When the Jews returned from Babylonian captivity to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, they were initially welcomed by their cousins, the Samaritans, who saw them as fellow believers and offered to help. But that offer was roundly rejected in words that suggested that God belonged to the Jews alone: "Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God" (Ezra 4:3). The Samaritans reacted by lobbying with the Persian government to halt the construction. And thus began a bitter rivalry that continued for centuries.
I wonder about that rejection of the Samaritans. Especially, I wonder about it in light of Jesus' personal ministry to the Samaritans and His postmortal instruction to the Lehites:
"And behold, ye shall meet together oft; and ye shall not forbid any man from coming unto you when ye shall meet together, but suffer them that they may come unto you and forbid them not;
But ye shall pray for them, and shall not cast them out; and if it so be that they come unto you oft ye shall pray for them unto the Father, in my name.
Therefore, hold up your light that it may shine unto the world. Behold I am the light which ye shall hold up—that which ye have seen me do. Behold ye see that I have prayed unto the Father, and ye all have witnessed.
And ye see that I have commanded that none of you should go away, but rather have commanded that ye should come unto me, that ye might feel and see; even so shall ye do unto the world; and whosoever breaketh this commandment suffereth himself to be led into temptation. (3 Nephi 18:22-25)
I think these verses don't only teach some specific practices (which may or may not be specific to certain conditions) but also some unchanging principles. The practices are:
Welcome those who would meet with us and don't forbid them or cast them out,
Pray for those who haven't joined the covenant, but who are seeking.
The unchanging principles are:
We are called to light the way for others, to beckon them to Jesus Christ.
Failure to fulfill that welcoming and facilitating role puts us in spiritual danger.
For the Jews, returning out of Babylonian captivity, lifting a light to others does not even seem to have been on the radar. It had been on Abraham's radar when he was told that in his seed, all the nations of the Earth would be blessed. It had been on Moses' radar when the children of Israel turned away from their freshly made covenant and started worshiping a golden calf. Moses pled with the Lord not to destroy them, because it would look to the Egyptians and the Canaanites like the Lord was unfaithful (Ex. 32:12, Num. 14:13-16). He seemed to comprehend that the Lord's covenant with Israel was designed to call all nations to Him.
But then the Children of Israel entered their promised land with a charge to wipe out the current inhabitants, who had ripened in iniquity. When they did not succeed, the Israelites were instructed to hold themselves apart. They were specifically warned against intermarriage with the Canaanites in order to avoid being drawn into Baal worship -- a fertility cult that centered on sacred prostitution. They could not be a light while partaking in the practices that had ripened the Canaanites in iniquity. But intermarry they did, and they wound up worshipping both Baal and Molech, to whom they sacrificed their children. Eventually, this led to their overthrow. In 721 BC, the northern kingdom of Israel were taken captive into Assyria, and peoples from other parts of that empire were brought in to possess the land. Then, in 587 BC, the people of Judah were taken captive into Babylon. It appears that, at least in the case of the northern kingdom, it was only the upper and middle classes that were carted away and the peasants remained behind, intermarrying with the newcomers.
Ironically, captivity did for the Jews what possession of their promised land had not -- it cemented in them a sense of separate identity and a determination to be true to their God, even at the cost of persecution.
Meanwhile, back in the Holy Land, the Israelite peasants assimilated with the immigrants, who brought their idols but also made a point of sacrificing to the God of Israel. These people, who were descended from Israelites as well as other ethnicities of the Assyrian Empire, came to be called the Samaritans.
It's understandable that the returning Jews would be leery of the locals who had mixed the worship of Jehovah with multiple forms of idolatry. This was precisely what they were determined to avoid, now that they'd been given a second chance to possess their promised land. So they responded by rejecting the Samaritans' claim to worship the same God as the Jews and they turned their backs on the offered help.
Six hundred years later, the Jews were still strictly monotheistic, so fearful of the potentially corrupting influence of idolaters that they refused to even eat with Gentiles, and so preoccupied with purity toward the law that they persecuted and then crucified Jesus for offences ranging from healing on the Sabbath to declaring Himself the Son of God. They also despised the Samaritans and traveled great distances in order to avoid crossing through Samaria. It seems like their failure to understand their role -- to be a light, or in other words, to show the way and welcome others onto the covenant path -- put them in spiritual danger.
I don't think that necessarily means they made the wrong call when they rejected the Samaritans around 535 BC. Given their history of vulnerability to idolatry and their need at that juncture to make a clear break with their past, it may have been the best call that was available to them. I don't think it's productive to judge past prophets or believing communities by today's understanding. In fact, looking back on my own life, I felt inspired to make a similar call when I was a teenager. I had a friend who made some lifestyle choices that I didn't feel I could afford to be around. I liked my friend, but continuing the relationship didn't feel safe to me at that point in my personal development, so I told her I wasn't comfortable being her friend anymore. I'm sure that I hurt her even though I didn't want to. And I regret the hurt, but I don't regret prioritizing my own spiritual safety over her feelings of acceptance from me.
Today, I'm not in that same vulnerable space. And so, as I liken the scriptures to myself, I'm interested in looking at other options that may not have been appropriate for the Jews in Ezra 4, but that could meet the demands of both purity and inclusivity.
It seems like such an option would be to say, "Welcome cousins! We didn't realize when we returned that we would find family waiting for us. And we would love to have your help in rebuilding a temple to our God. Will you help us make an offering that's acceptable to Him, so that this temple can stand forever and we can receive all the blessings that He promised us through Moses? That means sanctifying ourselves and putting away all other gods. It means worshipping Him and only Him."
Should the Samaritans be unwilling to give up their false gods, it would then be time to tell them that we understood that was a lot to ask, we'd be praying for them, and we'd love to have their help if they changed their minds. Had the Samaritans been willing to make such an offering, more than just the land of Judah would have been healed. Either way, the enmity between the two peoples might have been avoided, the construction of the temple might not have been delayed, and the culture of the Jews might have been very different when the Messiah came, 600 years later.
"But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things," (2 Nephi 2:24). It is marvelous to me that the Lord's plan is big enough to take into account our weaknesses, so that even our stumblings wind up forwarding His redemptive agenda. Had the Jews of Ezra's day been ready to welcome the Samaritans in a faithful but non-defensive way, the Jewish leaders of Jesus' day may not have laboured under the misconceptions that led them to crucify Him. And it was expedient that Jesus be crucified. So it was okay for the faithful of 535 BC to struggle with the blindspots of their generation.
What excites me now is the idea that the Lord intends to establish Zion in our day. And that He is taking away our blindspots in order to bring that about. I'm warmed by a growing understanding that inclusivity and purity are not opposing goals, but synergistic invitations.