I recently received a message from a young man asking a question that I found difficult to answer. In light of all of the racially charged police violence, he wanted to know why the church wasn’t doing anything to fix the problem. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I told him that the situation is very sticky and a simple answer was unlikely since so many people have tried to fix it and failed.
It left me thinking about how Jesus would deal with the current race issues that face the world. As people are pushed closer and closer together by the population explosion that began in the late 19th century, we are forced to think about racism and how to stop it every day. Whether it’s in the West, the Middle East, or the Far East, racism seems to permeate every culture to at least some extent.
This is another area where Jesus was a radical compared to his countrymen. Before we can understand how he was so radical we have to understand what kind of racism was facing his nation.
Early in the history of the Hebrew people, God gave them the instruction to refrain from intermarrying with the people who surrounded them in the promised land. The Canaanite people were likely to lead the Hebrew people astray with their polytheism and human sacrifice. From this early date, the Israelites were skeptical of anyone who was not from one of their twelve tribes.
In Jesus’ day, the racism was so thick in the air that you could have felt it from miles away. The Jews of that time were ruled by the Romans. As if it wasn’t bad enough, the Roman governors never seemed to have any understanding of the Jewish people. In one incident the Roman governor marched his troops into Jerusalem carrying the graven statuette representing Rome. The Jewish authorities had a meltdown and did a protest that nearly got them hacked to death. This was the kind of turmoil that Judea lived with all through the Roman era. They hated the Romans with a passion.
There were groups of terrorist cells that embodied the Jewish hate. The dagger men, as they were called, would carry daggers in their cloaks. In crowds of people, they would sneakily stab Roman officials and dissolve back into the crowd. They would then pretend to offer aid, as everyone else in the crowd was doing, as to not get caught. The zealots sympathized with these dagger men. You’ll remember that Jesus had a Zealot among his disciples.
A hatred for the Romans was not the only brand of racism in effect in Judea and Galilee. They found a way to hate their genetic cousins as well. Herod Antipas was the ruling Tetrarch of Galilee at the time of Jesus. He was only part Jewish. This was enough for the Jews to be skeptical of him. On top of that, being a cruel and indignant ruler, they found it in their hearts to hate him as well.
The Jews of both Galilee and Judea found it easy to hate the Gentiles. A gentile is any person who is not Jewish. Galilee was surrounded by Gentile nations and provinces. So they were constantly confronted by outsiders. When those from Judea wanted to insult people from Galilee, they would call it “Galilee of the Gentiles.” They were so racist that even being associated with Gentiles could be considered a curse.
There was one racial group that Jews had a Long-standing feud with. Samaria was sandwiched between Judea and Galilee. The Samaritans were a mix of part Jew and part Gentile. In generations past the land they occupied had belonged to some of the Northern tribes of Israel. When those Israelite tribes had been dispersed, other people groups took up residence in Samaria. Eventually, some of the Israelites came back to the land and intermarried with the Gentiles there.
This was enough for the Jewish racism to boil over, but the wounds were deeper still. The Samaritans used the laws of Moses but amended some of the verses. They claimed the patriarchs as theirs, which infuriated the ‘pure-blood’ Jews. The Samaritans even had a competing temple built on Mount Gerizim. This competing temple had been destroyed by a Jewish King two centuries prior but the conflict had never been forgotten. The Samaritans often mocked and ridiculed Jews and their temple in Jerusalem, and there were even Samaritan attempts to defile the Jewish temple. The ruins of the temple on mount Gerizim stood as a reminder of their bitter racism and cultural hatred for each other.
It’s in sight of these ruins that Jesus had a talk with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. The fact that Jesus was even willing to travel through Samaria tells us what he thought of the racist conflict. He had no problem with the Samaritan people. In fact, Jesus clearly stated that he came to minister to the Jewish people when he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The fact that he spent time speaking and doing his work in Samaria proves that Jesus didn’t see the racial divide that his fellow Jews did. None-the-less his countrymen were dead set on their racist hate of the Samaritans. The racism of his time was so much more palpable than anything we’ve seen in the west for many years.
Despite Jesus’ primary mission being to the Jews, he still proved willing, on a number of occasions, to perform miracles for non-jews. An example of this was the Roman Centurion whose servant Jesus healed in Matthew 8. Jesus performed the healing without any mention of patriotism or loyalty to the Jewish people. This was a military captain of the Romans, who oppressed the Jews, and yet Jesus did him a great service. The Jewish authorities would have probably seen this as a form of treason because their racism against the Romans ran so deep.
Another example of Jesus’ working outside of his Jewish mission is when he heals the daughter of a Canaanite woman in Tyre and Sidon. This story takes place in Matthew chapter 15. She begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter. At first, Jesus ignores the request because she is not Jewish and therefore outside of his intended mission field. Jesus’ disciples ask Jesus to send her away because she was bugging them. I suspect that this is the reason Jesus put his disciples in this situation. I think the whole encounter was a foreshadowing of their future ministry to the Gentiles. The last thing they expected was for Jesus to heal a Canaanite woman. They saw her as the enemy. However, Jesus ultimately did as she asked. It doesn’t tell us what the disciples thought of this, but it would have left them stunned. Jesus had no discrimination against those of other races.
