Lessons to be learned from Jesus’ treatment of the Samaritans
Adapted from the work of: Dr. Jürgen Bühler, ICEJ President
For many decades, Evangelical support for Israel seemed rock solid. Today, however, many younger Christians in Western churches are hesitant to give Israel the same unconditional support that their parents did. Stories of Palestinian suffering have attracted the sympathy of young Evangelicals, rather than the struggles and triumphs of Israel.
Many Christian youths have sided with the Palestinians as the perceived underdog. And in any case, Jesus in the Gospels seems to have very little to say about the current situation. So, for a generation known to read far less from the Old Testament than previous generations, this supposed New Testament ‘silence’ on Israel’s last days’ restoration in the land makes a big difference in how they view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Today, they simply ask: What would Jesus do?
A strong guide for answering this question is to look at how Jesus dealt with the most prominent indigenous minority living in Israel during his time. As we shall see, there are many striking parallels between the Samaritan people in the days of Jesus and the Palestinians of today. So, who were the Samaritans and how did Jesus treat them?
A Replaced People
The first time the Bible mentions the Samaritans is in II Kings 17:22-41. The passage recounts how the northern Kingdom of Israel was “carried away from their own land” (verse 23) and taken into exile in 722 BC by King Sargon II of Assyria. He replaced the dislodged Israelites with people from other regions of his empire and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel; and they took possession of Samaria and dwelt in its cities” (verse 24).
These new implants, hereafter called the Samaritans, began intermingling with some of the Israelite remnant left in the land and quickly adopted some of their religious practices.
Then in 586-582 BC, a second uprooting occurred when the southern Kingdom of Judah also was forced into exile by the Babylonian Empire. This gave even more room for the Samaritan people to expand and solidify their presence in the Land of Israel.
Resisting the restoration
Some 70 years later, the Jewish people started to return to the land and to rebuild the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. Yet the Samaritan communities were among the strongest opponents of this Jewish restoration. They resisted it religiously and politically (Ezra 4; Nehemiah 4:1-3). Nevertheless, Jerusalem and the Temple were restored, and the Jews re-established their presence again in their promised homeland because the Lord was with them (Haggai 1:13).
Still, the Samaritans continued to oppose the Jewish return and to develop their own rival culture and national identity. Over time, they even cultivated their own form of pseudo-Judaism rejecting the prophets and other writings of the Tanakh and keeping only the five Books of Moses as binding. For this reason, they rejected the idea of a promised Messiah from the lineage of David who would restore the Kingdom for Israel. Rather, they expected a messiah figure who would be “a prophet like Moses”, as the book of Deuteronomy foretold, ushering in a moral and spiritual revival but not a national restoration.
By the time Jesus came along, the Samaritans had lived in the land for more than 700 years. They considered themselves as the rightful heirs of the land, claiming descent from Ephraim and Manasseh. The Temple in Jerusalem was considered an apostate shrine and its worship blasphemous to God. During the time of Alexander the Great, the Samaritans built an alternative temple on their holy mountain of Mt. Gerizim – the biblical “Mountain of Blessing” overlooking Shechem (today’s Nablus).
Meantime, the Jews did not recognize the Samaritans as part of their people and would not allow them to enter the Temple in Jerusalem. When Jesus was a child, around 6-to-9 AD, Samaritans reportedly forced their way into the Temple during Passover and desecrated it by throwing bones into the sanctuary. Indeed, for centuries it was a relationship characterized by tension and disdain. Jewish writings from 200 BC called Samaritans “the foolish people”.
Thus, during the time of Jesus, both Jews and Samaritans refused to mingle (John 4:9). Jewish pilgrims who were on the way to worship in Jerusalem were harassed (Luke 9:51-55). The Jewish historian Josephus reports that in 52 AD, Samaritans even massacred a group of Jews making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For Jews, calling someone a “Samaritan” was considered an insult (John 8:48). Even the disciples of Jesus were not fond of them and were anxious to call down fire on their heads (Luke 9:54).
Jesus Crosses the Border
Amid this hostile, complex relationship, Jesus sets a refreshingly different tone towards the Samaritan people. The Gospels surprisingly record that Jesus healed them (Luke 17:16) and reached out to them individually and as a community (John 4). In fact, Jesus rarely shared such deep thoughts on worship, his own Messianic identity, and the Spirit of God as he did with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. The encounter eventually led to a revival in the entire village, and it was there that Jesus spoke about the fields being white for harvest (John 4:35ff).
Then there is the legendary parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ (Luke 10:30-37). Surely, it was offensive to Jewish listeners when Jesus described the Samaritan and not the Jewish priests as being a true neighbour to the man in need.
When his disciples wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan village for not allowing their master to pass, Jesus rebuked them harshly, saying: “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” (Luke 9:56)
So Jesus did not consider them as enemies but reached out to them with compassion and love.
Jesus and the Samaritan Narrative
Still, while Jesus may have displayed an unusually kind attitude towards the Samaritans he did not buy into their version of history. When Jesus healed the ten lepers, the only one who returned to thank him was a Samaritan, to which Jesus replied: “Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:18)
Jesus had reached out to him with compassion and healing, yet he still considered him a “foreigner”. The Greek word used here is “allogenes”, and is used in the Septuagint translation to mean the “stranger” who dwelt within the land. He would have many rights and privileges but was still excluded from the covenant promises and privileges of Israel. It was the same Greek word used in the inscription around the temple courts allowing access only to Jews but not to “allogenes” – foreigners.
