In today’s Gospel, St. Luke presents Jesus as not only having accepted his pending death but as now determinedly focused upon reaching Jerusalem. Because of his sense of urgency, he chose to take the most direct route, through the territory of the Samaritans. He sends an advance team to find a place where he and the disciples might find overnight accommodations before going to Jerusalem the next day. But the people of the Samaritan village they chose refused them hospitality because they were Jews going to Jerusalem. We all know the story of the “Good Samaritan.” Well, today’s Gospel presents the story of the “Bad Samaritans.”
Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, writes in his Antiquities of the Jews that the Jews traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem at festival times had problems passing through the Samaritan territory on their way to their holy city, Jerusalem. For this reason the most commonly traveled route was to cross the Jordan River and go around the Samaritan region to get to Jerusalem. Sort of like trying to get to Pennsylvania without going through Maryland or to North Carolina without passing through Virginia–possible, but terribly inconvenient.
Ethnic and religious strife in the Middle East (or elsewhere) is not a new thing. As you may remember, ancient Israel had two Kingdoms, the Southern whose Capitol was Judah, and the Northern, whose Capitol was Samaria. The Southern Kingdom survived and therefore the Israelite people became know as “Jews” referring to Judah and the Southern Kingdom. In 722 B.C.E., during the Assyrian conquest of Palestine, many of Samaria’s Jewish inhabitants were deported and dispersed into other conquered countries. Non-Jewish foreigners of other countries that had been conquered by Assyria were imported to populate Samaria.
When the exiles returned there was much resistance, much like Albanians returning to Bosnia or Herzogovena or Palestinians returning to Israeli cities after generations to reclaim their homes and land. Furthermore, the Samaritans had not only developed their own translations of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Hebrew Bible) but also adapted their own forms of Jewish liturgies–written in Aramaic (common language of the region) as well as Hebrew. Of even greater conflict was that these ancient Samaritans had built a temple on Mount Gerizim, which to them was the most ancient and sacred area of Hebraic history and the Northern Kingdom. Because of this there was great political resistance to returning exiles rebuilding of the destroyed. Mount Gerizim in Samaria, not Mount Zion of Jerusalem, was the holiest place of Judaism, which both claimed to be the true adherents. The Jews, even to the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, considered the Samaritans “half-breeds” at best and certainly a cultural and religious aberration of true Judaism, if not entirely a heathen religion.
Remember in the Gospel of John, chapter 4, when Jesus was passing through Samaria once before and encountered the “Woman at the Well.” He challenges her morality and she challenges the authenticity of his religious heritage saying, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. (My) ancestors worshiped this mountain (referring to Mount Gerizim), and you (a Jew) say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
It is important to hear what Jesus replies: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews (our roots are one). But the hour is coming, and now is here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:1-24). Even as Jesus defends the priority of Jews, he acknowledges that true faithfulness to God is larger than “sacred places” and ancient religious prejudices. Rather, faithfulness will be determined by the sincerity of the heart.
Yes, there was real animosity and racial, religious and cultural prejudice between Samaritans and Jews. That is one reason that the well-known parable of the “Good Samaritan” was so poignant to Jesus’ first hearers, even more so than for modern hearers. We cannot appreciate the challenge it was to think of a Samaritan acting as a neighbor to a Jew, even more a Samaritan being a worthy example of piety for Jews.
The Bible tells us that Jesus had finally made up his mind, that it was time to confront the political and religious authorities and the symbolic power of the Caesar with the claims of the Kingdom of God. So being determined, Jesus felt a sense of urgency and wished to take the shortest and most direct route. So he sent his messengers, as he followed, through the territory of the Samaritans. Of course, the old religious and cultural issues arose and these Galilean Jews are refused entry into a village. The refusal may have been very harsh, maybe even physical. When the messenger’s report of this refusal is made to Jesus, his disciples’ sense of propriety and prejudice–which they understand as “righteous indignation”–is stirred. This is especially true of the brothers, James and John Zebedee. They say to Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
One way to understand this is that they were referring to Jesus’ power to ask God to act, to cause miraculously a natural disaster upon that particular village that had rejected them. Another possibility is that they were asking permission to use some threat of physical force against the village by the disciples. But we must also remember that there were, among the disciples (even the inner circle of the twelve apostles, as distinct from the larger group of disciples or followers of Jesus) members of the NRA or should I say the NSA (National Sword Association). Among the disciples in the Gospels were militants know as Zealots (Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13) some carrying swords, such as Peter.
