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Sunday, July 14, 2013

We Trust in God, But Samaritans Have to Pay in Cash

He came from the “holy city” of Shechem, this traveling merchant - Shechem, where Father Abraham had once offered sacrifices at the great Terebinths of Moreh, and where the Lord confirmed his covenant with Abraham.  From Shechem where weary travelers can still draw water from Jacob’s Well. From Shechem, with the holy temple on Mount Gerizim (though it had been destroyed, it was still a holy place).   He came from Shechem –sometimes called Sychar -in Samaria for he was a Samaritan.

He came from Shechem with goods and merchandise piled high on the back of his donkey to sell in towns and villages along the road to Jericho and Jerusalem.  It was a difficult trip, but well worth the dangers risked and indignities endured. 

He sold carved trinkets, bolts of cloth, dried fruits, tools, beads, spices, anything that could be carried without spoiling.  And though the trip was often arduous, and frequently humiliating, the profits of the trip fed his family, and he found that he enjoyed the long solitudes between the towns and villages.

The trip itself had many dangers.  The treacherously steep and winding road down from Jerusalem to Jericho could hide wild animals or bandits. It was no accident that the road was called “the Bloody Way.”[i]  It was 17 miles from Jerusalem to Jericho, and a drop in height of almost 2,500 feet. It was a steep and twisted road, and there were stories told of the many travelers found beaten and murdered along the roadside, their possessions and clothes stripped from them, their bodies left to be devoured by vultures and jackals.  But these were only risks.  Only possibilities, not certainties. He carried a small dagger for protection, but he’d never actually had cause to use it.  Still, he was cautious and kept himself alert for threats from beasts and from men.  

These risks were real, but only potentials; the indignities of the journey were certain. 

He was a Samaritan travelling in Jewish territory, where his presence was usually tolerated but never welcomed.  He could not count on the sacred relationship of hospitality.  It was considered an honor and a duty – a holy rite – to welcome travelers and strangers, to feed them and to see to their needs while they rested in your home.  But he would never be welcomed into Jewish homes.  His accent betrayed him as a Samaritan.  And Samaritans were hated here.

Though closely related in ancestry and culture, the Samaritans were regarded as low as the Gentiles by the Jews.  After they returned from their exile in Babylon, the Jewish people regarded the Samaritans as religious compromisers and degenerate half-breeds.

The “wise” and “all virtuous” Joshua Ben Sirah wrote of the Samaritans:
My whole being loathes two nations,
the third is not even a people:
The inhabitants of Seir and Philistia,
and the foolish people who dwell in Shechem.[ii]

That “virtuous” man loathed the Samaritans and denied them a place among God’s chosen people. Some were quick to call down fire from heaven on Samaritan villages for the smallest of offenses[iii].  And others placed Samaritans on the same level as the demon possessed[iv]

It was even said that the great Jewish leaders, Ezra, Zerubbabel, and Joshua, gathered together the whole congregation in the Jerusalem temple, with 300 priests, 300 trumpets, 300 scrolls of the law, and 300 children, and they blew the trumpets and the Levites were singing.  And they anathematized – they cursed- outlawed, and excommunicated the Samaritans saying, “Let no Israelite eat of one morsel of anything that is a Samaritan’s; let no Samaritan become a proselyte, and allow them not to have part in the resurrection of the dead.”[v]

Samaritans who built their homes on or too close to Jewish territories were evicted and their homes razed.  And the authorities looked the other way.[vi]  The rabbis had declared that “by reason of their idolatry, separation from them was established,” but also that “their slaughter was prohibited.”[vii]  This, however, didn’t stop the Sanhedrins from looking the other way when young Samaritan men were killed by Jewish authorities.[viii]

Oh the trouble went both ways, to be sure.  The Samaritans would hurl epithets and curses (and the occasional stone) back at the Jews.  And there were occasional outbursts of violence – from both sides. But the Samaritans were the minority.  They were outnumbered, surrounded on all sides, and oppressed.  The Samaritans were the minority in every way and he was traveling alone in Jewish territory.  Here he was the outsider, the rejected, the accursed. 

He sold his goods as quickly and quietly as possible, never expecting to receive a fair or full price.  He was often barred from village markets and chased away from Jewish towns.  He’d been spat upon and cursed. Some of his goods had been stolen and the elders of that village had refused to even acknowledge his claim.  He knew that he would not expect to receive any kindness from them.

