Say the word “Samaritan” out loud, and most people will think you’re talking about a good guy. Somebody who’d stop to change your tire in the pouring rain. Somebody who’d help you make your rent payment if you were about to get evicted. Somebody who’d rescue a baby from a burning building.
The phrase “good Samaritan” is such a part of the English language that it’s easy to forget that it was once a contradiction in terms.
When Jesus was alive, his people believed that the only possible kind of Samaritan was a bad Samaritan.
Jesus was a good and loyal Jew who lived in the Jewish district known as Galilee. He often traveled south about sixty miles to Jerusalem, located in the Jewish district known as Judea.
If you like this map, you can get a high-resolution copy here.
Who Were The Samaritans?
Samaritans and Jews were enemies, going back several hundred years.
So if you asked a Jew of the first century what he thought of Samaritans, he’d have told you that all Samaritans were evil. He’d have told you that Samaritans were wannabe Jews—people who were imported by Assyrians after the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed in the 8th century BC.
Jews in the first century believed that Samaritans were “fake Jews.” Samaritans had a holy book, the Torah, the first five books of Moses. But the Samaritan Torah wasn’t the same as the Jewish Torah. If you compared them side by side, there were differences. The Samaritans claimed they had the “right Torah” and the Jews had the “wrong Torah.” Of course, Jews said exactly the opposite.
Jews had a Temple in Jerusalem. Samaritans had their own Temple on a mountain in Samaria called Mount Gerizim. At the foot of Mount Gerizim was an ancient town that was called Shechem in Hebrew. Abraham had spent time in Shechem. So did Isaac. So did Jacob, who was said to have dug a well there.
In the time of Jesus, there was a well that the locals called “Jacob’s Well,” just outside Shechem. Legend said that the patriarch Jacob dug the well. (That well is there to this day.) The Samaritans considered Jacob their father, and they considered the Jews to be renegades.
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman
There’s a famous story told in chapter 4 of the gospel of John about Jesus visiting this town of Shechem with his disciples. (In Greek, Shechem is spelled “Sychar,” and since the New Testament is written in Greek, the town is called Sychar in this story.)
Jesus sent his disciples into town to buy food, while he waited at Jacob’s Well. His plan was to get a drink, only he had nothing to draw water with. So he waited for a friendly local to come by.
A woman did come by, but she wasn’t terribly friendly. She was shocked when Jesus asked her help to get a drink. The reason she was shocked was because Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along. They didn’t ask favors.
The woman pointed up at Mount Gerizim, just south of the town, and told Jesus that the mountain was the right place to have a temple, not Jerusalem.
Why was she so hostile to Jesus? There’s a good reason. About 150 years before, the Jewish king John Hyrcanus came up from Jerusalem with an army and destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. John Hyrcanus leveled it, and the Samaritan temple was never rebuilt. Jews desecrated the holiest place in the Samaritan religion.
Is it any wonder the Samaritans were hostile to Jews?
How Samaritans Got Back at the Jews
Forever after that, the Samaritans hated the Jews. They harassed groups of Jews coming down from Galilee to go to Jerusalem. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that occasionally Samaritans killed Jews coming down the Samaritan Road on the way to Passover.
Once during a Jewish feast, Samaritans sneaked into the Temple in Jerusalem in the dead of night and scattered human bones all around the Temple Mount.
It’s important to remember that for a Jew, human bones are the ultimate descration. Human bones render a person or place unclean for seven days. So the Samaritans ruined the feast for all of Jerusalem.
Jesus Was Called a Samaritan
In the first century, one of the worst insults you could call a Jew was “Samaritan.” Jesus occasionally had run-ins with his fellow Jews. And they pushed back on him by calling him a Samaritan.
In John 8:48, some of his opponents claimed that he was not only a Samaritan, he was a demon-possessed Samaritan. Insult piled on insult!
Nobody took that seriously, of course. Jesus was a Jew, and everybody knew it. But the point is that when they reached for their biggest insult, the worst they could come up with was “demon-possessed Samaritan.”
On another occasion, Jesus and his disciples were coming through Samaria, and one of the villages was especially inhospitable. So two disciples of Jesus, the sons of Zebedee—James and John—offered to call down fire from heaven to destroy the village. Jesus wasn’t having any of that, very much to the disappointment of all twelve of his disciples. You can read the story in Luke chapter 9.
The Shocking Tale of the Good Samaritan
At one point, somebody asked Jesus a question about the Torah commandment that says to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The question was, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus answered this in the way he often did, with a story, which appears in Luke chapter 10.
Only he gave the story a shocking twist.
To understand the twist, think of the many jokes you’ve heard about “A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar…” Those three stock characters represent three major religious traditions—Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish—and the punch line of the joke usually has something to do with the differences between the traditions.
If Jews in the first century told similar jokes, they would have gone like this: “A priest, a Levite, and an Israelite walk into a bar…” Those were the three divisions of Jews:
- Priests were members of the tribe of Levi who were descendants of Aaron
- Levites were all other members of the tribe of Levi
- Israelites were members of any of the other tribes
To this day, modern Jews distinguish between these three groups within Judaism.
So Jesus told his story about a traveler on the dangerous Jericho Road. Bandits attacked this traveler, took all his money, and left him for dead.
- A priest came along and didn’t help the traveler.
- A Levite came along and didn’t help the traveler.
- A third man came along and…
If Jesus had followed the usual pattern, this third man should have been an Israelite.
But here Jesus shocked his listeners. The third man who came along was not an Israelite, he was one of the evil Samaritans—and he helped the wounded traveler, who was a Jew, his mortal enemy.
The point of the story was a point Jesus tried to make often. If you want to really follow the heart of God, you need to love your enemies.
Loving your enemies is hard. Anyone who thinks it’s easy needs to think how that might look right here in this place and this time. This year in America, we find ourselves deeply divided. Neighbors call each other terrible names. Family members shun each other. Former friends have become fiery foes.
We have met the enemy, and it is us.
Jesus called his disciples to do a hard thing—to love their mortal enemies. Samaritans who murdered Jews. Samaritans who desecrated holy places. Samaritans who worshipped the wrong way, in the wrong place. Wicked, cruel, sacrilegious Samaritans.
Let’s be clear on one thing. “Loving your enemy” doesn’t mean somehow conjuring up a phony warm feeling in your heart for someone you actually hate. It means doing the right thing by your enemy, even if you don’t particularly like them. Being kind to someone who would kick you in the teeth if they had the chance.
Whether you feel like being kind or not.
You don’t have to like loving your enemy. You don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not.
Because loving your enemy is not about what you feel.
Loving your enemy is about what you do. It’s about doing the good and decent thing to a fellow human being.
When every fiber of your body wants to do the exact opposite.
The Samaritans didn’t like Jesus. They hated him. They treated him as their enemy.
In return, he made them the good guys in one of the most famous stories ever told.
That’s enemy love.