Weekly Meditation: 10th July 2016
When the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, began to slip into apostasy, it was divided into a northern kingdom – still called Israel – and a southern kingdom called Judah. Judah was the smaller of the two, but its capital was Jerusalem where the glorious temple stood and where God’s worship was centred. Israel’s capital became Samaria. Having no focus for their worship, its people quickly descended further into unfaithfulness and false worship, and – years later – it was to address this issue that the prophet Amos was sent by God from Judah.
God’s message was uncompromising; Israel did not measure up to his standards and he would no longer disregard their sins (7:7-8). He would destroy the hill-shrines and sanctuaries where they worshipped false gods, and he would allow other nations to come against them in war (7:9). The people recognised the import of the message, understanding that it threatened them with defeat and exile (7:11), but they preferred not to listen, rejecting it and the bearer of God’s words – Amos.
Why should a foreigner – a man from the southern kingdom – come into their midst? How dare he speak against their sanctuary and temple, their king and their religion? (7:12). The people of Israel wanted Amos to go home, back to Judah; his message was unwelcome and disturbing; it offended them.
Amos’ reply is couched in even stronger words than those already spoken. He was not seeking his own glory, nor was he trying to establish his own authority – he claimed to be neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son but simply a shepherd and tender of fig trees. However, God gave him graphic words of warning to speak to Amaziah the priest – his wife would become destitute and would resort to prostitution, his children slain, the land divided and the people taken into exile, where Amaziah himself would die (7:17).
Amos’ words were fulfilled when the Assyrians came against Israel and took them into captivity. God had a purpose for his people that nothing was to thwart. If exile was needed to restore them to their senses, then exile they would have. Judah also eventually became unfaithful to the Lord, and they too were exiled.
It was during this period that the area around Samaria became colonised by a mixed group of people – the Samaritans – who, when the exiles returned, became the hated neighbours of the people of the Holy Land.
People don’t like foreigners. Just as the people of the northern kingdom had been hostile to Amos – ‘Get out, you seer. Go back to the land of Judah’ (7:12) – the Jews loathed the Samaritans and viewed them as inferior. Against this background, Jesus told possibly the most famous of all parables – ‘The Good Samaritan’.
It is difficult for us to understand the distaste that Jews felt for the people of Samaria. Racism and xenophobia still exist today, but we know it is unreasonable and unacceptable. At that time, Jews revelled in their feelings of superiority to Samaritans, and so the story that Jesus told in answer to the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10:29), would have been shocking in the extreme.
It all began because ‘an expert in the law’ sought to ‘test’ Jesus by asking a question about eternal life (10:25). In response to the command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, and wanting to justify himself, he challenged Jesus regarding the identity of his neighbour. He, no doubt, expected Jesus to declare fellow-Jews to be his neighbours. Instead, Jesus told a story in which both a priest and a Levite failed to help a wounded compatriot, while a Samaritan did all he could to provide aid and comfort. Finally, when Jesus asked, ‘Which of these three was a neighbour to the man….?’ the law expert could not even spit out the word “Samaritan” but replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him’ (10:37).
It is not just foreigners that are disliked, it is anyone whom we judge as different, not ‘our sort of people’, those who are not welcome in our churches. Sometimes the most unlikely characters prove to be the ones God is using to teach us his ways or change our attitudes. No one should rest on the credentials of race, status, education. Psalm 82 demonstrates God’s disregard for those who consider themselves to be ‘gods’ because of their power and ethnicity (82:1,6); rather, God himself is declared to be the judge of the earth, and ‘all the nations are [his] inheritance (82:8).
Where individuals and peoples are humble and willing to learn, great things can happen. Paul wrote to the Colossians, commending their love, faith and hope, and saying that ‘all over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing’ (1:3-6). Because the Colossians had received the word of God – understanding ‘God’s grace in all its truth’, they had become joyful ministers of the good news.
How different history might have been if the people of the northern kingdom of Israel had listened to a humble foreigner, or if the Jews had learned the lesson of the Good Samaritan. How we may change the world if we listen to the message of God’s grace.
By Susan Thorne