The [religious leaders] answered and said to [Jesus], “Do we not speak well that you are a Samaritan and you have a demon?” -John 8:48 (my translation)
Sometimes when I’m translating New Testament passages from Greek, a phrase jumps out at me like I’ve never really seen it before, even though I’m sure I’ve read it multiple times. It might be something about the way things are put in Greek that made me see it differently, or it might just be the slower pace required to read in a language that’s foreign to me. Sometimes it’s unclear.
Either way, this verse was one of those verses for me yesterday. I’m replacing the literal Greek word “Jews” with “religious leaders” here, by the way, because the point isn’t that they’re Jewish specifically; the point is that they are claiming a special kind of relationship with God due to certain aspects of their religious and ethnic heritage and societal position. This is a mindset available to people from many faith traditions and is certainly common among Christians. I think of the white evangelical pastor who claims to know more about God and God’s will than those he (yes, usually he) has authority over, because of his job title, whiteness, maleness, seminary education, or whatever it may be.
Do we not speak well—that is, do we not speak truly—that you are a Samaritan and you have a demon? Yikes. The casual pairing of a (misplaced) ethnic identity and the accusation of demon-possession really got me here.
These religious leaders take an ethnic/religious group different from their own—one they don’t particularly like—and say, Jesus, you’re one of them. You aren’t one of us. And that’s basically the same thing as having a demon. All this because they don’t like what he’s saying. (Which, to be fair, is kind of understandable, given that Jesus is saying that their father is the father of lies, and that sort of thing.)
I think it’s interesting that Jesus only responds to the demon part, not the Samaritan part. Perhaps he ignores the ethnic insult as not worth responding to? Perhaps he sees the two accusations as so closely linked that responding to one basically means responding to both? I’m not sure.
Regardless, the phrase you are a Samaritan and you have a demon reveals so much. It reveals exactly what these religious leaders thought of those they considered ethnic and religious outsiders. You aren’t part of our group? Then you might as well be of the devil. (Which strikes me as perhaps not all that different from the evangelical claim that everyone who is not an evangelical is going to hell. But that might be a can of worms for another time.)
I wonder what some modern-day analogies might be, at least in a U.S. context. Maybe it’s any time someone uses the name or characteristics of any sort of identity as an insult. “That’s gay,” for example, or “you throw like a girl”—or, of course, a more vulgar variant, “don’t be such a pussy.”
Maybe it’s also anytime (white evangelical, usually male) religious leaders accuse people of empathizing too much with people who have a different perspective. (Side note: I feel like anytime you’re accused of having too much compassion or too much empathy, you’re probably doing something right.)
I’m thinking of things like, you’re spending too much time reading critical race scholars and not enough time reading the Bible. Or things like, you’re empathizing too much with women in difficult situations who choose abortion; you aren’t staying true to the immovable moral principles of God.
I accidentally stumbled on a blog post recently that basically said exactly the latter. It was deeply disturbing, to say the least. I believe in a God whose empathy is much bigger than my own—and so I believe that the more compassionate I am, the closer I am to God’s will. I don’t know what moral principle would be more immovable than that.
I believe in a God whose deep compassion is best described in the New Testament by one of my favorite Greek words: σπλαγχνίζομαι. Literally, “I am moved to the bowels.” This word is often used to describe Jesus. Jesus was moved in his innermost being by people’s suffering, by people’s loneliness and longings and weaknesses and pain—that is, by the realities of human experience. He had no higher moral principle than the principle of love.
Sometimes things are confusing. It can feel like there are good arguments on both sides of a scenario, and it can feel hard to tell what’s actually good and godly. I offer what I’ll dub the “Samaritan/demon” test, which may help with discernment in some cases. If there is a side that’s saying something like “you are a Samaritan and you have a demon,” I do not want to be on that side.
I don’t want to be on the side that uses ethnicities or races or genders or sexualites as put-downs. I don’t want to be on the side that weaponizes its own religious, racial, gender, or other sorts of privilege to try to silence others, like the religious leaders tried to silence Jesus. I don’t want to demonize people who have had experiences different from my own. I don’t want to live like the religious or ethnic “other” is the devil.
I want to live like I have nothing to fear and everything to learn from these “others.” I want to be on the side of compassion, of empathy, of being moved to the bowels by humans’ honest testimonies to their own experiences—especially those who are most vulnerable and most marginalized. I want to live by love.
What does the “you are a Samaritan and you have a demon” accusation make you think about? What other modern-day analogies would you draw? Feel free to holler in the comments or however you like.