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It is very rare that the Bible says anything good about the Samaritans. Today’s story of their conversion is the really great surprise, even though Jesus’s encounter with the Woman of Samaria (Jn 4: 1-42) was so similar. St Luke, of course, recounted Our Lord’s parable of the Good Samaritan (10:29-37), and the story of the cured Samaritan Leper (17:16), which served up unpleasant comparisons for a Jewish audience.
Who were the Samaritans? Seemingly, but not certainly, they resulted from mixed racial blood when Assyria conquered the Northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. Jews not deported then, after the conquest and deportation of others, intermarried with other conquered peoples, transferred into their midst. They developed their own religion and celebrated their own feasts and sacrifices, with their own sanctuary on Mt Gerizim in Samaria…today’s Nablus, thirty five miles north of Jerusalem. They detested Jerusalem, and the sentiment was heartily reciprocated. Their own entire scripture was called the Samaritan Pentateuch, essentially the same as the Jewish Pentateuch, namely the first five books of the Bible. Their messianic expectation was of a prophet like Moses (Dt 18:18). The Samaritan Woman in John’s Gospel (ch.4), had found this saviour in Jesus. That episode closed with the Samaritans believing that Jesus was not only their Messiah, but the saviour of the world (Jn 4:42). In today’s reading from The Acts of the Apostles we are shown how the apostles went about their missionary activity, in this same Samaria.
Progress in Mission
The Jews normally regarded the Samaritans as gentiles. To these the Greek speaking Jewish converts expelled from Jerusalem, seemingly began to preach the Gospel , with Philip, the evangelising deacon, developing the initiative further. When the Apostles heard of it they went there, definitively authorising the overture. Thus the Christian Jewish leaders of the faith in Jerusalem confirmed the authenticity of the faith of this new convert group, formerly so inimical to Jews. Thus the Christian faith is already becoming universal, no more Jew or Gentile, all one in Christ (Gal 3:28).
Our second reading today is from St. Peter’s first epistle, and it pursues the missionary theme. Peter encourages the faithful to give a reasonable account of the hope that is in them…always with respect (1 Pt 3:15). And he recognizes just how much suffering such witness can involve. This advice is as relevant for us today as ever. In our Western World most of the attack does not come from intellectual atheists; it is from people who have the civil law on their side, and the polemic is often about morals. One has only to look cursorily at the Catholic press to find out how divisive these issues are even among the Catholic faithful. Questions especially regarding sexual morality and its entailments are most delicate. It was once the case that in law certain sexual deportments were not only execrated – they were criminal. These once criminal relationships now are not only protected by law but those protesting against them are criminal.
Back to Samaria.
So let us return to Samaria. First of all we recall that the exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman involved a discussion of her sexual deportment. Is Jesus, as presented in John’s account, giving a reasonable account of the hope that was in him? Was it done with respect and affection? Next in The Act of the Apostles we see Philip evangelising and we must expect that questions of morals came up sensitively. Conversion of the gentiles always meant accepting the morality of Jesus. The Samaritans received the Holy Spirit to help them. Arguments to help eliminate idolatry and immorality among the pagans, and to show Jews the fulfilment of the messianic prophecies in Israel, devoid of nationalism and universal political domination, was certainly St.Paul’s programme. His letters are full of the data concerning the struggle involved.
John’s Gospel (14:15-21)
Our Gospel reading today presents Jesus speaking in a way that might have sounded strange in Mt., Mark. and Luke: If you love me you will keep my commandments (14:15). Jesus who had so often criticised the deportment of the Pharisees might seem now to be just as law-bound himself. But with him ‘love’ is fundamental (vv.20-21). His understanding of love is not just about conformity to the letter of the law: it is about what law is supposed to protect. Laws are supposed to protect human beings, enabling them to live in freedom. But laws need interpreting. A traffic law can exemplify this. A doctor dashing at great speed to help someone can be arrested for breaking the speed limit, endangering the lives of others. But the truth is other. He or she was trying to save a life selflessly. When love is the guide to life it does not relativize the importance of law; it expresses its fundamental intent. All recognize the need of law makers and law enforcers. But mercy and compassion and ordinary common sense are necessary for good legal decisions.
The apostles went into the whole world proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. They were not just teaching a catechism. They were promoting a way of life, the life they had experienced and inherited from living with Jesus. He had promised them the gift of the Spirit to live they way he had lived, as stated in our Gospel excerpt today.
Each Sunday here at Mass we listen to the readings chosen to help keep focus on the most important things in life. To understand them we need a simplicity of heart and a readiness to change anything that stands in the way of the great tradition that we inherit. To run away into our own little corner of self-protection is the exact opposite of what is a Gospel demand. The Good News is for all. With an election looming today’s readings on the conversion of Samaritans, and the exhortation of St Peter to be respectful in explaining the positions we hold, and entirely apposite. A happy Sunday to you all. Amen.
-Father Richard J.Taylor