Samaria and Samaritans in Luke-Acts

Samaria and Samaritans figure prominently in the twin books of Luke and Acts, at least when compared to the other gospels. The Samaritans are not a stand-in for all despised or marginalized groups of people. They are the Judeans’ estranged kin. Echoes of God’s covenants with Israel still reverberate in their land. For Luke, the incorporation of Samaritans into the church represents one step in Jesus’ renewal of the whole people of God.

Who Were the Samaritans?

The Samaritans, you will recall, were Judah’s separated brothers and sisters, at least in part. After the death of King Solomon, the people of Israel divided into two nations: Israel in the north, with its capital at Samaria and Judah in the south, with its capital in Jerusalem. Assyria conquered the northern kingdom in 722 BC, sending the leaders of Israel into exile and importing foreigners to settle among the remnants of the population. By the time of Jesus, Samaritan and Jewish religion had diverged as well. Jesus, however, did not look at the Samaritans and see only half-breed heretics. He saw them as estranged brothers and sisters, whom the Lord would enfold into a renewed and reconstituted people of God.

Samaritans in John, Mark and Matthew

John the Evangelist makes this point in chapter 4 of the fourth gospel. Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in Samaria moves to consider the religious differences (and by inference, religious connections) between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus announced that the day is coming (and is now here) when neither Jerusalem nor Gerizim would be the focus of worship for God’s people. Judeans and Samaritans who believe in Jesus will together worship in spirit and in truth.

Except for an insult aimed at Jesus in John 8:48, this is John’s only reference to Samaria or Samaritans. The Gospel of Mark doesn’t mention them at all. In Matthew, they only appear in Jesus’ instruction to the twelve disciples sent to cast out demons and heal the sick during Jesus’ earthly sojourn.  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10:5) Notice that even here the Samaritans are distinguished from the Gentiles (that is, the people of the nations) Even though the disciples’ were sent at first only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the Samaritans are in a different category than the pagan Gentiles.

The Mission Statement in Acts

In contrast to the other gospels, Samaria and Samaritans show up several times in Luke’s gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Luke begins the Acts of the Apostles with this word of Jesus:

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Acts 1:8

After he said this, Jesus was taken up into a cloud (Acts 1:9) and exalted to the right hand of God (Acts 2:33).

In Luke’s presentation, Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth are not just a geographic or chronological description of the narrative that follows. Luke is making a theological point. “All Judea and Samaria” is biblical Israel.

The Samaritan Mission

Luke describes the inclusion of Samaritans in Acts chapter 8 following the martyrdom (the same words as witness) of Stephen in chapter 7. It begins with Saul (Paul) persecuting the church in Jerusalem . As a result of the persecution, the apostles scattered throughout Judea and Samaria, proclaiming the word as they went. Acts 8:4-25 tells the story of the Samaritan mission, beginning with Philip preaching in the city of Samaria and ending with Peter and John preaching in many Samaritan villages. Philip’s preaching resulted in the exorcism of demons and the healing of those who could not walk, the same signs that accompanied Jesus and the disciples in Galilee. Peter and John went to Samaria as representatives of the whole church at the behest of the apostles in Jerusalem. We read that the Samaritan believers were baptized in the name of Jesus and the apostles’ hands laid on them to bestow the Holy Spirit. Thus, the one holy, catholic and apostolic church of Jesus was established among Samaritan believers.

The existence of Samaritan Christians must have been something of a challenge to Judean believers, given the social and religious boundaries that existed between Jews and Samaritans. That we don’t read about such conflict in the early church is remarkable. The one problem child we encounter is Simon the Magician whose life was not completely transformed at his baptism. There were, apparently, some issues surrounding the conversion of people living in a more pagan environment and not fully grounded in the whole of God’s self-revelation. Fortunately, the last word we hear about Simon is that he asked the apostles to pray for his complete deliverance.

Overall, though, the inclusion of Samaritans seems to have gone rather smoothly. Acts 9:31 reports that “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” Notice that there is one church – singular – in Judea, Galilee and Samaria, the land of promise to Abraham and Moses.

