Jesus vs. Religious and Racial Tensions

      The Muslim travel ban, anti-Semitism flare-ups, KKK resurgence, White-Supremacist rekindling, Black Lives Matter emergence, reactionary street demonstrations: what does it all mean and where is it headed? What is the appropriate Christian response to the racial division that continues to be a major concern in the USA? How should Christians react to Muslims? Amazingly, the Bible can serve as an excellent guide in answer to such questions. Jesus has given us a model of attitude and behavior. In his encounters with the alternative and competitive monotheistic religion of his day and the resulting hostile relationship between the racial groups in his homeland, Jesus addressed the complex pressures now on display in the USA. Let's look at a few episodes.


Episode 1 – At the Well

      In the time of Jesus, Samaria was a Roman Empire province situated between the provinces of Judea and Galilee. Although Jews were the predominant residents of Judea and Galilee, they were geographically separated by Samaria, whose residents were not Israelite. The Jews and Samaritans were rivals and enemies. They claimed to worship the same God—of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—but they disagreed on particulars of worship: whether the proper place was the temple in Jerusalem or the temple on Mt. Gerizim; whether or not Scripture included the Prophets and Writings (Psalms, etc.); and whether the Samaritans were descendants of Jacob as they claimed. There were racial and cultural tensions between the two groups.

      John 4 describes a trip undertaken by Jesus and his disciples from Judea to Galilee through Samaria. Jesus encountered Samaritans and thereby provided an example of Godly relationships. Jesus chose a controversial place to rest and used the occasion to act out the neighborly viewpoint that he held toward Samaritans: He started by asking a Samaritan woman for a drink of water (7-8). The woman reacted according to her contentious viewpoint (9). Instead of addressing her statement, Jesus led her into a discussion that opened the Gospel to her (10). The woman redirected the discussion to the contentious issue of identification (11-12). Jesus ignored the issue and reverted to the Gospel (13-14). When the woman began to respond to him, he took the opportunity to tell her a truth about herself that she did not think he should have known (15-19). But instead of staying with Jesus’ thrust, she again diverted the discussion to a contentious issue (20). Jesus, again, did not take the bait but proceeded to reveal to her a deeper truth (21-24). This seemed to capture her attention, leading to an inquiry about the Messiah, about which Jesus directly responded (25-26). When his disciples returned, Jesus used the opportunity to teach them about sharing the Gospel (27-38). John concluded with a summary statement about the effect upon the Samaritan people of the village: many of them became believers in Jesus (39-43).

      This story teaches us how to situate ourselves as Christ’s servants not on one side or the other of a controversy but on the side of all as people for whom Christ came. Jesus was for the Samaritans and shared the Gospel with them; at the same time, he was for the Jews and upheld them and their true heritage, and he did this without antagonizing the Samaritans. We, in turn, without condoning the behavior of any, can boldly and clearly share the truth of the Gospel about Jesus, who loves all and gave himself for all.

Episode 2 – Near the Border


     The Gospel of Luke mentions the Samaritan issue several times.  Because Jesus spent most of his time in Galilee, the province north of Samaria, it was not unusual for him to encounter Samaritans whenever he travelled south to Jerusalem.  On one such occasion, he encountered resistance.  The Samaritan hostility toward the Jews in Jerusalem would have been stronger than at less religious places.  Luke 9:53 says that because Jerusalem was Jesus’ destination, he was denied entrance.

     Some of Jesus’ followers were hotheads; Jesus nicknamed two of them, James and John, “Sons of Thunder.”  These bombastic young men were a lot like many today: they love and follow Jesus, but harbor a temperament quite unlike their Lord’s.  These guys reasoned, as some today, that famous Bible characters with explosive and violent tempers were okay as long as they did it for God.  They wanted to use the authority of God to do what the prophet Elijah did: call down fire from the sky (54) to zap their enemies.  Jesus did not take their reactions lightly; he turned around and rebuked them (55), explaining that he came to save people not destroy them.  These disciples actually were expressing a spirit whose intentions were the opposite of Jesus’.  Although they were called Jesus’ disciples, Jesus said they were unaware of who or what they were actually imitating.

     The same can be said today for people who in the guise of Christianity express hateful and even violent intentions toward those they regard as religious or racial enemies.  Their angry reactions are so uncharacteristic of Jesus Christ that even people who do not consider themselves Christian are appalled.  These "Christians" acted like religious nuts!  Jesus’ rebuke then applies today!

