“Love the sinner but hate the sin” is a common Christian cliché that is not biblical.
As I noted previously, it has been used to justify inaccurate views of Islam and unjust attitudes and actions toward Muslims.
I find some similarity between the attitude of Christians who esteem the mantra of “love Muslims but hate Islam” and the attitude of Jesus’ Jewish disciples toward Samaritans. Samaritans were Israelites that had mixed with Gentiles.
They borrowed a great deal from the Pentateuch and Jewish traditions, but that only earned them animosity – not favor – from Jews. In the eyes of the Jews, Samaritans were impure and should be avoided (John 4:9).
Furthermore, the disciples reserved an extra dosage of hatred toward them. When a Samaritan village refused to welcome Jesus during his travel to Jerusalem, the disciples were furious that their master was rejected and asked Jesus for permission to request fire to descend from heaven and annihilate it (Luke 9:51-55).
That seems superfluous considering the village cannot be seen to have committed a crime that warrants such a judgement.
That Samaritan village was not exceptionally reprehensible when you consider, by contrast, Jesus’ message of woe to the unrepentant cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum (Luke 10:13-15).
Yet, it is not clear that the disciples harbored any indignation toward any of those cities. I suspect the disciples’ verdict on the Samaritan village was motivated by hate, not by any sense of righteousness or justice.
Unsurprisingly, Jesus’ response to his disciples is sobering and instructive. While his society antagonized Samaritans, Jesus rebuked his disciples for contemplating their destruction. He told his disciples, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of” (Luke 9:55).
The disciples were most probably familiar with stories about the prophet Elijah and how he brought down consuming fire from heaven on several occasions in Samaria (1 Kings 18:38, 2 Kings 1:10-12).
They surely would have been reminded of his valor following his appearance on the mount of transfiguration shortly before they approached the Samaritan village (Luke 9:30-31).
Elijah was one of the great prophets in Israel, and it seems that the disciples wanted to emulate him.
Jesus, however, was not impressed by their false zeal and self-righteousness. He opposed them by questioning their motives.
Their desires were stirred by a foreign spirit, not the spirit that indwelled Jesus. It stands to reason the disciples were blameworthy because they premeditated the extermination of a group of Samaritans just because they were Samaritans.
The attitude of Jesus toward Samaritans provides the ultimate model for how to deal with the religious other.
- Jesus did not make gross generalizations about Samaritans (for example, they are all evildoers). In fact, when he wanted to explain the second greatest commandment, love your neighbor as yourself, he told a story and made a Samaritan its hero (Luke 10:25-37).
- Jesus showed them mercy and did not doubt their intentions or motives just because they were Samaritans. When 10 lepers cried out to him for mercy, he cleansed them all without discrimination. Interestingly, the only one that was grateful was a Samaritan, and Jesus commended him for his faith (Luke 17:11-19).
- Jesus did not avoid Samaritans. Rather, he travelled from Galilee to Jerusalem passing through Samaria, unlike most Jews who took the longer, indirect route east of the River Jordan. He even spent days on end in their villages (John 4:41).
- Jesus did not compromise on the truth. In his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, he did not waiver about the source of salvation (John 4:22). At the same time, we do not see him “destroying” her faith system. Instead, he gracefully spoke the truth to her about acceptable worship and the Messiah. His approach was so gentle and caring, the woman felt compelled to tell her family and friends to listen to Jesus, and many ended up believing that he is the Savior of the world.
May God purge our hearts from bigotry and help us interact with our Muslim neighbors as Jesus modeled.
Elias Ghazal is executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Association for Theological Education (MENATE).