Most Bible readers are so familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan that we tend to almost skip over it, and in doing so, miss the cultural tension that would have been front and center for those who heard it from Jesus’ own lips. The Samaritans were more than just neighbors to the people of Israel. There was a long-standing dispute and animosity between the two groups that stretched back to the days of Joseph. The land of Samaria was originally deeded to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, but when they, along with the majority of the other tribes of Israel, were carried off into captivity by the Assyrians, foreigners moved in to settle the land, bringing their idolatry along with them. (2 Kings 17:24)
As these people intermarried with the few Israelites who remained, idol worship and pagan rituals became intertwined with the holy practices handed down by Moses. (2 Kings 17:29-41; Ezra 9:1-10:44) Generations later, when Jews attempted to resettle their land, the inhabitants (known as Samaritans, by this point) vigorously resisted their return, (Neh. 6:1-13) hardening the animosity that existed between the two groups into a bitter and festering hatred that only became more entrenched over the next five centuries.
This little bit of history provides the background needed to understand the shock that the first century Jews would have certainly felt when Jesus’ parable elevated an outcast above the priest and Levite, thereby making a hero out of someone who should have been considered far beneath them! (Luke 10:25-37)
For a Jew to call someone a “Samaritan” in Jesus’ day would have been an insult, but that’s not the way we think of a Samaritan today, is it? To us, the term brings to mind the image of a welcome stranger willing to step in and offer assistance to in a moment of crisis. And today countless ministries, healthcare facilities, and charities call themselves by this once derogatory name. There are even statutes referred to as “Good Samaritan” laws (though increasingly few know the reference’s origin) that provide legal protection to those who render aid to helpless people in need.
You see, the way that Jesus portrayed the Samaritan in his parable radically altered the world’s perception of the entire group. Such is the impact of being touched by Christ. He has the ability to forever transform that which was deemed negative into something good, beneficial and praiseworthy.
So the next time an honest look in the mirror makes you to want to run away, run to Jesus instead. His truth can radically alter you as well. Though you may not be able to see how, you can trust His transforming power to change ‘ashes’ into ‘beauty,’ ‘mourning’ into ‘joy’ and to exchange ‘a spirit of despair’ for a ‘garment of praise.’ (Is 61:3)