If you visit Israel today, as many Christians do, Israeli airport officials will often ask if your itinerary includes a subsequent visit to other countries in the region such as Jordan, Syria or Egypt. If it does, they may choose not to stamp your Passport but provide you with a separate official document for your stay in Israel. This is because there is a high likelihood you will be denied admission to surrounding countries in the region after visiting the Jewish State. Although you may only be bringing tourist dollars and not any particular opinion on local politics, where you are from and where you have visited, will presumptively determine if you are treated as friend or foe.
The common perception of Samaritans in the first century Israel evoked a similar visceral reaction. The Torah commanded Israel not to be hostile to strangers, reminding them (Ex 22:21)“Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” But Samaritans were in a different category, as there was a long history of animosity. Following the death of King Solomon some 900 years earlier, the nation of Israel was divided. Ten tribes broke off and formed the Northern Kingdom while the tribes of Judah and Benjamin became the Southern Kingdom with its national political structure and worship centered in Jerusalem.
The Northern Kingdom refused to worship at Jerusalem, established their own Holy Days, and their own mode of worship centered locally at Mt. Gerizim. In 722 BC, the Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians who deported most of the indigenous inhabitants throughout their empire and replaced them with foreign pagans. These pagans then intermarried with the remaining Jewish people in the land and were known as Samaritans. Theologically, they shared much in common with the Sadducees. Both accepted what we call the Pentateuch, the five Books of Moses, and they both rejected the Mosaic oral law as well as belief in the resurrection of the dead.
When Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom were conquered by the armies of Nebuchadnezzer 135 years later, many of the people were exiled to Babylon. In contrast however, they were permitted to live as Jews, retain their culture and customs, develop a vibrant expatriate community, and were not forced to intermarry. When the Babylonian exile came to an end, Ezra and Nehemiah sought to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and reinstitute Temple worship there. Their efforts were continually obstructed by the Samaritans who did not want them to return.
Against this historical perspective, this morning’s Gospel has Jesus obtaining the full attention of His audience by teaching a parable that portrays a despised Samaritan in a favorable light. A Pharisee would not be at all surprised that the priest and Levite ignored the wounded man as they were both Sadducees and rigidly adhered to ritual law. The Mosaic oral law believed and taught by the Pharisees required full human dignity and respect to every individual until the moment of death. Then they were to be given a burial. All ritual to the contrary was deemed secondary. To the Pharisees, people were more important than task. Under these circumstances, a Pharisee would expect to be the hero of this parable by Jesus. Instead, it is a Samaritan, an outsider, who holds the same ritualistic outlook on life as did the Sadducee.
Each of the Synoptic Gospels include the opening narrative of Jesus discussing with the scribes and Pharisees, one of which was a lawyer, concerning the great commandment. There were no disagreements here. In St. Mark’s Gospel, (Mk 12:29-31)“Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The usual rabbinic understanding of neighbor would be to “love your fellow Jew” – members of your immediate local community with extension to members of the greater nation. Love those who love you and are like you. “One rabbinic saying ruled that there was no need to regard heretics, informers and apostates as neighbors.” Samaritans clearly fell into a group that could be excluded as neighbors.
While the Jews clearly had no love for the Samaritans, it was equally true that the Samaritans had no great love or concern for the Jews either. St. Luke, in writing to a gentile church, is the only Gospel writer to include this parable of the Good Samaritan that joins together people who have little in common and generally mix as well as oil and water. Jesus teaches us that the Samaritan essentially repents of his ritualistic beliefs, responds to the need God has placed before him, and had compassion on the beaten man. In doing so, he put aside all the reasons to continue uninterrupted on his journey. By his actions, the Samaritan took quite a risk. He was a hated foreigner in uncomfortable proximity to a beaten and near dead man, easily subject to being accused as the perpetrator of the crime. Instead, he tacitly chose to be a neighbor to someone who would consciously reject him as a neighbor. Even the exacting lawyer interrogating Jesus responded that the Samaritan showed mercy – one of the attributes of God.
Perhaps the most difficult part of all is that Jesus tells the lawyer in this morning’s Gospel, and us by extension, (Lk 10:37) “Go, and do thou likewise.” This is not a one-time admonition in the New Testament. Rather, it is the heart of mission to which God has called His Church. Quote, (Mt 5:44) “But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
Think how difficult it must be for the Coptic Christians in Egypt to watch mobs destroy their churches and not give in to the temptation to strike back, or how long-suffering the Christians in Syria are called to be, as their nation is torn apart in civil strife. The same could be said for Bishop Wilson in the Sudan as the believers in the south are called to forgive their persecutors in the north.
St. Paul echoes the same theme in our lessons for Evening Prayer this week. In his Epistle to the Romans (11:31), he also writes to a gentile church and teaches that by extending mercy to others, these will receive the mercy of God and salvation.
May God enable us through the Holy Spirit to truly love our neighbors as ourselves, and “Grant, we beseech thee, that we may so faithfully serve thee in this life, that we fail not to attain thy heavenly promises; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 Joachim Jeremias. The Parables of Jesus. Trans S.H. Hook SCM Press, London, 1963, rev. ed.