Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Parable of the Foreign-Born Heretic

Having faith means having a conviction that your beliefs are correct. But does that necessarily mean that you must believe that other beliefs are false? Or can faith mean that you are open to finding truth and wisdom in traditions other than your own?

Everyone knows the story of the Good Samaritan. (If you don't, click here.) Unfortunately, many of us miss the real significance of the parable.

Most of us assume that the story is about the Christian virtue of helping strangers in need, which is definitely one important aspect. But the lesson is really about religious tolerance.

Most of us think of the Samaritan as a "foreigner," but the historical Samaria was not very far at all from Jerusalem, centered around modern-day Nablus. Samaritans spoke Aramaic, the same language as Christ. So why then, is it important that a Samaritan plays the central role in this parable?

Because the mainstream Jews of Jesus' day considered Samaritans to be heretics. Samaritans believed in the Torah, but thought that the Jerusalem-based religion centered around Solomon's Temple was wrong; a rough approximation might be the difference between Mormonism and Protestantism. There was tremendous hostility between the two groups, and the Gospel of John tells us "Jews have no dealings with Samaritans."

And so not only did Jesus define the lawyer's "neighbor" as a traditional enemy, He held him up as an example of righteous behavior. The illustration could not have been more shocking had Jesus come today and told the same story to a group of American fundamentalists using a Wahhabi cleric in place of a Samaritan.

But this isn't the only Samaritan to appear in the Gospel of Luke. In Chapter 17, Jesus cures ten lepers, nine of whom go on their merry way after being healed. One of them stays behind, praising God: the Samaritan. Jesus says, pointedly, "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" And he said to him, "Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well."

There are two important lessons for modern Christians to draw here. The first, I believe, is a warning from Jesus not to assume the faith of people from other traditions is invalid because it differs from yours, and not to assume that your faith defines you as "moral" and by default makes everyone else "immoral."

The second is a lesson of context. Too many Christians insist upon the "literal" truth of the Bible, based upon their understanding of a modern translation of an ancient document without complementary historical, anthropological and linguistic contexts. In Jesus' day, the word "Samaritan" carried with it implications that by and large are lost today.


little-cicero said...

You are assuming that a literalist would not see the other dimension of tolerance in the Good Samaritan story, but it is so obvious that I don't see how one could not observe that dimension. You are confusing those who read the Bible for its literal meaning for those who don't read it at all- which is neither correct nor fair!

Other than that- Good Post!

Anthony said...

The older - and, consequently, more seemingly familiar - the text, the greater the importance of understanding its socio-historical context (the same could be said of some of Shakespeare's plays, which are similarly ingrained in popular Western culture). This parable, like many others in the Bible, remains powerful stuff but gains immeasurably from an understanding of Judea.

The socio-political ramifications of the Good Samaritan were brought out to me at school (I was probably 11 at the time), but it does no harm to be reminded of them. Thank you.

(On a lighter note, in view of your recent comment on my blog about my supposed boycott by the AFA, I wondered briefly if the title of this post wasn't an ironic rejoiner!)

Jess said...

You hit the nail on the head. Those who fail to question the meaning and context of words, as well as those lacking tolerance for (and curiosity about) other beliefs, are dangerous. They believe they are following holy writ, while they are, in fact, betraying God's love.