Profile of the Samaritan: Leading to the Radiance of God

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by the Rev. Tad de Bordenave

When Jesus introduced the Samaritan in the parable, he introduced drama and ill will. This man was the foil who would illustrate lessons for the lawyer and for us.

Before we look at him in the story, we first must understand the hostility of Jew and Samaritan. It began with return of exiles under the Assyrian conquerors.  These Jews settled in Samaria and developed a religion slightly like Judaism but significantly different. Over centuries tensions developed and hostilities heightened. To illustrate the antagonism we need only learn of each other’s temples. In the Maccabean warfare in 108 BC. the Jews destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. Then, around the time of the birth of Jesus, the Samaritans desecrated the temple in Jerusalem by scattering the bones of dead people in the sanctuary. And so on.

The Gospels give hints of the hatred. At the meeting of Jesus with the Samaritan woman, John inserted, “Jews had nothing to do with Samaritans” (4:6). Later when the Samaritans would not let Jesus and his band through their town, John suggested they ask God to bring down fire to consume them (Luke 9:54).

The Samaritan’s role was prominent in both the parable and in the dialogue of Jesus and the lawyer. In the parable he exposed stereotyping and its abuses, and in the dialogue he showed grace to a surprised lawyer.

In the parable the Samaritan appears out of nowhere. As Jesus knew, the identity of him as a Samaritan would inevitably lead to stereotyping.  Anything true of Samaritans would be true of him. That is the distinguishing mark of stereotyping.

But with this Samaritan, how could that be? He just happened to be walking down the road to Jericho. There is no other description of him, his religion, his race, his behavior. He carried nothing associated with Samaritans. And this man, this Samaritan, stopped, saw the man in the ditch, and gave assistance. In that one stroke Jesus was uncovering the dynamics of stereotyping and silencing its deadening ways.

Jesus meant that message for us – the message of stereotyping, of belittling, of demeaning, of ascribing to an individual all scornful traits of them all. We do it and we do it well.

Whatever the group stereotyped, they become the bad guys: immoral, mean, deluded, incapable, unattractive, and malicious. To us, the good guys, we keep our distance. We see the wrongs and we see them all in each one. We find proofs of God’s disapproval of them, so we have permission to hate them. When they suffer as outcast or get the brunt of bad laws, we sneer and we gloat.

So now, which one shows a dark side? Who shows attitudes of repugnance? Who exhibits a narrow judgmental look? Who refuses kindness for a sneer? Who will not make a friend of someone simply because the other is from the bad guys? Is that not absurd?

That – the entrance of the Samaritan, the one who sees and helps – turns all that upside down. When we meet a good Samaritan, filled with kindness, integrity, and longsuffering, then we see our scornful views. We pause; we see individuals; we recognize better than us. Then, with God’s help, we follow with repentance.

A story from Louis Armstrong fits here. Back in the 60s he was sent to several countries in Africa when Communists were gaining power. On his return he was asked if he saw any Communists. He replied, “I don’t know about that. All I saw was a lot of people shuffling.”

The Samaritan played no less a role in the dialogue of Jesus and the lawyer. The lawyer had asked two questions: “What must I do to gain eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?” He was looking for assurance. He wanted approval for his code book of morality and  a definition of neighbor that kept him in comfortable territory. Jesus gave him neither.

The man in the ditch, beaten up and lying near death, was no one’s neighbor. But there was one who saw and stopped, one of those Samaritans. The lawyer reflected. Where were the boundaries for neighbors? Nowhere. Who had integrity of character?  The one everyone knew was without virtue. The lawyer could not miss what Jesus thought of his questions.

Jesus leaves us with another view of Samaria. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus mentions Samaria in the Great Commission: “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The usual interpretation of that sees geographical expansion in each term.

But there may be more to the inclusion of Samaria. It could be there to mark not a geographical expansion but a people we would just as soon overlook. There are plenty of them, and we manage to leave them behind. Do we focus on Jamaica or Djibouti; Trinidad or Tashkent; Marrakesh or Melbourne; Oslo or Oman? Marking Samaritans and all people like them sends a message to the church’s mission vision.

The compassion the man in the ditch is replicated in the larger mission field to the overlooked. Consider how he resembles these Samarias. He is about as worthless an individual as can be described. No name, no family, no place in society; rather, beaten, stripped, and about to die. Why bother? He’s not worth the effort. Who has the time for the likes of him? What gain for society? As with the man in the ditch, so with all who live in the Samarias of the world.

Lest we forget, we are the man in the ditch. Our case for mercy is exactly that made by the lawyer. What can we do to persuade God that we deserve his forgiveness and friendship? Nothing. But by his mercy, God acts as neighbor to us. He stoops to give us the help that we cannot earn and the forgiveness we do not deserve. That would be the cross of the Son of God, his death to bring forgiveness to sinners and assurance of eternal life.

And the lawyer — as he contemplated the love of the Samaritan and his neighbor in the ditch –the lawyer had his first touch with the radiance of God, grace he had never experienced, had not suspected, and would pursue to the end.

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