“A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher, he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
So Jesus asks the lawyer what the law says, or rather, to summarize what Holy Scripture has to say on the topic. And the lawyer knows it, he says it perfectly, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” This is not controversial; everybody who knows scripture acknowledges this. But being a lawyer, this man wants to define the limits of his liability on this: “And who is my neighbor?”
So Jesus tells a story which has become so familiar that everybody is sure that they know it: “Yeah, yeah, Good Samaritan. Let’s eat.” The thing we often skip over, or misunderstand is who the Samaritans are, or especially how they were regarded among Jesus’ hearers. Under kings David and Solomon there was a united kingdom of Israel which broke into a northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah after Solomon’s death. The Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, represent the religion and perspective of the southern kingdom of Judah. The capital of the northern kingdom was Samaria until it was destroyed by the Assyrians about 200 years later. It was another century and a half later that the Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and took the leading citizens of Judah into exile in Babylon.
There is still a very small community of Samaritans that live on the slopes of Mount Gerizim and live according to the laws in the Torah and offer sacrifices there. There is a complex and interesting history of the Samaritans which I won’t go into, but they were a substantial population during Jesus’ time, not quite as large as the Jewish population, but many villages in the part of Judea between Jerusalem and Galilee were populated by Samaritans. The Jews and the Samaritans had different understandings about the origins of the Samaritans though their shared scriptures varied only in whether God should be worshiped at the temple on Mt. Gerizim or on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem.
The account that was accepted by the Jews (and supported by the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah) was that the Assyrians had destroyed and deported most of the residents of the kingdom of Israel (thus the 10 lost tribes of Israel) and settled non-Israelites who were also idolaters in the land. Any Israelites who were left had intermarried with these idolaters—thus any of their worship was polluted, idolatrous and heretical. The Samaritans believed on the other hand, that they carried on the true traditions of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses and that the Judeans had profaned the worship by moving it from Mt. Gerizim to Jerusalem. This was very serious business; each group regarded the other as worse than other sorts of foreigners because of their betrayal of what was most holy. Of course, other characteristics were attributed to these people, as people do with groups that are despised—they were dirty, dishonest, ignorant… From either group’s perspective, not only would you not want your daughter to marry one, you wouldn’t want to come into contact with one at all.
There are many examples or analogies that apply to people today, in our American pluralism, our prejudices have become so diverse that what might have impact on some, might simply make others feel self-righteous or offended.
Eric Barreto teaches New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. I will read a brief passage from something he wrote on this story: http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/07/10/scripture-good-samaritans-all-around#.Ud15oSTRJPU.facebook
“Imagine yourself not as the Samaritan seeking to love God and neighbor. Imagine yourself as the person in need. A man on the brink of death. A woman in deepest grief. A man lost in the world. A woman with no hope. Imagine yourself at your most vulnerable, deep in despair with only one hope: perhaps someone will help me.
Now imagine that the stranger who is most kind, most loving is not the upstanding citizen who looks and thinks like you. Imagine that she or he is that person you dismiss as a bigot or a heathen, a racist or an instigator, a misogynist or a baby-killer. Imagine that your succor is delivered by someone whom you would never consider to be your neighbor, your friend, your sister or brother in the faith. Imagine that your greatest need is filled by such a person. What would that teach us about the meaning of loving God and loving neighbor?
In short, we might discover that loving God and neighbor know no bounds — that if we look at the world with God’s eyes, we would see Good Samaritans all around us.”
The Kingdom of God that Jesus brings is a community of those who aren’t necessarily alike. In fact members of the Body of Christ may not even like one another—even to the point of finding one another a bit scary. But as neighbors we learn to accept the love of one another—even of the scary Samaritans—and that’s what brings us together in our communion meal.