Why is the protagonist of the well-known parable about the merciful Samaritan, told by Christ at the end of His public ministry, a Samaritan, and not a Jew, a Syrian, a Greek or a Roman? Who are Samaritans? What was their relationship with the Jews in biblical times?
Let us remember the notable meeting of Jesus Christ with the Samaritan woman that occurred at the beginning of His public ministry. The weary Jesus sits by the well and says to the woman who came to the well to draw water, “Give me to drink.” The woman, who hailed from a tribe that was related to the Jews, but hostile to them, responds with great amazement, and says, “What? You, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for water?!” “The fact is that the Jews do not have any dealings with the Samaritans,” says John the Evangelist about the situation he knows very well (cf. John 4:9). For many of us, it requires a more detailed explanation.
First of all, let’s remember that the meeting took place in the central part of Palestine, on the place blessed by the memory of the ancient biblical patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the ancestors of the people of Israel, who had lived here in the 19th-18th centuries BC. The Jewish tribes invaded Canaan (the former name of Palestine) in the second half of the 13th century B.C. and formed a union of twelve tribes (clans), which turned into a Jewish monarchy ruled by Saul, David and Solomon two centuries later. However, when King Solomon died (931 BC), this unified Israeli kingdom was divided into the Kingdom of Israel, to which the territory of central and northern Palestine belonged, and the Kingdom of Judah (southern Palestine). The border between these two states lay just north of Jerusalem (see any biblical atlas). Samaria (Hebrew Shemron, the Watchtower Mountain) soon became the capital of the Kingdom of Israel.
In 722 BC, the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, and its population, deported deep into the vast Assyrian Empire, was absorbed by other Semitic groups and disappeared from the world arena. Few Israelis left in place for agricultural work mixed up with the Gentiles who had come here; their descendants were called (by the name of the former capital) Samaritans. They retained their faith in the One God, but recognized only the Pentateuch of Moses out of all the holy books of the Bible.
On the contrary, the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah (with the capital in Jerusalem), although defeated in 587 BC by the famous Babylonian conqueror King Nebuchadnezzar II, managed to preserve their faith and ethnic identity in the Babylonian exile, but this gave them a strong feeling of national exclusivity (“purity of blood”). Therefore, when the Jews returned to Palestine in 538 BC by order of the Persian king Cyrus the Great, the new “world leader”, they rejected the proposal of the Samaritans to unite and did not allow them to participate in the restoration of their main holy site – the Jerusalem Temple. The offended Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Gerizim, but in 134 BC it was destroyed by the Jewish king John Hyrcanus. (Since 152 BC until the arrival of the Romans in 63 BC, the ancient Jews had their last independent state ruled by the Maccabee dynasty.) The Jews despised the Samaritans as filthy “heretics”, treated them worse than the Gentiles, and, like some of our Old Believers, considered any communication with the infidels to be a defilement, the more so drinking from the same jar. In general, these related peoples had the same “tender” feelings for each other as the modern Semites – the Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs, who have a revered tomb of their common ancestor, Abraham, in the Hebron Mosque!
Therefore, making a Samaritan a character in a parable to represent a “neighbor” was an open challenge to the consciousness of ethnic and religious exclusivity, meant to make a scandal! The meaning of the parable is that a Jew, wounded by robbers, is waiting in vain for help from his fellow tribesmen, who are purebreds and not ordinary people – from a priest and a Levite (a low-ranking temple servant) – who were well aware of the commandment to love their neighbor, found in the Mosaic Law, and were supposed to serve as an example to everyone else! (Unfortunately, we Christians may empathize with this situation as well.) The Samaritan had all the historically valid reasons to say, “You’ve got what you asked for! God has punished you because your people have despised us and have been treating us like outcasts.” Instead, he showed a true love for his fellow human that overcomes all stereotypes. We know very well how easy it is to find a “rational” explanation for such stereotypes.
The scandal didn’t happen. Not only did Jesus endure the “test” proposed by the Jewish legal scholar, but he also did not allow him to “justify” himself by narrowing down the concept of “neighbor” to a meaning that would be acceptable for his nationalist consciousness. Christ made him admit that in a particular situation any person, regardless of religion or nationality, could become his neighbor. We can imagine the expression with which the legalist sifted through his teeth that the man who showed mercy to the wounded Jew was his neighbor. The legalist made use of this euphemism to avoid uttering the loathed word “Samaritan”!
Each of us is surrounded by his or her own Samaritans, but it is unlikely that a reasonable person would want to be in a situation like the one described in the Gospel in order to recognize them as neighbors! Will we be able to understand the Savior’s parable as well?
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds