The Figure of the Samaritan

The Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar figures from Christ's parables. (Luke 10:25-37) He is the fellow who helps a Jew who was robbed and beaten by bandits, when highly respectable Jews neglect to do anything for him. He is so well-remembered that "Samaritans" is the name of a charitable organization and, for many people, "Samaritan" is a sort of synonym for "charitable person."

Some people do know that the Samaritans were traditional enemies of the Jews, adding an important point to the parable. I'm not sure how many people realize there was also religious friction.

The Samaritans are strong candidates for being the famous Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, only they were never really lost. They are still there, in Palestine, about 600 of them now, practicing a religion that is a sort of variant Judaism, which they claim is the original form, the Israelite religion as it was before the Babylonian exile. And the variation is the problem. One major difference is that they regard Mount Gerezim, not Jerusalem, as the divinely appointed place for sacrifice.

Christians have a very weak idea of a sacred place, compared to Jews and Samaritans (and Moslems). For Christians, heaven and earth, God and humanity, meet in Jesus. For Jews and Samaritans, the meeting is at a place, not in a person. And it's a different place for each of them. Imagine there was a variant Christianity that claimed Jesus was not the Christ, but rather, say, his brother James. James Christ. There'd be quite a bit of friction between the two religions, yes?

Perhaps the theological gulf between Jews and Samaritans in the First Century wasn't that deep, but it was deep enough. In Jewish eyes, Samaritans are doctrinally wrong, wrong, wrong. To get the idea, imagine the parable recast with some form of misbeliever more relevant to yourself—the Good Moslem, the Good Wiccan, the Good Atheist, the Good Evangelical.

But of course it's the Samaritan who's obeying the Golden Rule, the command to love his neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). That's where the parable comes from. Jesus and the lawyer questioning him have just agreed that the Golden Rule is the second greatest commandment, summing up the Law together with the command to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5), and then the lawyer asks, "Who counts as a neighbor?" The answer is that parable.

Christianity is coming out of a period in which each denomination often regarded doctrinal error as grounds for damnation. I hope considering the Good Samaritan from a doctrinal angle can hasten that exit. Christianity descends from Judaism, so in Christian eyes as well as Jewish, the Samaritans are doctrinally wrong. But the Good Samaritan is the one who is right with God.

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011