Monday, May 30, 2011

Why A Samaritan?

Sometimes Christians' partial understanding of historical and cultural settings in which Biblical events happen limits our understanding of things done and said. The story of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37) is one such instance. The general point of the story is clear – we should care about and for those hurting around us. That Jesus chose the characters of the story so as to attack contemporary Jewish cultural prejudices while emphasizing the extremity of the obligation to one's neighbors is less obvious. Consider the protagonists who had opportunity to aid the man who had been robbed, beaten and left to die.

Priests were regarded as being among the most spiritual members of Jewish society, among and leading the best of the best. Levites were likewise in the upper echelon of Jewish religious culture. No doubt Jesus' hearers understood that there were bad apples among priests and Levites, but using a priest and a Levite as examples of lack of love and mercy had to have set some listeners' teeth on edge. Worse was yet to come, in Jesus' chosen example of love and mercy … a Samaritan. This had to have stuck in the collective craw of Jesus' hearers!

Jewish contempt and hatred for Samaritans went back multiple centuries, starting soon after Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. As Babylon would later do to the people of the southern kingdom, Judah, Assyria forced most of the people of Israel into exile far from their home (people struggling for bare survival aren't going to have the energy to rebel!). Assyria also exiled other peoples into the land of the northern kingdom, which came to be called Samaria. Over time, these people intermarried with the remaining people of Israel. Their religion likewise became a mix of paganism and Israelite worship of God. The account of this is found in 2 Kings 17:24-41. Then, a couple of centuries later, when the people of Judah returned from Babylonian exile, the people of Samaria tried political subterfuge and intimidation to try to sabotage the returnees' efforts to rebuild Jerusalem and their culture. The story of this can be found in Nehemiah chapters 4 and 6.

So, in the eyes of the Jews of Jesus' day, Samaritans were of mixed race (Strike 1!), practiced a religion that incorporated pagan gods and practices (Strike 2!), and had opposed Jews' at a critical time in their history (Strike 3!). This was no neighborly squabble! It was utter, bitter, hatred, simmered and concentrated over centuries! And Jesus had made a Samaritan the exemplar of love and mercy in His parable! Worse, by implication Jesus had instructed his listeners that they should extend just such love and mercy to their contemned and bitterly hated enemies!

Dare I ask? Who do I hate or dislike? Who do I hold in contempt or think of as beneath me? Do I extend to them Jesus' love? Understanding better what Jesus was saying to His listeners is good, but doesn't have much significance unless I see that He challenged people of all time. And me particularly!

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