Jesus once said to some Jews, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them in as well, and they will listen to my voice. There will be one flock and one shepherd.” When Jesus says he has other sheep, he’s talking about Gentiles. He’s referring to the day when his disciples would lead Gentiles to faith as well as Jews. Considering that Jesus was ministering to the most racist people in the world, in the most racist era the world has ever seen, Jesus would have his work cut out for him. He had to convince the Jews that followed him, to abandon their racism, otherwise the mission of spreading the gospel throughout the world wouldn’t work.
The Jews assumed that God wanted them to be racist. I know this probably sounds strange to our modern ears, but consider it from their perspective. God had told them not to intermarry with other races. He told them to keep their national identity unique. He told them that they were his unique people; a people he had set apart from the world. It’s easy to see how the Jews could have interpreted this as an expression of racial superiority. However, God had another idea in mind. God set them apart because he wanted to reveal himself to the Gentile world by way of the Jews. However, the Jews of that era were so racist that they couldn’t see past their own bigotry.
When Jesus tells his disciples, at the end of his ministry, “You will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth,” In another place, Jesus commands his followers to make disciples of all nations. The Greek word for nation is ‘ethne.’ We get our English word ethnic from it. Literally, Jesus was instructing the apostles to make disciples of all ethnic groups of the world. It would have sounded strange to any first century Jew. To the average Jew of that time, they would have been scratching their heads because ministering to the Samaritans and the rest of the world’s ethnic groups was not in their agenda. Instead, they expected God to send his Messiah so that they could conquer Samaria and subjugate the rest of the world’s races. However, for Jesus’ disciples, they had spent enough time with him to know what he meant. He expected them to plow through racial barriers and share the good news with people of all skin colors, cultures and national identities.
If he had not taught them to fight their own racism, the church never would have gotten off the ground. Jewish racism had limited their ability to fulfill God’s mission. Now the church stood poised to carry the mission of Christ throughout the world. However, if the disciples could not overcome their racist tendencies the church mission would die on the vine. As Jesus’ disciples spread out throughout the world, they built the first religion who’s origin was firmly founded on racial diversity.
You may not realize that Jesus’ best-known story is about racism. You’ve probably heard it before. Even the title ‘The Good Samaritan’ would have probably been met with ironic giggles from his Jewish audience. “How could a Samaritan be ‘good’,” they would probably wonder. In their minds, there were no Samaritans that were good. On one occasion, as Jesus and his disciples were passing through a Samaritan town, the town was less than welcoming. The disciples asked Jesus if they should call down fire to destroy the Samaritan town. This gives us an image of what the Jews thought of Samaritans. It seems as if they were waiting and expecting for God to drop The hammer on their opponents. They expected God to judge the Samaritans with severity. The fact that the disciples were willing to destroy an entire town of Samaritans because they were unwelcoming, shows that even they thought there were no ‘good’ Samaritans. Jesus’ story challenges this racist idea and shatters it from its dark core.
Luke 10 relays this powerful parable in simple and understandable terms. A lawyer was questioning Jesus. I suspect that the lawyer already believed in Jesus, and was saved because of how he asked his question. He wanted to know how to ‘inherit’ eternal life. This would be somewhat like asking, “how can I ensure that I will be rewarded by God when the Kingdom comes.” I’m convinced that the man was not asking how to be saved, but how to have a wealthy spiritual inheritance in Heaven. Jesus turns the question around on him and asks him to answer his own inquiry. The lawyer quotes the law and says, “love… your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus agrees that this mantra would be good to live by.
The lawyer is not quite done with Jesus though. He wants to ‘justify’ himself, Luke tells us. The lawyer says, “who is my neighbor?” There is a millennium old debate tied up in the words of this question. The Jews had convinced themselves that it was Godly to mistreat, ridicule and if possible subdue, those who were non-Jewish. An entire lifestyle change hung on the definition of the word ‘neighbor.’ The Jewish Law had clearly told the Jews to love their neighbor. As long as their “neighbor” was only other Jews, then they were doing ok. If “neighbor” meant Romans or Canaanites, or God forbid Samaritans, then the Jews had been disobeying the law for centuries. The lawyer was right to get Jesus to Clarify this word, and clarify he did.
This is when Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. He removes all doubt. The word ‘neighbor’ applies to any other human. We are to love everyone, regardless of their race. In the story, he tells of a Samaritan who demonstrates more love and compassion than even the Jewish elite could. Jesus shows them their own racism by demonstrating how they should act. He removed the ground on which the racist Jews were standing. He showed that racism would not be tolerated in the Kingdom of God.
This idea is echoed in Jesus’ words when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in Heaven.” Jesus destroys the racist agenda here.
The Jews of his time would have been expecting him to find some way to defeat the filthy Romans, kick out the half-breed Herod, conquer the mix blood Samaritans and bring all of the Mediterranian basin under Jewish Rule. However, Jesus gives the biggest insult of all. He refuses to fulfill their expectations. He refuses to buy into their bigotry. He refuses to discriminate on the basis of race. Instead, he teaches that we should pray for and bless those who hate us. It becomes easier to see why this racist first century nation found Jesus so distasteful. He defied the racist expectations and stood for a better ideal. If only we could do the same.