Remember when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus at Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36, Mark 14:32). James and John, along with Peter, had been assigned to be Jesus’ “body guards,” to watch for the police so Jesus could have some uninterrupted time in prayer as he wrestled with submitting himself to God’s will. As you will remember, they were poor guards, constantly falling asleep–so disappointing to Jesus: “Can you not stay awake just one hour?” However, when the Temple police did arrive, Peter pulled his sword and cut one of the approaching force. He was aiming at the head, missed and cut off an ear. Here Jesus rebuked Peter for his violence (much as he did James and John in today’s Gospel), lest there be an outright confrontation between his disciples and Herod’s soldiers. Jesus said: “Put your swords back into their place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve [thousand] angels?” Whether James and John, like Peter, were “hot heads” or passionate about nationalism and the coming of the Kingdom of God, Jesus saw them as explosive and nick-named them “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17).
These “Sons of Thunder” wished to retaliate for the indignity and destroy the village. Jesus was so offended by this attitude that the Bible says he “turned” (meaning that he faced them directly) and “rebuked” them (or fervently corrected them). He continued in Samaria but sought out another village. In deciding to try another village, Jesus was saying: We will not judge all Samaritan villages by one Samaritan village.
The message of Jesus about religious and ethnic differences is clear. First, violence and revenge is never an acceptable Christian response to those of other religions. Even the urgency of religious mission, as Jesus was experiencing–”his face set to Jerusalem”–is never an excuse for violence or abuse against unbelievers or heretical factions–from inquisition to destruction of Native American culture to Bosnia-Herzogovena).
Second, prejudice (religious or cultural or racial) is unacceptable to God and is thus a sin. Furthermore, our attitudes of prejudice are never justified by the prejudiced attitudes or behaviors of others toward us.
Third, the fortune of possessing superior spiritual power or religious social position–that is, political, legal, social, economic or moral–is never an indication of our right to use it for the destruction of another religion.
Fourth, the behavior of one faction, sect or group of a religious community is never sufficient criteria to judge the integrity, the morality or spirituality of the entirety of another religion.
This Saturday the Washington Post reported that last week President Bush had a high level briefing at which White House interns were invited. The Secret Service expelled an American Muslim intern from the meeting for security reason because he was Muslim. The intern’s religion became sufficient criteria for exclusion. I was so proud of our President who, much as did Jesus in today’s Gospel, acted with rebuke to the Secret Service and then extended a letter of regret to the intern and his community.
As Christians we must not allow the stridency of a minority of Muslims to define the Islamic World, anymore than we wish the stridency of Christian Fundamentalists to define Christianity to the Muslim world or the larger society. For Christians Jesus strips us of any justification for prejudice that causes us to act without charity, education and self-examination.
What does this have to do with Independence Day? Precisely that as Christians we must decide how to be faithful in the increasingly diverse religious landscape of America. As the nineteenth-century British poet and social critic Philip James Bailey referenced America in his poem Festus: “America, thou half-brother of the world; With something good and bad from every land.”
I am fortunate to address college convocations, baccalaureate services and commencements. I am often struck by the lack of diversity in many of our institutions of higher education. Too often we are preparing young leaders for a diverse world in a homogenous environment. I am often further amazed with the assumption by many about America as historically a homogeneous nation. Although the majority came from Europe, I remind my audiences of our immigrant heritage. Whether Plymouth pilgrims ships from England, Holland and Spain; or the slave ships landing at Annapolis from Ghana, Ivory Coast; or Gambia; or the coolie ships to the Barbary Coast of California from Asia–China, Burma, Japan, (with the exception of the Native American nations) we are a land of immigrants.
