American Christians are often unsure on how to respond to racial issues. As followers of Jesus who take the Bible seriously, Christians can look to Christ and his Word for answers. Both the Bible and Jesus speak on issues of race, and it is important for God’s people to understand how Jesus perfectly revealed God’s heart for all people. He demonstrated this through his actions (John 4), his commands (Matthew 22:37-40), and his teachings (Luke 10:25-37), particularly in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Jesus’s Charge to Love Our Ethnically Different Neighbor
In Luke 10, a lawyer, or “expert in the law,” tested Jesus by asking Him how he could inherit eternal life. Jesus tossed the question back to him: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26). The lawyer answered Jesus rightly - we are to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves. But the lawyer wasn’t satisfied. To justify himself, he asked a follow-up question: “And who is my neighbor?”
The lawyer’s questions and answers were rooted in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Jews interpreted “neighbor” in Leviticus 19:18 to mean fellow Jews. He was hoping for Jesus to affirm what he already believed – that being a good neighbor meant caring exclusively for other Jews.
Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story, a man was traveling on the Jericho road, upon which he was beaten, stripped, and left for dead by robbers. A priest and a Levite passed by but neither stopped to render aid. Then a Samaritan passed by. He saw the man, cared for him, and ensured the man’s physical needs were fully taken care of. According to Jesus, the Samaritan best modeled how we are to love our neighbor. The text below describes the full event.
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:25-37 ESV).
This story would have been nothing short of scandalous to the first-century Jewish crowd. Jews and Samaritans hated each other; they were mortal enemies. The narrative also challenged the perceived morality of the Jews and their religious leaders. New Testament scholars such as John Stott have discovered there were already several variations of the Good Samaritan story in circulation throughout first-century Israel before Jesus told his version.
One popular version was about a rabbi helping a leper while another described a rabbi helping a shipwrecked Roman soldier. In their historical context, these stories proved how trustworthy, compassionate, and virtuous rabbis were. Jesus’s good Samaritan flipped the familiar tale on its head. Who was trustworthy, compassionate, and virtuous in Jesus’s version? The Samaritan. The hero of Jesus’s parable was of the race the Jews despised.
In his commentary, The Gospel of Luke and John, R.A Culpepper observes that “Jesus kills two proverbial birds of prejudice with one stone” with the Good Samaritan story. “First,” he writes, “he is making the point that loving one’s neighbour is to transcend all racial and cultural boundaries. Second, Jesus is challenging Jews’ stereotyped negative generalization of Samaritans by casting a Samaritan as the compassionate hero (1995 p. 230).”
Racial Animosity In The Good Samaritan Story
The Good Samaritan was intentionally about race. The lawyer hoped he could fulfill the command to “love his neighbor” by caring exclusively for other Jews, and Jesus would not have it. Jesus’s story demonstrated that love for our neighbor should transcend all racial, national, social, and economic boundaries. Jesus uses the Good Samaritan parable to reshape our worldview. Moreover, the narrative is a Christian call to action. The priest and the Levite may have felt compassion for the man on the road, but they did nothing. The Samaritan, though, not only felt compassion but physically helped the victim. This fact has real implications for our 21st Century lives. Today, people are inundated with stories of persistent racism, economic inequality, and xenophobic narratives that lead to intense feelings of compassion for those hurting groups. When Christians feel compassion for the suffering and marginalized but do nothing, they are acting more like the Levite and the Priest. According to Jesus, Christians are called to behave differently. While most Americans tweet about their sadness and pity for marginalized groups, believers’ compassion should move them to pursue the well-being of the suffering.
What makes the Good Samaritan even more scandalous are the circumstances surrounding the publication of the gospel of Luke. In From Every People and Nation, Daniel J. Hays tells the story of the Ginae incident, a racial flare up that would’ve made “headline” news around the time the gospel of Luke began circulating.
In AD 51 people from the Samaritan village of Ginae murdered one or more—the sources contradict—Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover. The Jews appealed to their Roman rulers for justice, but the Romans ignored them. An unruly ‘mob’ from Jerusalem then went down to Ginae, massacred all the inhabitants, and burned the village to the ground. At this point the Romans intervened; they arrested and executed several of the Jews involved (2003, p. 166).
The Ginae Incident was another example of the animosity and pain that existed between Jews and Samaritans. Although the massacre at Ginae happened after Jesus told the Good Samaritan story, most scholars agree Luke wrote his letter sometime between AD 57 and 60. This means the Ginae incident would’ve still been front page news when Luke’s gospel including the story of the Good Samaritan) began to circulate. It is clear that the Good Samaritan not only teaches us today but spoke directly to social justice issues experienced by first-century readers. In the midst of incredible tension between the two racial groups, the Good Samaritan story was a counter-narrative of neighborly love in action.
How Does the Good Samaritan Relate to Life Today?
Few, if any, passages in the four gospels speak to race as directly as the parable of the Good Samaritan. In Hays’ concluding remarks on the story of the Good Samaritan in From Every People and Nation, he observes how relevant the Good Samaritan is to Americans today in light of our racist history:
The relationship between Whites and Blacks in America, even within the Church, is remarkably similar to that between Jews and Samaritans of the first century: one that has historically been characterized by prejudicial animosity and distrust, with clear boundaries delineating “them” from “us.” The Good Samaritan story, especially when placed within the overall theology of Luke–Acts, likewise destabilizes our inherited “Black-White” worldview, and challenges us to move beyond the “us-them” mentality of our culture to an “us-us, in Christ” unity that demolishes the ethnic boundaries of our society...If we shirk the risks and dangers of breaking the ethnic barrier, and if we place our own well-being at the top of our priority list, hiding behind the self-righteous justification of “minding my own business,” then we become like the priest and the Levite, and not like the Good Samaritan (2003, p. 171-172).
Sadly, many readers will experience shock and awe because of this reality, but not for the right reasons. Some will refuse to believe that Jesus spoke directly to ethnic and racial animosity – the same kind that characterizes our world today. All too often, the Church fails to understand the narrative as Jesus intended because we’ve been shaped more deeply by our culture than Christ. In reality, the parable of the Good Samaritan hasn’t changed. To truly love our neighbors as the Samaritan, Christians need compassion to drive us to Christ-exalting action.
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