The Samaritan Other, the Practice of Mercy, Living in Gratitude and Being a Neighbor

Good SamaritanIn 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).Good Samaritan

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?

On the Neglected and Underprivileged Metaphors of the Western Tradition

Jesus Heals the LeperAs Alfred North Whitehead famously said, the history of Western philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”  The more I study the Western philosophical tradition, the more convinced I am that this is the case.  At the center of Plato’s philosophy is his doctrine of the Forms or Ideas.  In Greek there are two words, which we translate into English as “idea”:  εἶδος (eidos) and ἰδέα (idea).  Interestingly, in Greek these works mean something that is seen; however, Plato uses the terms to mean that which is not seen physically, but mentally.  Nonetheless, seeing is still the root metaphor pervading his philosophy.  Consider some of his most famous images-the cave, the sun, and so on.  In the cave, there is no light, no knowledge.  When one emerges from the cave into the light, one comes to know (or potentially comes to know) reality by first seeing the things of the sense world and then ascending to the Forms or Ideas in which the sense objects participate and imitate.  As is well-known these days, postmoderns have challenged this privileging of the visual metaphor and have attempted to imagine what it might mean for some of the other senses to serve as a central metaphors.  For example, postmodern philosophers and theologians such as Jean-Luc Marion and Catherine Pickstock have written with great effect on the more “neglected” senses such as taste and hearing.

Personally, I think that touch offers particularly fertile ground that ought be explored and put to use in philosophy.  To be touched is, I submit, something that all humans need.  Unfortunately, it is something that has been lost in our interactions with one another-perhaps in part due to our technological mode of being-in-the-world and perhaps also because of a fear of communicating the wrong idea or of a negative response from the other to whom we wish to encourage. Yet, an embrace and a simple clasping of hands can often communicate more than anything we might say.  Two examples come to mind:  one personal and the other Scriptural.

My husband and I lived in Moscow, Russia for about three years.  During our time in Russia, we had the opportunity to visit various cities, small towns and villages. One winter we traveled by train to Kirov, staying approximately two weeks. While there we were invited to spend a day at one of the orphanages just outside the city. The memories of that visit are quite vivid, and the time with the children, though brief, was a life- changing experience. When we first arrived, the children, who ranged in age from 4-16 years old, were extremely shy and stand-off-ish. I noticed immediately a small, very cute little boy, Sasha, who was about 5 years old and very withdrawn. I walked up to Sasha and said, “Привет Саша,” (“hello, Sasha”).  But Sasha said nothing – no smile, no handshake, no eye contact – nothing. As the day progressed, we played games, performed skits, ate lunch and attempted to get to know the children better. While playing one of the more active games (something like dodge-ball), Sasha and I began slowly to “bond.”  When it was time to eat, I noticed that he wanted to sit with me (which made me of course extremely happy), so I tried to take his hand; however, he did not want me to touch him and quickly pulled his hand away.  Nonetheless, he still wanted to sit with me. So we sat and ate borsch together and then went off to play more games. As the day was drawing to a close, I was sitting on a bench resting and Sasha walked up to me, sat next to me, and to my surprise (and joy) he let me hold his hand. After that connection, he would not leave my side and even let me hold him. He actually wanted very much to be held and touched, but he of course was simply “one among many” in the orphanage and had been for most of his short life deprived of physical touch. When it was time to leave, he did not want to let go of my hand (nor did I want to let go of his). Then the dreaded time came and we were told that the bus was leaving and we’d better pack up and board the bus. As we drove off, the kids ran behind the bus as long as they could keep up, and we of course cried our eyes out. I often think about Sasha, and hope that he remembers me-more than that, I hope that he finds a home and a family that will give him the love and affection for which he longs, needs, and deserves.

Not long after our short trip to Kirov, I began studying the book of Leviticus, which among other things describes the law of the leper’s cleansing (chapter 13).[1] For example in Lev. 13:45-46, we read,

The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.

Why must the leper wear torn clothes?  In the Old Testament, the rending of a person’s clothes was a symbolic expression of mourning over death. Here the leper is to wear torn garments to represent his/her absolutely hopeless condition-after all, the disease was incurable.  Prior to aids, leprosy was perhaps the most dreadful disease a person might contract.  For example, the body becomes covered with ulcers, the person loses his/her hair, s/he experiences extremely slow bodily decay even to the point of losing limbs, and the mental and psychological anguish endured is excruciating.  The person with leprosy is alienated from his/her own family and from societal life; s/he experiences death daily, moment by moment over period of many years and, worse of all, isolated, alienated.   Although we are not exactly certain of the kind of leprosy that existed in the time of the OT, we can, however, grasp how this disease illustrates well the nature of sin in the spiritual sphere.

In addition to wearing torn clothes, the leper must cry, “Unclean, unclean.” Here “unclean” is not so much a reference to the physical disease itself, but speaks of the ceremonial status of the person according to Levitical law. That is, the individual remains unclean ceremonially until s/he is pronounced “clean” by the priest – that is, when and if healing comes. As mentioned above, “He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” The leper experiences a separation, s/he has no koinonia with the people of God, and is considered ceremonially under judgment.

Though we do read in the OT of some lepers who were healed, there are very few illustrations of healing the disease until Jesus came on the scene. In other words, as to the “tonal center” of the OT, it was extremely unusual for anyone to be healed of leprosy. Yet, in Mark’s Gospel account, we read:

A leper came to him [Jesus] begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’  Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’  Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

Jesus, who was well-acquainted with the Torah and the intricacies of Levitical law, did not rebuke the leper, explaining that lepers are social outcasts who belong outside the camp.  Nor did He worry about being socially stigmatized or becoming ceremonially unclean through contact with the leper.  Rather, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the leper.  Then the Incarnate Word said, “be made clean,” and it was so.  Jesus, who would soon know exile, alienation, condemnation and ultimately death, stretched out his hand of flesh and touched this diseased, dying leprous man.  Jesus, whose body was rent and broken for us – we, who in Adam are spiritual lepers – acted with compassion towards the leper, touching him and thereby affirming his humanity, and I assure you the leper knew love as he had never known it before.

If philosophy can’t find a use for these kinds of images, then theology certain should, indeed, it must.


[1] Many of the observations given here were first brought to my attention about a decade ago through a lecture series on Leviticus by Dr. S. Lewis Johnson.