One love, one heart. Let’s get together and feel all right. – BOB MARLEY
Jesus’ message of God’s love was radically inclusive in a world where religions were anything but. Ancient religions were tribal, defined by ethnic and political boundaries. Different people groups, nationalities, and city-states all worshipped their own god or gods. These deities would, not surprisingly, support the cultural and political agendas of the particular groups to which they belonged. Admittedly, this is not so different from the religious landscape of our day. Western Christians, for instance, have a longstanding tendency to confuse cross and flag, faith and nationalism, religion and politics. It was into this world of competing deities that Jesus came with a strong rebuke. Although the focus of his message was on one particular ethnic religion that had lost touch with its global mission, the principles of his rebuke are universally transferable.
God has always had a plan to bless all people, Jew and Gentile, even though Jews were called by God for a specific task (see Genesis 17:18-29). God wanted to bless the world by working in partnership with a people. By calling Israel his “firstborn” son (see Exodus 4:22-23; Hosea 11:1), God indicated his intention to have more children. Israel was simply his first. ‘Ihe ancient prophets called Israel to share what light they had with the entire world (see Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; Isaiah 2:2-4; 42:6; 49:6; Micah 4:1-7; Zechariah 8:20-23; Romans 3:2). When Jesus came, he accused Israel of working against God’s plan by keeping that light for themselves (see Matthew 5:14-16). Even though Jesus claimed he was sent first to help the Jews get back on course (see Matthew 10:5-6; 15:24), his message and mission intentionally extended God’s offer of loving relationship beyond the ethnic boundaries of Jewish religion (see Romans 1:16). Through Jesus, Gentiles (non-Jews) were invited to become equal citizens in God’s kingdom alongside Jewish brothers and sisters (see John 3:16; Luke 24:45-47; Romans 2:17-29; 4:9-18; 9:6; 10:11-13; Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:11-22; 1 Peter 2:9-10). As “king of the Jews,” Jesus invites his own people to give up their claims of exclusivity and to join him in ushering in the universal sisterhood and brotherhood that faith can bring.
First-century Israel labored under Roman oppression and frequent attacks by neighboring Samaritans. Racial and religious tensions mixed together in what became a volatile cocktail. Religious discussions would quickly degenerate into debates over which race held land claims to Jerusalem (sound familiar?) and which ethnic group was truly God’s chosen people. In response to one of these religious debates, Jesus told a scandalous story about a shocking hero. It began, like many conversations Jesus had, with a question:
One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what must I do to receive eternal life?”
Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?” The man answered, “`You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, `Love your neighbor as yourself.”‘
“Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!” Ihe man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29, NI.T)
Who is my neighbor? This is the question that draws out of Jesus what has become one of his most famous parables-sometimes called the parable of the Good Samaritan. Before we walk through that story, we need to understand the dialogue that leads up to it.
Jesus is being tested by a religious leader. The leader is aware that this rabbi from Nazareth takes a different approach to interpreting Torah, sometimes seeming to throw the holy Law aside altogether. As a representative of the religious establishment, it is his duty to do his best to expose Jesus for what he is-whatever that might be.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, God commands his people not only to love him, but also to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). “Ihe context of this Old Covenant commandment suggests that “neighbor” applies only to other Israelites, and this is certainly
how most Jews would have interpreted it in the days of Jesus.’ So by asking Jesus the follow-up question of “Who is my neighbor?” the religious leader is challenging Jesus on something absolutely fundamental. He is asking Jesus to give his definition of the boundary-markers of God’s kingdom: who is “in” and who is “out.” Of course, his assumption is that, as a religious Jew, he is already “in,” so by asking who his neighbor is, he is asking who is also “in” with him.
This is a deeply theological question for the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. But it is also a very emotional issue at the same time. The goyim (that is, Gentiles, or non-Jews) that were known to first-century Jews were certainly not “neighbors” to them in any relational sense of the word. The Romans were oppressors, pure and simple. And then there were those violent, unorthodox, hateful half-breeds, the Samaritans.’ All this seemed clear enough to any self-respecting Jew in first-century Israel, but with Jesus’ radical teaching on enemy-love, they must have wondered how he would interpret this Torah concept. And so, knowing that his definition of “neighbor” is a key component (perhaps the key component!) to understanding the teaching of this unconventional rabbi, the religious leader presses Jesus to define who he thinks his “neighbor” is.
Jesus knows that if we define “neighbor” only as those who are similar to us-people who are part of our own religious and/or ethnic community- then we will never stretch ourselves to love beyond those whom it is natural to love. Jesus instead calls us to a love that is supernatural. And so Jesus takes the world of his Jewish audience and turns it upside down and inside out. He not only stretches their definition of “neighbor” to include outcasts, but he makes an outcast the hero of the story! Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling on a trip from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road. “By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.” (Luke 10:30-32, N LT)
Stop right there. Before getting to the Samaritan bit, Jesus is already insulting the establishment by the role he assigns to the religious leaders in this story. He portrays their religious affiliation as a barrier rather than a motivator to becoming involved in the life of a hurting person.
