The Samaritans are a people who are mentioned frequently in the New Testament. We all know the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus also met a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well as recorded by Saint John. And, in today’s gospel, a Samaritan leper is healed by Jesus and is the only one to return and thank Him.
To understand who the Samaritans were, we have to know a bit about the history of the people of Israel and the land they occupied.
The people of Israel were comprised of twelve tribes. Ten of the tribes made up what was called the “Northern Kingdom”. The capital was Samaria. The remaining two tribes were called the “Southern Kingdom” with their capital in Jerusalem. The kings of the Northern Kingdom began to worship idols and foreign gods. Though they were warned by the prophets that they would be punished, they continued to do so. The day of reckoning came around seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus when the Assyrians invaded the Northern Kingdom, leveling their cities and taking whoever survived the siege into exile. As predicted by the prophets, the land was utterly devastated and the ten tribes were gone forever leaving only the two tribes of the Southern Kingdom.
With no one inhabiting the land of the Northern Kingdom, the Assyrians began to repopulate it with their own people and re-established Samaria as the capital. These people came to be called “Samaritans” and the land they inhabited “Samaria” after the name of their capital. The Jews who remained in the Holy Land resented the presence of a foreign people in the land that God had promised them. In many ways, it is comparable to the resentment that many Palestinian Arabs feel toward Israelis in our own day.
Though there had always been some animosity between the two groups, the intense hatred and hostility came about around four hundred years before Jesus’ birth. The Southern Kingdom was about to rebuild the temple with the help of Cyrus, the king of the Persians. The Samaritans who had begun following the law handed down by Moses wanted to participate in the construction of the new temple and be included in worship with the Jews. However, the Jewish people refused not wanting to give a foreign people access to the Temple of God.
The Samaritans were offended and outraged. Not wanting to be shown up, they decided to build their own temple on Mount Gerizim. It is this temple that the woman at the well refers to when she says to Jesus, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain but you say that the place people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Therefore, Samaritans were not allowed to enter the temple in Jerusalem nor were Jews allowed access to the temple on Mount Gerizim. To the Jews, then, Samaritans were not only foreigners but they had corrupted the true religion of Israel. For these historic and religious reasons, we cannot underestimate the deep hatred and animosity that existed between the Jewish and Samaritan peoples.
Now that we understand the history, we can have a better understanding of today’s gospel. When Jesus tells the ten men to go show themselves to the temple priest, the Samaritan was not about to go along with them. He would not be allowed in the temple because he was a Samaritan and he would not go in because he worshiped only at Mount Gerizim. Therefore, while the others went on their way to meet their religious obligation, he was free to return to Jesus and thank him.
Also, because he was a Samaritan, he had even more reason to be grateful to Jesus. He realized that Jesus was a Jew. As a Jew, it showed even greater love and mercy on Jesus’ part to heal a man who was a historic enemy of His people. The Samaritan recognizes this and is all the more thankful because of it.
There are probably many of you here today who can relate to the Samaritan in the gospel. You may feel like an outcast and a foreigner in church. You may feel that you are so lost that you could never be found, so sinful you can never be forgiven or so dirty you could never be made clean. You may feel that you have drifted so far away from Jesus that you could never dare to approach Him. If you feel this way, then you are just the person God is looking to touch. In fact, you have an advantage over those of us who appear to be devout and religious. You can approach Jesus knowing how needy you are of His forgiveness and healing. You can approach Him with true poverty of spirit because you know that you do not deserve anything and that you are not entitled to anything. You know you are sinners. And it is just such people that Jesus wants to forgive and heal. If you turn to him, he will not turn away from you. If you approach Him, He will not avoid you. You can be assured that, if you are truly repentant, you will find a new relationship with Him and a new start for your life.
The Samaritan also has something to teach us who feel that we are devout and religious. Because we meet all the exterior obligations of our faith, we can fall into the trap of thinking that God owes us something. Because we give so much, we think we are entitled to graces and deserve to have a charmed life. We can often look down on others who fail to meet the high standards we have set for ourselves. Such an attitude can creep into our spiritual life in very subtle and dangerous ways. The Samaritan teaches us that all of us approach God as beggars. There is nothing we can give Him that He has not already given us. By showing gratitude, by taking the time to say “Thank you”, we learn humility and can fuel our spiritual lives not so much on our own efforts but on the action of the Holy Spirit at work within us.
In the presence of God, we are all foreigners, lepers and beggars. Yet He showers His gifts on us because He is faithful. The greatest of these gifts is the Body and Blood of His Son which will be offered on this altar for the forgiveness of our sins and the healing of our spirits. Let us approach this table with awe and gratitude, throwing ourselves down at the feet of Jesus as the Samaritan did, confident in His merciful and faithful love.