The Jews vs. The Samaritans: Jesus Moves On
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8)
June 30, 2019
by The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
In the opening verses from Luke we read that Jesus is headed to Jerusalem. His public ministry is coming to a close and he is headed to face the fate that awaits him. He is travelling not only with his 12 disciples but with a large gathering of followers as well. So, enroute to Jerusalem Jesus sends messengers ahead, not only to announce his arrival, but also for practical reasons–to make sure there was food and lodging available for everyone. The first planned stop we read about is a village of the Samaritans.
To those unfamiliar with the situation between the Jews and the Samaritans, this stop in the village in Samaria may seem unremarkable. But as a matter of fact, this potential stop is a dangerous suggestion. Sort of like Protestants from Northern Ireland deciding to pass through Irish Catholic Dublin on their way to London in the 1970s. The Jews and the Samaritans hated each other and there was often much violence between them. But what was at the heart of their hatred?
In the 9th century, after a dispute over who the proper descendent of King Solomon was supposed to be, the tribes of Israel divided themselves into the Northern and Southern kingdoms. At that time, King Omri of the Northern Kingdom bought the hill of Samaria (1 Kings 16:24), where he built the city of Samaria which became his capital.
In 722 B.C. Samaria fell to the Assyrians and became the headquarters of the Assyrian province of they called Samarina. While many of the Jewish inhabitants of the city and the surrounding area of Samaria were led off into captivity, some farmers and others were left behind. Those that remained behind often intermarried with new non-Jewish settlers arriving from Mesopotamia and Syria. In order to find favor with the new rulers and adapt to the new cultural reality they found themselves in, many of the Samaritan Jews worshipped the foreign gods in addition to Yahweh as well. (2 Kings 17)
Over two hundred years later, when Cyrus permitted the Jews to return from the Babylonian exile, the Samaritans were ready to welcome them back. The returning exiles, however, despised the Samaritans and what they had become, believing they had completely perverted the Jewish faith by intermarrying and worshipping false gods. So, when the Samaritans wanted to join in rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews rejected their assistance (Ezra 4).
With the rejection came political hostility and opposition. The Samaritans retaliated by trying to undermine the Jews with their Persian rulers and slowed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. Further, Eliashib, the grandson of the high priest, married the daughter of the local Persian governor. Because of his marriage to a non-Jewish woman, Nehemiah the prophet drove Eliashib out of Jerusalem. But, Eliashib’s new Persian father-in-law decided that if his new son-in-law would not be permitted to function as a priest in the Jerusalem temple, then he’d build him another one. So, the governor had a temple built on Mt. Gerazim so his grandson could carry out his priestly duties. This is when we think the full break between the Jews and the Samaritans took place.
Things continued to get worse, however. During the Maccabean Wars in the 2nd century BC, the Samaritans did not join their fellow Jews, but allied themselves with the Greeks. This so infuriated the Jews that they went to Samaria and destroyed their Temple on Mt. Gerizim and ravaged their territory. And, around the time of Jesus’ birth, the Samaritans profaned the Temple in Jerusalem by scattering the bones of dead people in the Sanctuary. In short, there was no love lost between the Jews and their Samaritan rivals. Both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have contact with the opposite group. Neither were they to enter each other’s territory or even speak to one another.
The dispute between these two Jewish sects was not only a religious dispute, but turned into an ethnic and national dispute as well. It was an ethnic dispute because of the importance Jews thought of maintaining pure Jewish blood. It was a national dispute because the territory which had claim to the Temple could also be claimed as the recognized and legitimate Jewish nation in the eyes of foreign rulers.
Because the dispute about the Temple was so central, it is hardly surprising that when the Samaritans had learned that Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem (where the Temple was located and the designated capital of Jewish nation) they decided not to receive him. (This is why the Gospel writer is so clear to say that Jerusalem was his destination.) There is no telling what might have happened if Jesus and his band of followers stayed overnight. It’s hard to know whether that encounter would have stayed peaceful or not. It is hard to kow whether the Samaritans would have joined Jesus or not.
Given this history between the Jews and the Samaritans, James’ and John’s reactions to the Samaritans rejection of Jesus is hardly surprising. When they heard that the Samaritans would not receive Jesus and his followers into their village, they wanted to destroy them. James and John say to Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But, Jesus turns and rebukes them for their desire to destroy them. Willful violence and destruction is not, according to Jesus, the appropriate reaction to one’s ethnic, national, and religious rivals. What does Jesus do? He simply moves on to the next village. It’s not a dispute he has time for.