Too few of our young people have any significant sense of the symbolic power of Ellis Island or the Statute of Liberty and Emma Lazarus’s powerful words emblazoned on the base of Great Lady Liberty’s flowing gown:
“Give me you tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breath free;
The wretched refused of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
I often wonder, is her lyric anthem still the melody of our hearts? Will it ever be the melody of our children’s hearts? How have we prepared them for the New America?
Yes, the New America. The age of Ellis Island was a time when immigrants came principally from Europe. Where today foreign-born immigrants are 8—10 percent of the American population, in the “Age of Immigration” (1870—1930) foreign-born Americans were as high as 15 percent of the population. To be sure there were class, cultural and nationalistic tensions in those years. There were slurs and derogatory names applied. But there was an umbrella of European culture, religion and racial characteristics that would soon meld into a nation. Furthermore, immigrants in this period were principally Christian (Protestant, Roman Catholic and some Eastern Orthodox); they desired to somehow meld into a more homogenous culture, language and identity. They were called Irish-American, Italian-American or German-American. But they wished to be just “American”–no hyphens for them–and so became the assumption of WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) culture.
But today immigrants come principally from Asia, the Indian sub-continent, Mexico and South America, Africa and the Carribean. Most do not wish to “melt” into WASP culture. They accept the work ethic and responsibility but prefer the salad bowl analogy. They struggle to keep their identity alive through preservation of language, culture and strong homeland ties. They do not wish to anglicize their names and even expect us to learn to pronounce them. What is more is that many are not Christian. They are Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jain and so on.
Another challenge is that new immigrants are not as easily ghettoized or ignored. In even in small cities and towns, they live next to us. Census data shows that over 45 percent of foreign-born Americans are college educated or technologically trained, particularly in computers. Our new American neighbors are in every type of workplace and profession from laborer to executive. Many are managers, professionals and technical tradespeople, not only at the desk next to us but may even be our bosses. In today’s workplace, it is not only about Christmas and Easter and Passover, Yom Kippur and even Kwanza, but also about Ramadan, Sri Krishna Jayanti and Buddhist’s Ohigon. As has always been true of American community and work place, religious holidays and religious practices are having an impact on daily life. A few years ago there were strikes by area Muslim airport and transportation employees who were finding employers inadequately responsive to the difficulties they faced in carrying out the demands of their religion to pray five times a day.
In the New America, even in small towns, one can see restaurants of new American immigrant cultures like Indian, Vietnamese, Cuban, Salvadoran, Ethiopian mixed in with the familiar cuisines such as Italian, French, Greek and soul food. But think of it, one can also see temples and mosques and shrines beside synagogues and churches. And if that is not enough, do we realize that many mainline denominations are growing because Christians from these countries–already many generations committed to Jesus Christ and their particular denomination–they and their churches are present in our communities, if not in the pews next to us? You’ve seen the signs: Korean Presbyterian, Vietnamese Roman Catholics, South American Pentecostal, Nigerian and Ghanan Episcopalians, Lutherans from Kenya and Namibia. Whether Christian or some other great religion, many new Americans are culturally and ethnically very foreign to us. Their dress, customs and style of worship may have a “Samaritan-like” feel to us and the conflicts are inevitable.
Now if you find all of this overwhelming or disconcerting, then the words of Jesus are especially important to us. We know what are unacceptable attitudes and responses, no matter what the conflicts we face. However, what do we do?
First, we must grow in love (agape) as Jesus taught, which is godly respect for our neighbor, as taught in the story of the “Good Samaritan.” We must grow to a place where we have this godly respect for others without feeling that it diminishes our own faith or religious integrity to do so. Jesus was never reluctant to praise faith, even when it was not Jewish faith. He said to the Roman Centurion, a pagan who came to him for help: “Truly I tell you, in no one