Jesus & the Samaritans
The saintly Archbishop Michael Ramsey once startled a cynical congregation by beginning a sermon with the statement “Jesus loved fishermen”! Today, I was tempted to begin my sermon with a similar assertion: “Jesus loved Samaritans”.
A “normal” Jew, on the other hand hated Samaritans. And just as a “normal” Northern Irish Protestant hates Papists but has no special animus against the Hindus or Buddhists; or as a “normal” Shiite Muslim hates Sunni Muslims much more than he hates Southern Baptists; so the reason for the Jews’ particular loathing of Samaritans was that they were almost identical to Jews, but claimed to be better Jews than the Jews. (This may explain the deep hatred that lurks in the breasts of some breakaway Anglicans in North America for The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church!)
But back to the Samaritans. To over-simplify, they were the descendants of the northern Israelites who split away from the southern Kingdom of Judah around the 8th century BC. The split widened when many of the southerners were carried into exile in Babylon, while the north was conquered by the Assyrians and its leaders were also deported. When the Judahites were allowed to return to Jerusalem they began to rebuild the Temple there, and embassies from the northern kingdom seem to have asked if they could help. On being told they were not real Jews and contaminated by paganism, they naturally became hostile and tried to stop the restoration of the Jerusalem Temple. It seems to have been around this time that the southerners “discovered” the divine command that the Lord could only be worshipped at Jerusalem on Mount Sion, and the northerners retaliated by saying “You’ve marched to the top of the wrong hill: the Lord in our Pentateuch said Mount Gerizim was his chosen church development site”.
Scholars (bless them) are as divided on the precise details of all this as they are on any other Biblical question. But by the time of Jesus, there was certainly no love lost between the Jews and the Samaritans. Which makes Our Lord’s holding them up as good examples all the more important.
The three main references in the Gospels to Samaritans demonstrate his fondness for them. The most famous is the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where the Jewish priest and the Jewish Levite would not help the man beaten up by thieves, but a completely nameless Samaritan rescued him, took him to an inn and paid for his treatment.
The second is the healing of the ten lepers, when the only one to return and thank Jesus for his cure was a Samaritan (presumably therefore the rest were Jews). Again it is the despised “heretic” who demonstrates a proper relationship of thanksgiving to God.
The third is the incident when Jesus astonished a Samaritan woman by, first, talking to her and then actually asking her for a drink, when the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans. The story ends with the woman recognizing Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, and many of the Samaritans being convinced by Jesus.
When we come to the Acts of the Apostles, it is the Samaritans who seem first to have accepted the good news of the Gospel preached to them by Philip, so much so that the Jerusalem apostles sent Peter and John to conduct one of the first mass confirmation services.
All this (and there is more) makes one aware of how close to the Samaritans Our Lord must have been. Indeed there have been scholars who have tried to prove he was a Samaritan (not with any great success, although Nazareth was much closer to Mt Gerizim than to Mt Sion). But however fascinating are the hints we have in the surviving records, the main point shines out clear – Jesus used the Samaritans to emphasize his message that in God’s eyes, neither race nor status nor religious position has any importance compared with the duty and vocation of us all to love our neighbour – especially if he is an “alien”, however that alien is described or perceived.