Confronting Our "Samaritan" Paradigm

I’ve been re-reading the Jesus narratives (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—in the New Testament, also known as the Gospels), and something I’d not noticed before occurred to me. (I love it when that happens.) Three times in Jesus’ ministry, a Samaritan figured prominently, positively and intentionally.


Incident #1: In what is probably His most well-known parable, Jesus tells the story of a man who’s beaten, robbed and left on the side of the road to die. Two different religious leaders pass by without assisting the man.  But it’s a Samaritan who not only helps the wounded man, he goes above and beyond by paying for a place where the man can recover from his injuries. (cf: Luke 10:29–37) This parable is widely known now as (surprisingly) The Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Incident #2: Jesus relates another story of ten lepers who were miraculously healed, but only one—a Samaritan—returned to say “Thank You.” (cf: Luke 17:11-19)

Incident #3: At one point in his ministry, Jesus chose to make a journey through Samaria, stopping along the way to talk with a local (Samaritan) woman who had a tarnished reputation. (cf: John 4:1-45)

As I examined these incidents, it got me thinking. I asked myself some questions:

Why did Jesus choose a Samaritan as the Hero of the two parables?  Why is the only grateful person who was healed designated to be a Samaritan? Why not use a person that His audience could identify with, someone they could appreciate?

Why did Jesus indicate that he "needed" to pass through Samaria, when it was not the expected, most traditional or popular/favorable route?

As I pondered these occurrences and my questions, (I think) I came away with some invaluable insights.

By way of background, let me emphasize that the distance of time and geography don’t provide us with the shock value that those who were present would have experienced at Jesus’ positive references to Samaritan or with His decision to travel through Samaria. The inclusion of these incidents would require a major paradigm shift in the thinking of Jesus’ followers and those listening to His teachings.  Samaritans were despised by Jews. From a young age, they were taught to hate Samaritans. Jewish travelers would go around Samaria rather than venture into that region.

My guess is that if you really wanted to insult someone, you’d call them a Samaritan.

I can imagine that when a local Jewish school kid did something stupid, the other children would say, "That's so Samaritan."

Because the incident and lessons were so deliberate, I think Jesus was providing us with purposeful illustrations. (And even if He wasn't, the former and latent preacher in me is going to draw two lessons anyways.)

First, by showing us a Samaritan who was compassionate to a injured man, or a Samaritan who was grateful for divine intervention, Jesus was humanizing a group that had been de-humanized. He was elevating a despised group, showing their value and worth. He presented them not just as people who had good qualities, they were examples of good behavior. They were GOOD people to be emulated. It seems obvious Jesus was seeking to move His listeners beyond the stereotype of “all Samaritans.”

Personally, I think Jesus’ two stories caution us about our tendency—as individuals and as communities—to paint others with broad, sweeping strokes and assign them to our prejudicial stereotypes. They teach us the danger of putting “all” people into any category, and then judging them…or responding to them…based on our pre-assigned category. (e.g., “All women…” “All black people…” “All gays…” “All Evangelicals…” “All Muslims…”)

Second, when Jesus insisted that He and the disciples travel through Samaria, I believe He shows us the need to get up close and personal with "those people"—the very ones we’ve been taught to fear, to hate, to suspect. Nothing breaks down prejudices like getting to know people we’ve relegated to stereotypes.

I know that I’m often guilty of this, and have to remind myself as well.

Every time I read an article about some right-wing Fundamentalist spouting a narrow interpretation of the Bible or blaming gay people for natural disasters, I find myself categorizing “all Christians.”

When I listen to Ted Cruz or Sarah Palin, my prejudice will inevitably want to equate “all Republicans.”

The truth is, not all Christians are radical Fundamentalists.
Not all Republicans are Tea Party political extremists. (Doesn’t mean I’ll be voting for anyone who still retains the GOP label since the Tea Party does control the Party!)

I think our “Samaritan” paradigm shows when we:

  • Assign attributes, characteristics, assessments or behaviors to an entire group of people ("They all..." “They always…" "Those people...").

  • Judge one person by negative preconceptions of an entire group of people (“You are just like all the rest…”).

  • Preface, defend or justify negative statements about a group of people with meaningless phrases like “I have nothing against them, but... or the inane “Some of my best friends are…”

  • Use slur and pejoratives in reference to an entire group of people. (e.g., ethnic, racial, gender, etc.)

I figure everyone has a “Samaritan” paradigm.
These lessons confront and challenge our narrow stereotypes and prejudices.
They call us to a journey of authentic faith and genuine love that involves sitting down with those we most dislike.

Can’t I just go to church, and sing songs?
That’s much more comfortable!