As a little boy, while attending mass at St Alphonsis Catholic Church in Wisconsin, I remember first hearing the story of the Good Samaritan. The story tugged at my soul as I sat there with my little legs dangling over the sides of those old wooden pews. I was captivated by the parable but without depth of understanding as to exactly why? At the time, I was much too young to really comprehend life’s nuances. I had no grid for the complicated historical and cultural context behind the drama Jesus was addressing with his story. I simply knew it moved me deeply and there was something profoundly right about what had transpired in the story. Due to the fact no one had ever explained to me what a “Gospel” or “Epistle” were, I was 18 years old before I discovered the story was in fact from the Bible! Other than Sunday mornings at church, the words Gospel & Epistle were never used in any other context of my life.
Not long after I graduated from High School, I had an overwhelming and yet personal interaction with the God of Creation. It set me on a course of discovery which continues to this day. I wanted no part of institutional Christianity at that point, as from my perspective it was defensive in nature, self-righteous in attitude and destructive in application. More people had died over the last 2,000 years in the name of God than I could fathom. Jesus had proclaimed “Blessed are the Peacemakers” and yet the history of Christianity suggested few actually believed that.
It is a rather embarrassing memory, but a few weeks after my life changing experience, I was with a group of Christian young people who had grown up in the Evangelical Church world. The leader of the group asked us to turn to Luke 10:25 in our Bibles. I wasn’t really sure where the Book of Luke could be found but the guy next to me was gracious and showed me where to look. Upon flipping to the right page, in a moment of innocent glee, I blurted out “I didn’t know the story of the Good Samaritan was in the Bible!” The whole group started laughing at me as of course they had grown up knowing this was the case. In that moment I realized just how naive I was about anything having to do with the bible.
In time I was to discover naiveté had its benefits if it was equally coupled with curiosity. Let me explain. This may be a surprise to you but a significant portion of the population which identifies itself as Christian rarely reads the bible. In fact, the majority of people with whom you may engage in dialogue with about religious matters will be simply be repeating something someone else told them or they heard at church. Where this gets fascinating for me is when you observe people digressing in discussions to the point of getting angry about things of which they have no actual firsthand knowledge and can’t really explain. I cannot tell you how many times I have asked people where their POV originates from and hear “Oh, my pastor said so!” Over the years I have come to understand how many within our Christian community have become overly confident in their assumptions of what they think they know.
The story of the Good Samaritan is an excellent example of our falling into assumptions as few people actually understand the real message behind the story. They grew up hearing and seeing the story played out on a flannel graph in Sunday School. They assume the story is simply about being compassionate to the unfortunate when in fact it goes much deeper than that. If one is curious enough and digs deeper, one discovers Jesus is actually teaching about loving one’s enemies – something it seems at times, few Christians are actually prepared to do. Jesus is not simply telling a “feel good” story, he is radically challenging deep seated cultural prejudices. Even though most all the religions of the world agree Jesus’ teachings reflect the heart of God, they too find this one simple truth nearly impossible to embrace. Like Christians they find it hard to actually live out this principle as it requires us to give up the destructive self-centered worldviews we’ve held onto for generations and love those who misunderstand or persecute us. It requires us to quit being victims and be proactive in finding reconciliation and resolution.
Something which tends to get lost on us Americans in our current state of having religious freedom, is Jesus was born into a persecuted, oppressed and subjugated people group; the Jewish Community. In 64 BCE, the Roman General Pompey conquered Jerusalem and made the Jewish kingdom a client state of Rome. Jesus’ teachings weren’t delivered from an island paradise while he was in exile. He grew up watching the Roman soldiers marching through the streets taking what they wanted and putting down with a vengeance anything they deemed a threat. He saw blood on the streets, people taxed to the point of oppression and racism in every strata of society. He witnessed firsthand the arrogance of the Romans and the humiliation of his own people. Despite enormous pressure to raise up a guerilla force, he resisted and preached peace and reconciliation. He told people that his kingdom was “within”. His teaching flew in the face of conventional wisdom and the popular Jewish public opinion of the time. He was after changing the motive of people’s hearts as he knew if hearts were transformed, they would in turn transform nations. His story of the Good Samaritan was both stunning and scandalous to the crowd he was talking to. In their minds there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan! This was impossible as to the Jewish people, the Samaritans were mixed breed heretics. Let me explain.
