hearts but with our hands. He gave us examples, which makes it easy:
- Jesus used a Samaritan as a model of loving one’s neighbor, even though Jews refused to do business with Samaritans for religious reasons.
- Jesus stopped to cleanse and heal a woman who, according to the rules, no other rabbi would even touch.
- Jesus cast a demon out of a girl who did not qualify for His services.
- Jesus had dinner with a man who, according to gossip, was a thief.
- Jesus honored the faith of an idolatrous gentile and healed a member of his household.
What Does Jesus Command Me to Do?
The question is not “what would Jesus do” but “what does Jesus command me to do.” How should you treat people who are immoral, sinful, or bad, so far as you can tell?
Suppose you just moved in to a new neighborhood and you are looking for a church. You ask two neighbors, Elaine and Brian, about which church you should visit.
- Elaine tells you which neighbors don’t meet her standards and which ones you should avoid. She tells you disapprovingly that she isn’t certain, but she’s pretty sure that a young man named Johnny is gay. She invites you to her church, saying that if you do, you will meet an elite group of godly people with higher standards.
- Brian tells you that your neighbors are basically good people and which ones you can count on. He speaks highly about Johnny who shoveled his walk and dug out his car after the blizzard last year. He invites you to his church, saying that if you do, you will meet a friendly community that includes many of your neighbors.
Which church do you visit, Elaine’s or Brian’s? Now imagine: What if you agree with everything they teach about God, but have different opinions? Elaine’s church might reject you, but Brian’s church will surely accept you.
We have good reason not to climb upon the throne of God to judge people, or to withhold good things from them, because God might disagree with us. Even if the people are immoral, sinful, or bad in some way, they are still alive, which means God isn’t finished with them yet. This is why we should follow Brian’s example, not Elaine’s.
Our moral and religious convictions can actually harm our eternal destiny if we weaponize them against other people. They way we judge is the way we will be judged. We cannot avoid having opinions about the people around us, but we can control how we treat them. If we sin with our minds, we can repent with our hands.
God loved you while you were still dead in your sins. He used a loving person to help you up. Be that loving person for your fellow sinners: drive the gossip to the grocery store, take soup to the cranky neighbor who is sick, and bake a cake for Johnny’s wedding.