Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Samaritan Problem

Think of the most degrading ethnic slur you have ever heard. We rightly hate that kind of dehumanizing language. It is cruel and bestializing to degrade another person because of his ethnicity or because of her nationality. Unfortunately, that was the way typical Jews and Samaritans in the first century treated each other. In the white heat of their anger in John 8:48, the Jewish leaders challenged Jesus with the burning question, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” As far as they were concerned, Samaria was a country filled with heretics and demons—just the kind of place from which this guy Jesus would have come.

In John 4:9 the Samaritan woman was surprised that Jesus asked her for a drink. You see, a Jewish rabbi had taught that a Jew could never use a bowl used by Samaritan women “because they are menstruants from the cradle.” According to Jewish law, that would make them and everyone with whom they had contact ritually unclean! How could that kind of racial hatred and nationalistic bigotry develop?

The antagonism between the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel went all the way back to the division of the kingdom in 975 B.C. After the fall of Samaria (the capital of the northern kingdom) to the Assyrians, that antagonism grew. The Assyrians deported part of the population of what came to be known as the country of Samaria. They also imported conquered people from other areas (2 Kings 17:22–34). Subsequent inter-marriages produced a religion and culture that was a mixture of Old Testament and foreign ideas.

Because they were excluded from worshiping in Jerusalem, the Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Gerizim in the fourth century B.C. Around 167 B.C. the Samaritans escaped the persecution of the conquering Greeks by dedicating their temple to Zeus. Unfortunately for the Samaritans, their Jewish neighbors to the south refused to compromise. When the Jews succeeded in their rebellion, they gained control of Palestine and destroyed the Samaritan temple. After Rome conquered Palestine in 63 B.C., the Jews and Samaritans were both forced to live with the neighbor neither of them wanted.

The fact that Samaria occupied the territory between the northern Galilean and southern Judean portion of Israel only made a bad situation worse. The story of Luke 9:51–56 is typical of the lack of hospitality Jews found when traveling through Samaria. James and John, looking for vengeance, asked Jesus if they couldn’t call down fire from heaven on their enemies. In A.D. 52 a Jewish pilgrim was murdered by Samaritans and the Jews responded with a bloody vigilante raid.

From the New Testament, it is clear that the Jews saw the Samaritans as outsiders. In two New Testament accounts, however, the Samaritan turns out to be the “good guy.” In the parable of the good Samaritan, it is the Samaritan, not the Jewish priest or Levite, who demonstrates compassion (Luke 10:30–37). And in Luke 17:11–19, the only leper who returns to Jesus and gives thanks for his cleansing is a Samaritan. The power of both of these texts comes from the fact that the Jews to whom Jesus was ministering would never have expected a Samaritan to show compassion or gratitude.

It is an amazing part of the record of the New Testament that Christianity drew Jews and Samaritans together. Jesus’ gentle speech and offer of living water to the Samaritan woman in John 4 set the stage for everything that followed. He made it clear that the bankrupt Samaritan theology had to be discarded (John 4:22–23). He also made it clear, however, that the Samaritans were welcome in His kingdom. He came as the “Savior of the world” (4:42) and that meant major changes for Jews and Samaritans.

When Jesus had sent out the Twelve in Matthew 10:5, he told them to avoid the towns of Samaria. That wasn’t what he said after His crucifixion and resurrection. In that new day of salvation, Jesus said that he would send His Spirit and “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria …” (Acts 1:5–8).

Soon the apostles and others were boldly preaching the Gospel. Philip traveled to Samaria where he preached Christ and many Samaritans came to trust in Jesus and were baptized (Acts 8:4–13).

Who would have believed it? Samaritans accepting the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, the Son of David! The Jewish apostles in Jerusalem heard the news and sent Peter and John to investigate. Under the ministry of these Jewish Christians, the Samaritans received the gift of the Holy Spirit. God had held back the gift of the Spirit until Peter and John arrived. Remember, John was one of the disciples who had wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy Samaritan villages in Luke 9:51–56. Now he was used by God to unleash the fire of God’s presence, the Holy Spirit, among the Samaritan Christians.

God had bridged the gap that no man could bridge. God had established peace: first between men and Himself and then between Jew and Samaritan.