Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Bible and Other Faiths 11

For previous entries, just click on The Bible and Other Faiths label at the end of this post.

Facing Samaritan Religion

There’s not much about the Samaritans in the Bible, but what we hear about matters, because they touch on something key to our relationships with people of other faiths: prejudice and hostility. That is IG’s basis for including this short chapter. To put it mildly, Jews and Samaritans did not get along with each other! The origins of Samaritan religion appear to be syncretistic, where worship of Yahweh is mixed with worship of other gods. During post-exilic times, they had wanted to help in the rebuilding of the temple but were not allowed to, although they could join in the Passover should they renounce foreign gods.

We’re not sure if the Samaritans found in the NT should be identified with the former group. In some ways, the Samaritans in the NT were very similar to other Jewish groups, worshipping Yahweh and exalting the Torah. It’s certainly possible that the enmity between the Jews and Samaritans owed as much to socio-political factors as to ethnic or religious differences. The Samaritans had their own temple, their own priesthood, and their own version of the Pentateuch. Since these are key to the religion of the Jews, the divide is therefore pretty stark.

We now go to the well-known passage in John 4, where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well. This story is often used to illustrate the way Jesus transcends barriers, but more than that, in its context, it is also an apt illustration of how Samaritans fit into God’s plans. The Samaritan woman, in John’s Gospel, is the first person to hear Jesus declare that He is the Messiah. She is also contrasted with Nicodemus, in John 3, as one who is willing to witness publicly to Jesus. In his conversation, Jesus also shows that the temple no longer matters, but "worship in Spirit and truth". The questions about religious practice is a wrong one; what is needed is new birth.

IG takes us now to Luke-Acts and the history of the early church. The disciples are to witness in Samaria (Acts 1:8) among other places! What a joy it must have been to go there and find receptive ears and hearts! Luke has already understood God’s mission to the whole world, however, since he has recorded some of Jesus’ significant encounters with the Samaritans in his Gospel. In Luke 9:51-56, he goes through Samaria but finds himself rejected, and so his disciples react: let’s call down fire upon them! But Jesus rebukes them, he seeks not to meet prejudice with prejudice. “This incident comes at a very significant point in Luke’s Gospel: it is the first thing that happens after Jesus sets out for Jerusalem and the cross. It is immediately followed by the teaching on the cost of following Jesus.” Opposition from the Samaritans, in a sense, is part of his journey towards the cross.

The next story is the famous parable on the good Samaritan, but we should also be reminded that Jesus includes Samaritans in his healing ministry, as in Luke 17:11-19. The Samaritan healed here actually responds better than many of the Jews, and we can also find instances of this in the other gospels.

A short survey that almost functions as an appendice to the previous chapter. It’s interesting to note that mentions of Samaritans in the Bible tend to be favourable! I'm trying to think of who we can regard as analogous to the Samaritans as Christians today, but couldn't come up with anything beyond maybe Christians of a different denomination that perhaps historically we might have disagreements with, maybe over an issue that in retrospect, is trivial. What do you think?

Reflection questions:
Are there any people that Christians in your area think of as the Jews did of the Samaritans? What are the reasons for hostility and suspicion? How can John 4 speak into your situation?

Jesus dealt with prejudice among his own people and against his own people. How did this prepare disciples for their future mission? How can the church in your area be prepared for mission across barriers of prejudice and hostility?

Facing the Gentile religions

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