(First published by Gatehouse Media in 2018)
The holidays are the season for giving, for getting together with family, and for watching movie sequels and prequels. This will be the first Christmas since 2011 that there has not been a hobbit or a stormtrooper in the movie theaters, but Mary Poppins will be back.
It can be hard to understand what’s going on in a story if you don’t know the backstory. This is not only true in the movies; it’s true in everyday life. The dynamics of the workplace will confound you unless you know that the woman in HR who is married to the boss used to be married to your department supervisor. Knowing the backstory is also important when it comes to understanding the Bible.
One of the fascinating backstories in the Scripture has to do with the relationship between Jews and Samaritans – as in the “Good Samaritan.” The northern Jewish kingdom of Samaria was conquered in the Assyrian War, its inhabitants deported, and the land resettled by people from other conquered nations. The new residents, known as Samaritans, and their southern Jewish kingdom neighbors did not get along.
When the Samaritans offered their help in rebuilding the devastated Jewish temple, the Jews refused and told them they were unworthy. Later, according to the biblical scholar William Barclay, a “renegade” Jew married the daughter of a well-known Samaritan leader and preceded to build a rival temple to the one in Jerusalem. A famous Jewish general led a raid into Samaria and destroyed the temple. The Samaritans responded by vandalizing and contaminating the Jewish Temple.
This is the backstory to the Bible’s chronicle of Jewish-Samaritan relations. It helps the reader understand why Jesus’s disciples wanted to call fire down from heaven on a Samaritan village. It also explains why Jesus’s disciples were shocked to find him speaking to a Samaritan woman – something no other Jewish rabbi would have even thought of doing.
One of the Bible’s more famous “Samaritan stories” comes from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus was traveling along the border of Samaria and Galilee, on his way to Jerusalem, when he encountered a band of lepers. In the Bible, the term “lepers” signifies people with a variety of contagious skin diseases. Such people were completely cut off from society.
This particular band was comprised of nine Jews and one Samaritan. They pled, from a distance, for Jesus to heal them and he did. He sent them to the priest, the person authorized to readmit former “lepers” into society, and they all rushed off to resume their old lives. All except one: the Samaritan.
He came running back to Jesus, shouting praise to God, and threw himself at Jesus’s feet, overwhelmed with gratitude. Jesus looked around to see if any of the Jewish members of the band had returned, but they had not. Disappointed, he said: “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?”
There are fascinating aspects to this story. For one thing, we see how isolation can make strange bedfellows. Before contracting leprosy, the Jews and the Samaritan would have had nothing to do with each other but being rejected by society brought former adversaries together. One can see how something similar might happen among Christian traditions that have historically snubbed each other. If society ever anathematizes Christians, which is conceivable, liberals and fundamentalists, Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Arminians might finally learn to get along with each other.
It is also interesting to see that the Samaritan, whose theology was all wrong – Jesus says as much in John’s Gospel – was the only one to get it right. Apparently, being wrong-headed is not as harmful as being wrong-hearted. Perhaps this is a truth political rivals should consider before demonizing their opponents. It is certainly one people of faith should consider before demonizing anyone.
One would expect that the Samaritan, like his Jewish companions, had a life waiting for him, perhaps a family and a job. Yet he paused to give thanks, suggesting that he did not merely see God as a means to an end but as the end for which life was a means. This, in turn, suggests that ethnicity and religious training are not good predictors of spiritual vitality, but thankfulness is.