Last week’s post introduced the series on Jesus and themes in conflict prevention and management and peacebuilding. Today’s post examines Jesus’ relationship with the Samaritans and how he managed the conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans. It is based on Luke 9:51-56, where the Samaritans refused Jesus access to Jerusalem through their territory and the story of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4: 3-42). A brief history of the conflict between the two nations is essential to appreciate the actions of Jesus.
The conflict between the two nations goes back to the division of the Israeli nation into the Northern (ten tribes) and Southern (two tribes). The Northern tribes led by Jeroboam had their capital at Shechem, while the Southern tribes led by Rehoboam had it at Jerusalem. Among other issues, Rehoboam assembled an army to retake Israel, but God intervened (1 Kings 12: 21-24). Secondly, as the temple was in Jerusalem, Jeroboam prevented his people from worshipping there so as not to be sympathetic to Rehoboam and turn against him (1 Kings 12:26-33). Decades later, King Omri moved the capital of the Northern kingdom to Samaria (1 Kings 16:24), and the inhabitants were identified as the people of Samaria or Samaritans (cf. 2 Kings 17:29). Centuries later, a temple was built on Mount Gerizim in Shechem to rival the temple in Jerusalem.
During Jesus’ time, there was an informal relationship between the two territories and a free but cautious movement of goods and people. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus recorded that since Samaritan territories offered a direct route to Jerusalem, it was customary for Galileans to pass through them while going to Jerusalem. However, since Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish worship, was part of the conflict, Jews travelling to and from Jerusalem were not always welcomed because the Samaritans had their own temple at Mount Gerizim. As Jesus was popular because of his teachings and miracles, he was even more cautious about entering Samaritan towns.
There are a few examples. For instance, while passing through the Samaritan territory of Sychar, Jesus preferred to stay beside Jacob’s well outside the city while his disciples went into the city to buy food (John 4:3-8). In another instance, Jesus healed the Samaritan leper while “travelling in the borderlands of Samaria and Galilee” (Luke 17:11).
In the passage where the Samaritans rejected Jesus (Luke 9:51-56), Jesus demonstrated his commitment not to escalate the conflict between the Jews and Samaritans. First, Jesus sent messengers before entering the village because he knew his presence in the Samaritan village would attract huge attention. This attention would worsen if he moved around with his group, searching for food and accommodation. At the notice of his presence, people in need would come, and it would be difficult for him to turn them away. Performing miracles would lead to the assumption that he is the Messiah (John 4:25, 40-42) and the expectation that he would ascend Mount Gerizim to worship.
The Samaritans would resent him if he failed to do this. To avoid all these, Jesus sent messengers to prepare for his stay so that he would go straight to that house as soon as he entered the village. The unwillingness of the Samaritans to accept him confirms the necessity of this strategy.
Second, when the messengers returned with the news that the Samaritans denied Jesus access to the village, James and John incited Jesus to send down fire to consume the Samaritans for their inhospitality. However, Jesus rebuked them. One must emphasise that Jesus was rejected and not James and John. If anyone should be furious, it should be Jesus. After rebuking the disciples, Jesus then went on to another village. Although Jesus had the power to retaliate, he chose to walk away from violence.
Just as the anger of the apostles raged, so the anger of the Samaritans would have raged if they had accommodated Jesus and he refused to worship at Mount Gerizim. As James and John were disposed to violent attack, so also the Samaritans would have been in their retaliation. Indeed, tit-for-tat strikes which might have occurred would have led to more bloodshed and a civil war that would have attracted the Romans. In the wake of such a situation, the saving mission of Christ and the way he intended to hand himself over freely would have been thwarted.
On the other hand, the exact words of James and John are insightful. They said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” This statement can be interpreted in two ways. First, it indicates that James and John were inciting Jesus to action. As the disciples of Jesus, they either wanted Jesus to lead the fight or to empower them to fight for his course. Second, it suggests that James and John could command fire. All they needed was permission from Jesus to strike. But did they really have that power? There are lessons from Jesus on conflict management.
a. Engage in areas of common interest: This entails respecting the other’s view. While Jesus was part of the Jews who worshipped in Jerusalem, he also recognised that Mount Gerizim occupied the same position for the Samaritans. Hence, his interest was in the worship of God, which de-emphasised national interest. Therefore, when the Samaritan woman said to Jesus, “our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…, but the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:20-21,23).
b. Be cautious of indignation: While indignation spurs one to fight against injustice or for those whose rights have been denied, one ought not to be angrier than the victim. Our fight for justice should always incorporate the disposition of the victim.
By being a Jew, Jesus inherited the conflict between Jews and Samaritans. However, he never allowed that prejudice to determine his relationship with the Samaritans. He healed both Jews and Samaritans and, through the parable of the good Samaritan, showed that the Samaritans could care for strangers more than the Jewish priests and Levites. (Luke 17:11-18; 10:30-35).
c.Over-reaction can cause more harm: This entails not responding emotionally to conflicts as James and John did. Emotional response is the bane of conflict management because such a response can lead to hostilities or cut off the link for dialogue. Jesus avoided the type of emotional response of James and John. It is always recommended to examine the implications of an action before executing it.
d.Be cautious of third-party interference: Sometimes conflicts escalate or even exist because a third party does not get involved to mediate but rather to support a particular group against the other. This interference is geared towards satisfying the interest of this third party, an interest which might not necessarily lead to resolution or peace. Although the disciples of Jesus were part of his group, they were technically a third party in this case. The two parties involved in the conflict were the Jesus and the Samaritans.
e.Threatening words are sometimes unachievable: Amid conflict, there is often the exchange of words among the parties to show how they are undeterred by the conflict or will not yield to threats. Often, those words are empty rhetoric and sometimes unachievable. James and John portrayed themselves as powerful enough to invoke fire, something missing when they fled at the arrest of Jesus. To show his dissatisfaction with such threats, Jesus rebuked the apostles.
f.Walking away is not always cowardice: Sometimes, there is an internal push or external pressure to fight back when our interests are challenged. It is often assumed that our ego depends on how we confront the opposition. Deciding not to engage the opposition is often interpreted as cowardice and weakness. Jesus walked away not because he was afraid, couldn’t defeat them or couldn’t insist on his stand, but because he wanted peace. He suppressed his ego and accepted the situation. As Kenny Rogers, the American country singer, sang in the ‘Coward of the County’–
May God continue to help us🙏🏾
I am a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Okigwe, Nigeria, and an advocate of the indispensable role of religion in contemporary society. My academic background includes degrees in philosophy, theology, education, peace and conflict resolution, religion, and canon law. These studies give me a broad perspective that helps in an existential analysis of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.