Imagine a group of people who can’t stand Jews. Like Jews, they believe in one God and even share some common stories about Moses, but after that they disagree violently, and the disagreements eclipse what they share in common. What really provokes this group’s hostility is the fact that another government let the Jews return and take much of their land away from them. Sometimes they commit violent acts against Jews.
Are you thinking of Palestinians? Muslims?
Nope. I’m talking about people from the time of Jesus. They’re Samaritans. These are people whose ancestors never got carried off to Babylon back in 586BCE. But they were displaced about a century later when the Persians decreed that the Jews living in Babylon could return and set up their own local government. Afterwards, beliefs diverged and mutual hostility grew, occasionally to the point of violence.
The point is, when you hear Samaritans mentioned in the Gospels, you need to remember that for Jews of that time the word had threatening overtones, the way uninformed Americans today associate Muslims with holy wars. (Maybe they never read the Book of Joshua or heard about the Crusades.) Profiling was as alive and well in Jesus’ day as it is in ours.
In this week’s Gospel lesson Jesus heals a whole group of people who suffer from “leprosy” (back then the word covered all sorts of skin disorders). There are lots of healings in the Gospels, so you might think this is just one more. But what makes this story stand out is that one of the people healed is a Samaritan. And he’s only one who remembers to give thanks to God for his healing. As a faithful Jew himself, Jesus considers the man a bit of a heretic, but he still praises him for the strength and integrity of his faith.
To us, this might seem a minor detail, but back then it was downright scandalous. Some people get healed? Sure. That’s been known to happen. A “heretic” and possible terrorist is our model of faithfulness? No way!
Think of that next time somebody suggests a “Muslim ban.”
People we might fear, people who definitely don’t share all our beliefs, can turn out to be people of truer faith than our own. That’s the most striking point of this story.