Samaritans and the Gentile Mission

Shortly after the incorporation of Samaritan believers, Luke’s attention turns to the Gentiles who will also be incorporated into Christ. Luke tells us about the conversion of a Roman soldier in Syrian Antioch and Paul’s first missionary journey to Asia Minor. Still, Luke hasn’t forgotten about the Samaritans. In Acts 15:3 we read that Paul (now converted from persecutor to apostle) and Barnabas stopped in Samaria on their way to Jerusalem to report on their labors in spreading the gospel abroad. “They reported the conversion of the Gentiles and brought great joy to all the believers.” Jews, Samaritans and Gentile believers at the ends of the earth were all being incorporated into one renewed people of God, just as Jesus promised.

Luke prepares the way for the Samaritan mission in the Book of Acts with several references to Samaria and Samaritans in the gospel that bears his name.

Jesus and the Journey through Samaria

In Luke 9:51-56 we learn that Jesus himself planned to visit a Samaritan village on his way to Jerusalem. The village, however, did not receive him. James and John asked Jesus if it was time to call down fire from heaven.

Note that this is the same John calling for fire on Samaria who later confirms Samaritans in the faith through prayer, the laying on of hands and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17). At this point, John’s attitude was substantially different.

What was Jesus doing in Samaria, anyway? If a fate worse than Sodom awaited the Galilean towns that did not welcome Jesus and his disciples (Luke 10:12), what fate would befall a Samaritan village?  Jesus, however, rebuked James and John and found lodging in another village. Since Jesus was in Samaria, should we not think that the other village was also Samaritan?

The Good Samaritan

Shortly after this episode, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) to an expert in the law of Moses. At a very minimum, the reader will notice that it is a Samaritan who is being held up as an example of the neighborly love required by the Law. Samaritans also recognized the authority of the Law of Moses, it’s important to note, although they may not have interpreted in the same way as Jesus or the teachers of Judea. “Go and do what the Samaritan did,” Jesus announced at the end of the parable. It is possible that even a Samaritan can do what the law requires.

Ten Lepers

In Luke 17:11-19 we learn that Jesus encountered ten lepers on the border between Samaria and Galilee during his journey to Jerusalem. In the disease that literally made them outcasts, Jews and Samaritans found solidarity. The lepers called out together to Jesus for healing and cleansing, but in accordance with Leviticus 13:45-46 they kept their distance. Jesus instructed them to go and show themselves to the priest, again in accordance with the provisions of Leviticus 14:1-32. The priest would verify the healing, perform cleansing rituals and offer sacrifices on behalf of the ones who were healed. Still, for eight days, the provisionally cleansed person must remain outside the camp, just to be on the safe side I suppose. Maybe the disease was just hiding.

As the lepers went, they were made clean, and one of them was a Samaritan. The Samaritan alone turned back to Jesus to prostrate himself at Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving. Without priestly examination, ritual or sacrifice, the Samaritan approached Jesus and threw himself down in worship. It’s hard not to see here that Jesus has subsumed the requirements and provisions of the law in his own person. Jesus’ word is enough; to worship at his feet is greater even than divinely ordained worship in the temple (regardless of whether that was the temple in Jerusalem or the one on Mount Gerizim).

We have seen, then, a kind of progression in Luke’s gospel, from Samaritan rejection of the messiah in Luke 9 to Samaritan worship of the messiah in Luke 17, with a stop at the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. The Gospel of Luke anticipates the Samaritan mission in the Book of Acts by demonstrating that God seeks the redemption of the lost tribes of Israel, not their destruction. In word and deed, Jesus shows us that Samaritans can exemplify what God wants from his chosen people: effective love for one’s neighbor and thankful, worshipful love for God in Jesus. In the Acts of the Apostles, we see Samaritan believers incorporated into God’s expanding church under the power of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus, God’s promise to renew all Israel has come to pass.