So, Jesus reached out to the Samaritan people but also maintained a clear distinction between them and the Jews. He once instructed his disciples “not to enter a city of the Samaritans”, but to focus rather on “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6-5).
Finally, when Jesus ministered to the Samaritan woman at the well, she confronted him with her people’s own narrative: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.” (John 4:20)
Jesus answered: “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth….” (John 4:20–23)
Jesus portends that a new era in salvation history was soon coming when the place of worship would become secondary, and each believer would become a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit. But Jesus did not conclude that Jewish tradition would become irrelevant. On the contrary, he strongly challenged her Samaritan belief system, saying: “You worship what you do not know.” At the same time, he identifies himself with Jewish tradition in a manner rarely found in the Gospels: “We know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.”
In a way, Jesus underscores with the Samaritan woman what he also stated to the healed leper, that they were ‘foreigners’ to the covenants of God with Israel.
Note that he did not say that salvation is received by becoming Jewish, but rather that she should reconsider her theological and personal attitude towards the Jews. Decades later, the Apostle Paul would make the same point: “What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God.” (Romans 3:1-2; see also Romans 9:4–5)
The Samaritans of Our Day
There is still a small Samaritan community living in Israel today. They number less than a thousand members and are mostly located on Mt. Gerizim, near modern-day Nablus. However, they are too small to play a significant role in current affairs. Instead, the community which more closely mirrors the dynamic between Jews and Samaritans at the time of Jesus is that of the Palestinians.
When the Jews were exiled by the Romans under Titus in 70 AD and later under Hadrian in 135 AD, other people groups moved in. Each successive conqueror seizing control of this major crossroads of the world brought their own ethnic mix, whether it was the Romans, Byzantines, Arab-Muslim invaders, the Crusaders, the Mamluks or the Ottoman Turks. The result is an indigenous people with a broad amalgam of ethnic backgrounds. Some Palestinian Christians today even claim to be descendants of the first-century Hebrew Christians in Israel, but this would be difficult to prove after all the turbulent history in the region.
Scholars also have documented that once Jews started to return and cultivate the Land of Israel in the late 1800s, many Arabs from neighbouring countries also began coming to find work opportunities created by the Zionist movement.
Most of these people today would call themselves Palestinians. The vast majority are Muslims. They not only reject the teachings of the Bible but also maintain that Jews have no right or historic connection to the land. Supported by the global ummah (body of Muslim believers), they resist by all means the restoration of Israel on the land, much like the Samaritans in the times of Nehemiah and Ezra.
On the other hand, the small Palestinian Christian community shares in many ways a common faith in Christ and the Bible that we do, yet some have developed their own unique twist to history and theology contesting the restoration of a Jewish State, both politically and theologically. In their own nationalized version of Replacement theology, they not only see the Jewish people as being replaced by the Church, but Jesus also has become a Palestinian. The promises of God to Israel have elapsed by either being fulfilled in Jesus or now falling to the Palestinian people.
Like in biblical times, both sides rarely mingle, and the tense relationship has drawn even more blood than in the times of Nehemiah, Ezra, and Jesus.
A Call for Today
The unique approach of Jesus to the Samaritans can help us face the challenges of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. Jesus demonstrated a heart of compassion towards the Samaritans, who were not accepted by most of his fellow Jews. Under his ministry, they were privileged as the only people besides the Jews who experienced the personal touch of the Messiah. After his resurrection, Jesus instructed his disciples to consider the Samaritans as the very first non-Jews to receive the Gospel. Phillip, Peter, and John did just that and brought a powerful revival to them.
Likewise, the Church today is called to show similar compassion in reaching out to the Palestinian people and in particular the believers among them. They often feel forgotten by many Evangelicals around the world who show support to Israel but ignore their Arab brothers living in the land.
But we also learn from Jesus that, despite the fact the Samaritans had lived in the land of Israel for hundreds of years, Jesus still considered them ‘foreigners’, even though it surely offended them. Jesus did not deny their right to live in the land, but he also affirmed the unique covenant promises enjoyed by Israel, including the land promise.
So, Christ, in the time of his earthly ministry, set a remarkable example for us on how to reach out today to the Palestinians – the Palestinian Christians especially – without compromising the divine calling of his own people.
This might be a challenging balancing act for today, as the harsh realities on the ground are often more complex than they appear. For Palestinian Christians to look into the eyes of young Israeli soldiers and call them “beloved for the sake of the fathers” is far more difficult than for Christians from abroad. For many Jewish believers, it is equally difficult to accept as their brothers and sisters those Palestinian Christians who question their biblical right to the land and even voice support for Israel’s worst enemies.
In the end, the Church in the nations is called to pray and care for both sides. We are called to uphold God’s promises to Israel and support a nation that after 2000 years has returned to the land of their fathers and remains surrounded by implacable foes bent on her destruction. Yet we also are called to recognize the needs of our Arab brothers and sisters in the land who are often caught in between their long-time Muslim neighbours and the new Jewish reality.
That means we are called to be peacemakers without compromising truth. May the Lord help us in pursuing these worthy aims.