The Samaritan Other, the Practice of Mercy, Living in Gratitude and Being a Neighbor
In the Gospel of St. Luke 17.11-19, we read of Jesus’ healing of ten lepers. Of the ten lepers, only one took the time to thank Jesus for his healing. In fact, the text says that this man expressed his gratitude vocally and bodily. “[O]ne of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17.15-16). Notice that we are told that the man was a Samaritan. During Jesus’ day, the Samaritans were more or less considered Gentiles, which of course means that they were despised by Jews. Samaritans claimed that the focal place of worship was Gerizim rather than Jerusalem (cf. John 4.20) and that the holy books consisted of the Pentateuch alone. In light of these significant religious differences, one can readily see that relations between Jews and Samaritans, whom the Jews considered “half-breeds,” were strained and at times hostile and violent. St. Luke takes particular interest in the Samaritans—the others, the foreigners, the social outcasts. His Gospel account, as well as the theological history he crafts in Acts, highlights several stories in which Samaritan others are central figures or topics of discussion (Luke 9:51–56; 10:30–37; 17:11–19; Ac. 1:8; 8:1–25; 9:31; 15:3). Though Jesus commanded his disciples to proclaim the kingdom of heaven and engage in works of healing among the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” forbidding them to enter the “way of the Gentiles” and “any city of the Samaritans” (Matt 10.5), when He Himself encountered Gentiles and Samaritans, He neither turned them away nor refused to heal them. Rather, he treated them with respect (see John 4 and the exchange with the Samaritan woman), which often involved transgressing established social and religious norms and customs. In Luke 17.18-19, Jesus praises the Samaritan leper’s response—a faith response marked by gratitude and thanksgiving. “‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner [ἀλλογενής]?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up [ἀναστὰς] and go on your way; your faith has made you well [σέσωκεν].’” As N.T. Wright observes, the Greek word, ἀναστὰς (translated here as, “get up”) is the same word which is translated as “resurrection” in other contexts. Early Christians would not have missed this connection with resurrection, nor should we.
The famous parable of the Good Samaritan is also worth considering. Here Jesus, in response to a lawyer’s question, “who is my neighbor,” replies with a parable which presents a Samaritan as the moral hero (in contrast to the villains—a priest and a Levite).
Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (NRSV, Lk 10:30-37).
It is highly likely that the man who fell into the hands of robbers was a Jew. He was after all, “going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” So the Samaritan is not only helping some stranger in need, he is showing mercy to an “enemy.” The priest and the Levite in order to avoid becoming unclean choose to ignore the man in need. As N.T. Wright puts it, “it was better that they remain aloof, preserving their purity at the cost of obedience to God’s law of love”—a law which was, by the way, an OT law and not simply something that emerged with the NT (Luke for Everyone, p. 127).
The lawyer in the story is disingenuous and poses his question in order to test Jesus. The lawyer wants to know whom he should consider as his neighbor. Again, Wright offers helpful commentary on the exchange. Pointing out that the lawyer’s question and Jesus’ answer don’t exactly correspond, Wright goes on to say,
For him [the lawyer], God is the God of Israel, and neighbours are Jewish neighbours. For Jesus (and for Luke, who highlights this theme), Israel’s God is the God of grace for the whole world, and a neighbour is anybody in need. Jesus’ telling question at the end isn’t asking who the Samaritan regarded as his neighbour. He asked, instead, who turned out to be the neighbour of the half-dead Jew lying in the road. Underneath the apparently straightforward moral lesson […], we find a much sterner challenge, exactly fitting in with the emphasis of Luke’s story so far. Can you recognize the hated Samaritan as your neighbour? (Ibid., pp. 127-28).
I suppose the question to ask is, can you, can I, can we recognize ____________ as our neighbor/s?