But why would religious leaders behave in a way that is so disconnected from the obvious need before their eyes? Is this at all realistic? Unfortunately, what we know about religion at the time tells us it is. Jesus gives us a clue as to their motivation by pointing out that they did not just pass by, but they made sure they crossed over to the other side of the road while passing by. Religious leaders in first-century Israel believed people could be ritually contaminated by contact with a dead person-a contamination that would last for a full week, and could only be undone by ritual bathing (see Numbers 19:11-22). Priests especially were to avoid all contact with a corpse, except for family members (see Leviticus 21:1-11). Some believed that they would become ritually defiled if even their shadow touched a dead person.
So if these religious leaders were on their way to serve at the temple (which seems to be the case Jesus is making), this explains why they not only kept going, but made a point of staying on the other side of the road.; From a distance they would not have been able to tell if this naked, bleeding, and unconscious man at the side of the road was dead or not. And they were not willing to go close enough to find out lest he be dead and they be defiled. If they became ritually impure during this journey, they would become disqualified for temple service while on their way to serve there.’ They may have rationalized that this was a case of the needs of the many having to be put ahead of the needs of the few. But Jesus sees it as putting religion ahead of relationship.
Tied up with the religion of first-century Israel was the powerful issue of race. From a distance, clothes were a visual cue for discerning who was a fellow Jew and who was a Samaritan, a Roman, or anything else. Since the victim’s clothes were stolen, this man would have lost key distinguishing marks of which ethnic, political, religious group he belonged to. He was simply a human being in need. But human need was not enough information for our religious players in the story, illustrating that when religion and race mix, the resulting cocktail of exclusivity makes human value secondary.’
Jesus’ audience no doubt picked up on the irreligious rhythm of his story as they watched the religious leaders pass by, too caught up in their religious duties to show practical love to a person in need. Still, nothing could have prepared them for the plot twist that followed. The story would have been challenging enough to his audience if the final traveler was a common Israelite who in the end was more helpful to his brother than a religious leader. This is probably what they would expect at this point. It would be a parable against religious hypocrisy, sure, but at least it wouldn’t be as insulting and offensive as it was about to become.
“Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, `Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.”‘ (Luke 10:33-35, NLT)
When a Samaritan shows up in the role of hero, all bets are off and all expectations are shattered. The Samaritans were not only considered to be outside of God’s covenant people (and therefore, no “neighbor” to a Jew), they were ancient enemies. Donald B. Kraybill explains: “Bitter tension divided Jews and Samaritans. Samaria was sandwiched between Judea and Galilee. The Samaritans emerged about 400 BC from mixed marriages between Jews and Gentiles. The Jews regarded them as halfbreed bastards.”‘
Not only was the ethnicity of Samaritans an insult to the purebred Jewish nation, but they created their own rival religious practices that made a mockery of Jewish belief. They had established their own temple and claimed that it was the true one, denouncing the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. In response, the Jews had destroyed the Samaritan temple. Then, when Jesus was about twelve years old, some Samaritans sneaked into the Jerusalem temple at night during Passover and scattered human bones over the temple sanctuary floor in order to desecrate it.’ The Jews retaliated with more violence, and on and on the warfare went between them. Earlier in his public career, when the Jewish religious leaders wanted to insult Jesus, they called him “demon possessed.” But when even that wasn’t insulting enough, they also called him a “Samaritan” (John 8:48).
So as Alan Culpepper points out,
By depicting a Samaritan as the hero of the story, therefore, Jesus demolished all boundary expectations. Social position-race, religion, or region-count for nothing…. The alteration of the expected sequence by naming the third character as a Samaritan not only challenges the hearer to examine the stereotypes regarding Samaritans, but it also invalidates all stereotypes. Community can no longer be defined or limited by such terms…. Jesus’ parable, therefore, shatters the stereotypes of social boundaries and class division and renders void any system of religious quid pro quo. Neighbors do not recognize social class…. Eternal life-the life of the age to come-is that quality of life characterized by showing mercy for those in need, regardless of their race, religion, or region-and with no thought of reward.’
Imagine the shock of the story’s plot twist for the religious leader who originally asked Jesus the question about who was his neighbor. He must have still been sorting through his own offended emotions when Jesus turned to him and said:
“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked. The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.” (Luke 10:36-37, NLT)
WHO was the neighbor? Now Jesus is asking the questions. WHO is your neighbor? Jesus is relentless. The religious leader can’t even bring himself to say the words “the Samaritan” in response. The idea destabilizes everything he believes in. All he can do to answer Jesus is to describe him as “the one who showed him mercy.”
But Jesus isn’t finished with him yet. He adds injury to insult. He tells this religious Jew who now stands in front of him that he must go beyond being open to seeing Samaritans as neighbors. He must make all those who live a life of love, regardless of their race or religion, his example to follow.