     Notice how Jesus reacted: he walked away, avoiding the conflict (56).  His example of quiet disengagement sent a strong message to his disciples, who had to add time and distance to their trip to accommodate Jesus’ unwillingness to enter the ideological fracas of his day.  As followers of Jesus, can we see the wisdom and understanding behind an apolitical stance amidst politically polarizing conditions?

Episode 3 -- On the Border

     That previous border incident of rejection for racial or religious reasons did not deter or stop Jesus.  Still traveling to Jerusalem and at the border of Galilee and Samaria, Jesus headed toward another village where he might be accepted.  As Luke tells in Luke 17:11-12, unexpectedly, he is met by 10 lepers.  The disease of leprosy was one of the worst curses a person could encounter.  Slowly but visibly destroying the skin, the disease disfigured its victim and threatened others who might contract it through contact.  Those suffering not only faced a dreaded future but also they were ostracized from their home residences.  Jewish and Samaritan law, written by Moses, prohibited contact of those infected with anyone not infected.
     Jesus was not traveling alone.  With him was an entourage of followers, men and women, learning from him as they helped in ministry.  The lepers recognized the entourage and, as many afflicted Galileans regularly did, they asked him to miraculously cure them (13).  Compassionately, Jesus responded as usual, with an offer of help (14).  The lepers decided to accept the offer, believing that through it God would grant them relief, and relief they instantly received -- totally healed on the spot!
     One of these ten, realizing what Jesus had done for him, returned to express his deep gratitude (15).  That one was a Samaritan.  Apparently, the cultural, racial, and religious barriers that separated geographical neighbors in that area did not apply to those afflicted with leprosy.  They were together, yet at that moment a notable separation occurred.  This Samaritan did not seem to let the Jewishness of Jesus prevent him from falling down at his feet in appreciation.  Neither did his Samaritan-ness affect Jesus, who considered response to God a greater virtue than religion (18).  Jesus held up his example of faith as an important teaching lesson (19).
     This story beautifully displays Jesus' disposition toward human beings regardless of race, religion, etc.  He was sensitive and compassionate, and he was willing to help.  He was not resentful about his previous experience of rejection near the border, and he did not screen the people by the distinctives of their religious practice.  

Episode 4 – Practicing “Love Your Neighbor”


      The story in Episode 3 above seems to go out of its way to point out that a Samaritan was the only leper among ten to show gratitude to Jesus for healing.  The story in this episode similarly adds what might seem to be an unnecessary detail about a Samaritan.  The story is the familiar parable of “The Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10:30-37.

     Again, Luke wrote the story about one of Jesus’ teaching experiences.  It begins in Luke 10:25 where a Jewish “expert in the Law” asked Jesus a test question, possibly to find out how much Jesus really knew.  Jesus, knowing what the “expert” was up to, responded with a question, to get the man to tell what he knew about the Law (26).  The man’s answer, quoting the law of love, was correct (27-28), so Jesus told him to put it into practice.  But the “expert” wasn’t through.  He asked (29), “who is my neighbor?”

     Jesus proceeded to tell the story about a traveler who was mugged by robbers and left lying on the side of the road.  A Jewish Priest, a man of God and notable religious leader, saw the injured man but passed by without stopping.  Next a Levite, another recognized Jewish religious person whose full time job was to minister in service to God, did the same, passing by without stopping.  Finally, a Samaritan came.  This man, member of a hostile race and competitive religion to Jews, compassionately turned toward the injured man, giving medical treatment to his wounds, transporting him out of the way to receive further care, and paying the full expense (30-35). 

     Did it matter to the story the identifications of each of those who accosted the injured man?    Not unless Jesus wanted to point out to self-respecting, self-righteous Jews something that they did not understand about what matters to God and humanity – something that a Samaritan understood.  This “enemy” considered meeting a human need more important than his time, his money, and his cultural-religious views.

     Jesus told this story so that his followers would look past race, religion, and personal interests to put into practice the intent of the law of love.  Herein is a strong message to all of us who consider ourselves basically good people in a world of the bad.  It is Jesus who defines what is good and what is bad, and being uncaring toward the needy, being racists, being religious bigots is anything but good!