Gentiles and Samaritans

Second-Class Citizens

Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.—Luke 15:1

According to the Companion Bible, the . Greek word translated “sinners” should ..be applied especially in a religious sense. It sometimes was used to describe the Gentiles. Paul wrote, “We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:15). Certainly then as now, everyone was a sinner: “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10).

Luke was a Gentile who converted to Christianity. At the end of his letter to the Colossians Paul mentions by name Aristarchus, Marcus, and Justus who are “of the circumcision” (i.e., Jews). Then he lists Epaphras, Luke, and Demas as also sending greetings (Colossians 4:10-14). This implies that these three were not “of the circumcision” (i.e., they were not Jews).

Luke knew how non-Christian Jews treated him, so he had great empathy for those who were considered second- or even third-class citizens in Israel. These included the publicans, Samaritans, and the Gentiles. This group, considered inferior by the majority, received much greater emphasis in Luke’s gospel than in the other three.

The Publicans

The word publican, from the Greek word telones (Strongs 5057), appears only in the first three gospels, and is used in as many verses in Luke as in Matthew and Mark combined. It describes one who collects taxes for Rome.

“The publicans were hated as the instruments by which the subjection of the Jews to the Roman emperor was perpetuated. They were noted for their extortion and were tempted to oppress the people with illegal exactions so that they might the more speedily enrich themselves. The publicans were regarded as traitors and apostates, defiled by their frequent intercourse with the heathen, and willing tools of the oppressor. They were classed with sinners, with harlots, and with the heathen. The scribes and the people alike hated them.”—Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, McClintock and Strong [vol. VIII, p. 769]

Jesus did not hate them. Luke emphasizes that one of the twelve was a publican when Jesus called him: “After these things he went forth, and saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him, Follow me” (Luke 5:27). We know this man by the name Matthew (see Matthew 9:9, 10:3, and Mark 2:14). His change of name was similar to Saul becoming Paul.

In one of the parables found only in Luke, we see the contrast in heart attitude between those who trusted in themselves (the Pharisees) and those who did not (illustrated by a publican). The Pharisee thanked God that he was so much better than others, especially than the publican. But the publican confessed he was a sinner and begged for mercy. The point of the parable was clear: “I tell you, this man [the publican] went down to his house justified rather than the other [the Pharisee]: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14).

The Samaritans

Even worse than publicans in the estimation of the Jews were the Samaritans: “The Jews would have no dealings with the Samaritans that they could possibly avoid. ‘Thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil’ was the mode in which the Jews expressed themselves when at a loss for a bitter reproach. The Samaritan was publicly cursed in their synagogues; could not be adduced as a witness in the Jewish courts; could not be admitted to any sort of proselytism; and was thus, so far as the Jew could affect his position, excluded from hope of eternal life.”—Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, McClintock and Strong [vol. IX, p. 286]

As an example of the contemptuous attitude of the Jews toward Samaritans note the words recorded in John: “Then answered the Jews, and said unto him, Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?” (John 8:48). Jesus refused to accept the ordinary prejudices of those around him. He did not avoid the Samaritans; he treated them with respect as he did every human being.

Near the end of his life, as Jesus was going to Jerusalem where he knew he would be crucified, he passed through Samaria and Galilee and was met by ten lepers: “And they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us. And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan. And Jesus answering said, Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine? There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger. And he said unto him, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole” (Luke 17:13-19).

Of course it was divine power that made them all whole, coupled with their faith. They all had faith because they did not lift up their voices begging money as was their wont, and because it was only as they were on their way to the priests that they were actually cleansed. And what did they do when they realized they were healed? Nothing, other than to continue on their way—with one exception: the Samaritan, the one so hated by the Jews, returned to express his gratitude and appreciation.

Often we hear of those suffering from diseases for which there is no medical cure. And through prayer and supplication relief and healing may sometimes occur. It is then that the supplicant is most on trial. Does one return with gratitude and appreciation, asking what can be done for the master? Generally it is business as usual. Where are the nine? They were gone.