As most of us are familiar with, the Israelite people wandered around the Sinai a good 40 years after leaving Egypt. They were led by a guy named Moses who would establish their unique cultural identity through the formation of various laws. Later, a military general by the name of Joshua ben Nun would lead them into the land of the Canaanites where they would settle and establish themselves as a significant community. They would become a presence to be reckoned with in Middle Eastern politics. Around 1200 B.C. after Joshua had died, the then High Priest Eli built a new tabernacle in the hills of Shiloh in a region called Samaria.
In 722 B.C., Sargon II of Assyria attacked and conquered the ten Jewish tribes of northern Israel. Samaria was laid waste and Sargon deported the Jews back to Assyria and resettled them across his empire. Just under 300 years later when the Priest Ezra & the Governor Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls, they were greeted by an excited “remnant of Jews” still living in the area. Ezra rejected their help due to the fact that they had intermarried with pagan non-Hebrew wives. This insulted and incensed the Samaritans and they began resisting the effort to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.
The disrespected Samaritans would then continue worshiping God at their temple at Mount Gerizim north of Jerusalem. This is located near the modern day Palestinian city of Nablus in the West Bank. It is important to remember that when Joshua first brought the Hebrew people across the Jordan river, they gathered in a valley between the two mountains of Gerizim and Ebal. Joshua would then split them up sending six tribes to Gerizim to pronounce blessings and six tribes to Ebal to pronounce curses. It was here they rededicated themselves to Yahweh. For the people of this region, from their perspective this was where God had established the nation and the tabernacle, therefore it should also have been the only possible location for the temple. They were never in agreement with David’s decision to relocate the tabernacle to Jerusalem and build a permanent temple there to house the Ark of the Covenant.
The Samaritans continued worshiping at their Mt Gerizim temple even after the temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt. Years later in 167 B.C. the notorious Seleucid (Greek) King Antiochus Epiphanes ruled this region. He was determined to Hellenize the people and become their God even under the threat of death. In order to save their lives, the Samaritans agreed to adopt Greek culture while those in Jerusalem refused and became self-righteous about it. They considered their northern neighbors the Samaritans “sell outs.” After the Romans conquered the region, the Samaritan temple was rebuilt and their High Priest established their own version of the Torah. The enmity between the two groups reached such a fevered pitch that Jews cursed the Samaritans. In fact, Jesus’ disciples James & John suggested to him that they call fire down from heaven to destroy them (Luke 9:54). Jews refused to let Samaritans convert to Judaism and believed they were headed for eternal damnation. They avoided each other at all cost. Jews would even travel the long way around Samaria going into Jordon to avoid being contaminated by the filthy Samaritans.
In the midst of this cultural and religious battle which had been going on for centuries, Jesus told his Jewish countrymen to “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 Love your neighbor as yourself”. (Luke 10:27) When a self-righteous expert in the law condescendingly asked Jesus “And who is my neighbor?” He proceeded to rock his world by telling him a story which if his heart was not pure, would offend him in every sense. In Jesus story, men who Jewish society would have considered righteous (a Priest & Levite) both passed by the wounded Jewish traveler. They left their own countryman and brother beaten and bleeding to death on the side of the road. It was the mixed breed heretic Samaritan that in fact had the right heart – the Heart of the Father. This was scandalous then and today would have been a headlines in the tabloids.
From 1975-1984 I searched the world for people who had this same heart…the Samaritan heart! I wondered if there existed people on the planet who were peacemakers and knew how to love their enemies at all cost. People who understood that love can transform not only a heart but a community and in time a nation. In 1984, I found them in a remote area of Southern Zimbabwe living together at The Community of Reconciliation. With drought, racism and genocide happening all around them, there, shining out of the darkness was a group of people (once former enemies) living together in peace in a racially diverse community. Due to their impact on my life, I have never been the same nor do I care to be. They were truly people of His Kingdom and we have much to learn from them. My book “Saving Zimbabwe” is a tribute to their unwavering commitment to the teachings of Jesus, no matter the cost. If Zimbabweans and South Africans are willing to embrace the Samaritan heart, their nations would see transformation within a few years. Dreams would become a reality and the children of Africa would grow up in a world of peace, prosperity and hope. In our American culture, whose psyche is currently frayed and civic fragmentation at an all-time high, we need more than ever to tether ourselves to Jesus teachings. They are trans-formative!