It was not easy to play the role of the Good Samaritan in this story. He invested his time and his money in helping the wounded man. He turned his ass into an ambulance and gave up his personal agenda for the rest of the day. He also ran the risk of being attacked himself. Who knows, the bandits could still have been close by. The man at the side of the road could have been one of them-a kind of decoy, bandit bait. This road between Jericho and Jerusalem was known for its danger at the time of Jesus.”‘ But the Samaritan let go of his personal “to-do list,” his hard-earned money, and even his own safety in order to show love to a stranger.
The way of Jesus is the way of risky love. Religion is the way of safety, security, and shelter within the structure of rules, regulations, rituals, and routines. Jesus and his earliest followers were relentless in pressing people to see two things. First, loving people is the primary way we love God (see Matthew 25:31-46; John 14:15,21,23; James 2:8-18; 1 John 4:20-21; 5:3; 2 John 6). Second, this love of humankind must always take precedence over religious ritual or ethnic obstacles (see Matthew 5:23-24; John 10:16; Galatians 3:28).
‘Think for a moment on the scandalous implications of this story for our own day and way of living. Even among Christ-followers I regularly find that people squirm, both intellectually and emotionally, to try to wriggle out of the clear closing injunction of Christ: “Go and do the same.” “But you have to be wise,” is a favorite comeback. Well, wisdom is good, but love is even better. And Christ-followers are called to be, according to the standards of this world, “foolish” (I Corinthians 1:20-31; 4:10). Real love is, from a purely human, self-serving perspective, irrational.
Jesus is laying down a principle that has implications for everyone at all times-especially those who want to pursue a spiritually healthy life. He warns us that religious traditions can be a trap that keeps us from moving into uncharted territories of bold love and radical compassion. Irreligious people, on the other hand, are free to be more loving.” Jesus calls people to love in such a way that all social barricades are broken, penetrated, subverted-including and especially those erected by religion. And to love like God wants, we must be willing to put practical service ahead of safety, comfort, and convenience.
Again, to quote Alan Culpepper,
To love God with all one’s heart and one’s neighbor as oneself meant then and now that one must often reject society’s rules in favor of the codes of the kingdom-a society without distinctions and boundaries between its members. ‘Ihe rules of that society are just two-to love God and one’s neighbor-but these rules are so radically different from those of the society in which we live that living by them invariably calls us to disregard all else, break the rules, and follow Jesus’ example.’-‘
Jesus challenges the strong kinship-based identity of first-century Israel by offering a radical reorientation of family values: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)
Through these words, Jesus opposes the idea that birth, blood, and biology define true family. Instead, he stresses that our unity with God and one another comes through shared faith and common purpose. In this way, Jesus invites his followers to become part of a worldwide, transnational, multiethnic family of faith. And so, it is to his Jewish friends that Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16, NRSV).
The apostle Paul describes the inclusive reality of the kingdom this way: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29, NRSV). And again: “In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us” (Colossians 3:11, NLT).
In Christ s kingdom, ethnicity, social status, or gender identity are no longer important categories of distinction. Instead, all members of this kingdom are unified as one family, with God as our shared Father and Abraham as our shared ancestor. The early Christ-followers, although wildly diverse in ethic origins and socioeconomic status, called each other “brother” and “sister.” This was not as a form of polite rhetoric or friendly posturing, but a way to express a deep reality they believed Jesus brought about-a new society of radical inclusivity, a sociological miracle that up until that time no one believed was possible.
Think for a moment about the many horrors of the past that have grown out of ethnic loathing, nationalistic selfishness, and religious tribalism. Think about whatever stories of hatred, brutality, and war are currently in the news. What human hostilities in the world today are the offspring of racial revulsion, economic oppression, or gender discrimination? Think of how our world would be different if people embraced this one teaching of Jesus: We are all family.
When we realize this agenda of Jesus, many of his offensive teachings begin to make sense. When Jesus tells people to be prepared to “hate” their families in Luke 14:26 (uh-huh, he says that, really), he is preparing people obsessed with kinship identity for life in a new kind of society where everyone is welcomed as “family.”‘ i One by one, Jesus helps people “unplug” from the things they may personally benefit from but that get in the way of achieving radically diverse unity. For any one individual to embrace this inclusive way of Jesus would mean the possibility of being rejected and scorned by family and friends. This puts each person into a position of existential choice-a pure, individual decision-beyond the system in which he or she exists. So Jesus says things like, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34, NASB), and he says this in the context of discussing family ties. The emphasis in context is not on dividing families, but on freeing individuals to make their own choices of faith. Our spiritual convictions should not be mandated for us because of the genetics or geography of our birth.
Bruxy Cavey. The End of Religion: Encountering the Subversive Spirituality of Jesus (Kindle Location 971 -1094). Kindle Edition.