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 WellJohn 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” SamaritanLuke 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 tautologyAn example of a tautology is “hateful cruelty.”, but to the Jewish lawyer, it was an oxymoronA contradiction in terms, such as “loving cruelty”. 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.
We should do good things for people who, in our estimation, are wicked, sinful, idolatrous, or just unworthy, but we should ask for nothing in return, so that the only way they can pay us back is by honoring God with the righteousness and justice that we have extended to them.