The tenth chapter of Luke contains what many consider the most beloved parable in the Bible, the parable of the Good Samaritan. An expert in the law asked Jesus a question which had as part of the answer the requirement to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. The lawyer persisted: “But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29). Rather than answering directly, Jesus begins what may not have been initially perceived as a parable. A certain man, nationality unknown, was traveling alone to Jericho. He was robbed, beaten, and left for dead. By chance a priest came by but he elected to not get involved. Soon after a Levite did the same. “But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.” (Luke 10:33, 34). Jesus then asks the lawyer to answer his own question as to who is his neighbor by asking who was the neighbor to the poor man who had been left for dead. The lawyer was trapped; the answer is so repugnant to him he cannot even say “the Samaritan.” Instead he says, “He that shewed mercy on him” (verse 37).

The priest was not a neighbor, the Levite was not a neighbor. Perhaps they reasoned that they had a higher calling; their service to God might be compromised if they became contaminated by touching someone who either was or might soon be dead. One can’t be too careful when one is busy in God’s service. But the Samaritan asks no questions. He sees the plight of the unfortunate one and he does everything he can to help. The Samaritan in the parable was like our Lord who came to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10).

The Gentiles

Luke compiled his gospel as an historian through interviews with those who actually experienced the events. Throughout his account he emphasizes those events that prove God’s love is not limited to the Jews. At the very beginning of his gospel he quotes Simeon as saying that Jesus will be “a light to lighten the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). Two chapters later Jesus has returned to Nazareth, his home town. In the synagogue he stands and reads from Isaiah. He then sits down and begins to comment on the reading. Although they initially are astonished at the gracious words coming from “Joseph’s son,” their attitude quickly changes when he says he is not going to do healing miracles there as he had done elsewhere. And to emphasize that God’s grace is not always directed to those who think they alone qualify for it, he reaches back to the experiences of Elijah and Elisha when a special blessing went to Gentiles. He says: “I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land; but unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow. And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:25-27).

The Sidonian woman was not a Jew; the Syrian Naaman was not a Jew. Were there not Jewish widows in the time of Elijah? Were there not Jewish lepers in the time of Elisha? Indeed there were, but they, for whatever reason, did not receive God’s grace. An indication of the heart condition of those who heard Jesus can be seen in the reaction described in verse 28: “All they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath.” They tried to kill him, but he passed through their midst and went elsewhere. As he had said in verse 24, “No prophet is accepted in his own country.”

In Luke chapter 7 Jesus is at Capernaum. A centurion, a man responsible for 100 military men and thus not a Jew, had a beloved servant who was nigh unto death. He sent for Jesus, but specifies that he is not to trouble himself by actually coming to the house since he knows that just a word would be all that would be required to perform a miracle. Jesus hears this and says, “I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel” (Luke 7:9). Once again it is a Gentile who surpasses those who thought they were God’s special ones.

At the end of his gospel, Luke records the words of the risen Lord who tells the disciples that the wonderful gospel message was something that was for all nations, not just the Jews: “Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46,47).

Lessons for Us

It is always easiest to live like everyone else, sharing their prejudices. But Jesus did not live that way. He considered all human beings to be worth his time and his attention. He indulged none of the common prejudices of his day. He willingly spent time with women, children, tax collectors, prostitutes, and even the hated Samaritans.

Do we live as he did? Or do we share the prejudices of those around us, thinking our time is best spent with others who are just like we are, thinking that since we are in the full-time service of God we have no time for those less fortunate than ourselves? Our Master made time to speak with the poor, with children, and even with those who were openly sinful or might be considered unacceptable by the leaders of his society. Since God has predestinated that we be “made like his Son,” we are to follow that pattern and do the same.

Like Luke, we were attracted to the gospel message because someone was faithful to the commission to preach the name of Jesus among all nations. Since we are to be like our Master, let us not draw arbitrary distinctions among ourselves and among others based on age, sex, wealth, or social standing. In our witnessing we must never judge whom the Lord is calling. He decides to whom his grace and favor will be extended and then uses those who are willing to be his instruments of blessing.

The poor in this world’s goods may be just what the Lord is looking for because he does not look on the outside, he reads the heart: “Hearken, my beloved brethren, hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him” (James 2:5).

True riches are not on earth, they are in heaven: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”—Luke 12:32-34, NIV

Where is your treasure? You will know by looking at where your heart is, what you think and talk about when you have opportunity. It could be your business, your investments, your career, your home, or any of a variety of places where “moth destroys and thieves come near.”

May we continue to keep our heart on our treasure in heaven, knowing that if we are faithful even unto death, we will receive the crown of life (Revelation 2:10).