This text is instructive for us, I think, in a number of different ways. First, it shows that Jesus’ judgment towards those who reject him is different from the judgment of his followers. This is perhaps not surprising, since followers often tend to be more extreme in their behavior than leaders themselves. Also, followers sometimes think that their commitment and loyalty to a cause has to be demonstrated by their level of hatred and willingness to inflict destruction on their enemies–even if hatred is not the attitude of the leader nor destruction the goal of the leader’s cause. The harsher one’s attitude towards one’s enemies, it is often thought, the more one is thought to be committed.
This is, of course, not always true, but I am sure we have all experienced this in our own behavior about things and witnessed it in others as well. Perhaps this passage from Luke might help us to remember that the behavior of someone’s followers is not always the best way to judge the overall goal and attitude of a leader. For example, Calvin and Zwingli, followers of Luther, were more extreme in their views and methods about religious reform than Luther ever was. Calvin and Zwingli wanted to split the church off from Rome. Luther, originally, did not. Imagine what Christianity might be like today if Luther’s vision of a reformed, but unified church had been achieved.
Secondly, the text is instructive because we see that Jesus does not stop and labor over his rejection by Samaritans. He does not speak badly of them, he does not lament about his treatment. He does not complain about how difficult they are being. He does not beat himself up for being ineffective at trying to convince them that he is who he says he is. He doesn’t leave some disciples behind to try to convince them. He simply moves on. His destiny was Jerusalem. He still had work to do. He still had to preach the Good News. He still had followers to train in the ways of discipleship. His mission was more important than any ethnic, national, and religious identity dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans. One of the main goals of Jesus’ message was to demonstrate that ethnic, national, and religious identity conflicrs were all ultimately meaningless, and that these were the basic problems that he himself was meant to transcend and overcome.
In the person of Jesus we see that the mission of the Gospel must always transcend earthly identity politics. This is why St. Paul says, “There are neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female. For all are one in Christ Jesus.” The transmission of the Gospel can never be beholden to any one national, economic, and social interpretation of it. It stands on it own, to be interpreted in light of the life and work of Christ. It calls us to remember that as a church and as Christians, we are all members of the body of Christ. No matter our genetic heritage, nationality, level of income or social standing.
This is what we especially remember today as we celebrate the baptism of Joseph and Abigail Whatley into this reality of the Body of Christ. What this means is that no matter where they go around the globe, when they attend a Christian Church, it won’t matter if they are American, or rich or poor, or male or female. They will be welcomed as a member of the body of Christ.
Finally, I think the text is instructive because Jesus and his followers didn’t intentionally avoid the Samaritan village as he and his followers would have been taught. They were ready to give the Samaritan’s another chance at receiving Jesus, despite how awkward their arrival and encounter was going to be. Alas, the Samaritans could not see their way past their differences so Jesus decides to move on. But notice that Jesus does not show them the error of their beliefs through punishment and condemnation. He let them be.
Jesus never forces himself on anyone. Jesus won’t break the hardness of our hearts unless we hand over our hearts to him to break. In order to do that, though, we have to admit that we are all sinful human beings, blinded by our own national, ethnic, and social worldviews. None of us has a monopoly on righteousness. Both the Samaritans and the Jews were at fault in their dispute. Perhaps some think that because the disciples were Jews travelling with Jesus, that they had righteousness on their side. But we know Jesus’ disciples are constantly getting it wrong, too. But the difference between the disciples and the Samaritans is that the disciples were following along with Jesus–trying, failing, learning, growing, repenting, and being forgiven in one shared community of followers. Jesus would have welcomed the Samaritans, too, if they had wanted to travel with him.
The text this morning reminds us not to be too quick to hate and want to destroy those whom we think have betrayed our national, ethnic, and religious heritage. It reminds us not to be too hasty in judging the goals of leaders by the extreme behavior of some followers. It reminds us that we should be willing to having an encounter with those with whom we disagree, but also to recognize that sometimes people’s hearts are too hardened, and there is nothing we can do to soften them. But, God can always soften the hardest of hearts. And, sometimes we simply have to move on so God can get on with his work.