Ahead of him on the road were two men – a priest and a Levite from the temple in Jerusalem, he guessed based on their clothes.  Many of the thousands of priests and Levites who served in the temple in Jerusalem lived in nearby Jericho.  He followed them at a distance, knowing the disdain they had for him.    He’d been close enough to them as they left Jerusalem to overhear them muttering about the “stupid Samaritan” that was following them.  They’d called him “filth” and “scum.”  He’d slowed his steps to allow extra distance between them.  No need to antagonize them.  After all, he still hoped to be able to sell the remainder of his goods in Jericho.  If he offended this priest and Levite along the road they might stir up trouble for him when they arrived.  It was better to choke on their insults and on the dust from their feet, than to lose a sale in Jericho.

But now, as he was coming around a sharp twist in the road, he discovered that they’d stopped.  He surprised them as he came around the rocky corner.  They jumped in fear and surprise, which in turn startled him.  He found himself reaching for his dagger.  But the fear passed when he realized why they had stopped, and he tucked the dagger back beneath his robes.

The priest and the Levite were standing a few feet away from a body sprawled out across the road.  A naked and battered body.  He’d been attacked by thieves – that much was clear.  His clothing had been taken from him, right down to his sandals.  There was an ugly bloody wound on his head and several knife slashes on his hands and arms.

“We found him thus,” said the priest.

Then the priest and the Levite crossed to the far side of the road, squeezing as close as they could to the rocky ledge so as to put as much distance between themselves and the body. 

“Aren’t you going to help him?” he called out to them.  “You must do something for him.”

“I cannot,” answered the priest. “He may already be dead and to touch a corpse would render me unclean and unfit for temple service. I cannot risk that.”

The Samaritan watched as the two of them backed away from the man laying in the road and then shuffled further down the road.  Then the two of them were gone, around another switchback twist in the road. He rushed to the body and discovered that he wasn’t, in fact, dead.  As touched him the battered man let out a pitiful groan.  And the Samaritan’s heart burned with compassion for him.  He rushed back to his donkey and unloaded a skin of wine and a jar of oil that he’d hoped to sell in Jericho.  He used these to clean the man’s wounds.  And then, using a piece of fabric torn from his own robe he bound the wounds.

He hefted the man up from the ground and placed him, as gently as possible, on the back of his donkey.  He had to shift some of the merchandise to his own back to do this, but he did it quickly, and soon they were on their way, carefully down the steep path toward Jericho. 

It was just after nightfall when they arrived in Jericho.  The Samaritan knew that he could expect to find no welcome there – no pious member of the community would receive him, the stranger, the traveler, or the wounded man he carried with him, into their homes no matter what the tradition and demands of hospitality might have dictated.  So he made his way to the inn.  It was a seedy place, frequented by traders and caravan merchants, run by an untrustworthy innkeeper – good people wouldn’t stay there, of course.  They would be invited to stay with the righteous and proper people of Jericho.  No.  The inn was for traveling merchants mostly, foreigners, and outcasts, but it did have a well with clean water, and was better than sleeping outside the city walls.

He spoke with the innkeeper through a barred window and arranged for a bed for himself and the injured man.  “You’re a Samaritan, aren’t you?”  The innkeeper asked.  “How do I know you didn’t do this to him, yourself? “

The Samaritan man barely managed to keep his tongue quiet.  He bit back a sharp and hasty reply and then said, “If I had robbed him and beaten him close to death myself, as you suggest, would I then bundle him upon my donkey and bring him here?” 

The innkeeper looked as if he wasn’t sure he could follow this line of reasoning.  The Samaritan sighed and then said, “There was a priest and a Levite on the road as well.  They came into town some time ahead of me.  Ask them if you won’t take my word”

Finally the innkeeper acquiesced and settled the price between them for lodging and care for the injured man - but only after seeing the Samaritan open his purse and withdraw two silver denarii.  We trust in God, after all, but Samaritans have to pay in cash.


So the story was told, and so the story remains.  Who is my neighbor?  Do I ask to justify and excuse myself?   Change the question and ask, how can I be a neighbor? 

[i]  Wilkinson, "The Way from Jerusalem to Jericho" The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Mar., 1975), pp. 10-24
[ii] Sirach 50: 25 – 26
[iii] Luke 9: 54
[iv] John 8:48
[vi] Replace Samaritans with Palestinians here. 
[vii] The injunction came from the great Rabbi Maimonides – Montgomery, page 195
[viii] Replace young Samaritan men with 17 year old black men (Trayvon Martin) and Jewish men with George Zimmerman.

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