Note: The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent The K.I.N.G. Movement or its supporters. They are the views of the author alone.
I will never forget when we held a prayer vigil at Trinity Church Harlem after the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the five police officers in Dallas: Brent Thompson, Lorne Ahrens, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael J. Smith and Michael Krol. That night, Reverend Carlton Brown joined us and expounded on the way that Jesus addressed the very real ethnic divide between the Jews and the Samaritans. As he spoke, it occurred to me that the New Testament addresses ethnic divides directly. Paul lived and died to mend the ethnic divide between the Jews and the Gentiles, while Jesus devoted so much of his time to address the ethnic divide between the Jews and the Samaritans. Both Paul and Jesus made sacrifices to help mend the ethnic divides they faced in their day. In my previous post, I focused on Paul’s journey with the Gentiles. This time, I will focus on Jesus’ journey with the Samaritans. What hope can their struggle give us that can help mend a racially divided 21st century America?
The Samaritans were looked upon as outcasts who were inferior to the Jews. They were an ethnically mixed people who were thought to be condemned by God. Although the Samaritans were genetically linked to the Jews, they were of mixed descent due to Assyria’s takeover of the northern kingdom of Israel. As a result of their blended bloodline and syncretistic religion, the Jews disqualified the Samaritans from identifying as legitimate Jews. In addition to this, the Samaritan people historically opposed the Jews when they were rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls after the Babylonian conquest (Ezra 4). The memory of this opposition fueled contempt and disgrace towards the Samaritans by the Jews. By the age of the New Testament, the Bible states that the Jews had “no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4.9). Jesus was not exempt from the consequences of this divide, as he was denied entry and lodging in a Samaritan town during his most important journey to Jerusalem. When Jesus’ disciples became privy to his treatment, they sought retaliation through deadly force. Jesus did not respond in the same spirit. He instead reproves his disciples and peacefully continues his trek to Jerusalem (Luke 9.51-56). Jesus experiences first-hand the pain and rejection stemming from this ethnic divide. However this did not change his view and treatment of the Samaritans. On the contrary, Jesus oftentimes relates the Samaritans with messages of hope, encouragement and acceptance (Lk. 17.13-19). It seems as though something profound called Jesus to embrace the Samaritans. Perhaps it was the idea that they too belonged as children of God, just as much as the Jews. The very fact that Jesus showed favor towards the Samaritans could have brought his ministry into question and ridicule. Despite the risks, Jesus’ actions and persistence towards promoting peace and equality served to diffuse tension rooted in ethnic division.
Jesus demonstrates his passion towards mending relations between the Jews and the Samaritans through his parable of the “Good Samaritan.” He chooses to utilize someone who may be considered the most unlikely character in the story to be its champion. In the parable, a Samaritan finds a man beaten stripped and left for dead. He proceeds to alleviate the injured person's wounds by pouring oil and wine into them. The Samaritan then lays the man upon the animal he was riding, which carries him off to a safe location. He covers the man’s lodging expenses for two weeks and offers to pay any additional fees that the man may incur upon his return. An aspect of the parable which I find astonishing is that the Samaritan was not the first person to see the man lying on the road; there were two others, a priest and a Levite who both left the broken man alone. Jesus’ Jewish audience was surely surprised when he presented the Samaritan as the sole person who was willing to show compassion. Jesus asks his listeners who they believe is the injured man’s true neighbor. The focus of Jesus’ parable is the compassionate actions of The Samaritan, and not this person’s ethnicity or beliefs. In retrospect, which deeds have we done for people we have come across who were suffering?
How did the good Samaritan address the ethnic divide and how does his example help us address our racial divide? The Samaritan stepped into a desolate situation: a man was stripped, beaten and left for dead; the wounds the man suffered were mortal wounds. If the Samaritan was to do something to help the man it would have come at considerable cost to him. It would cost him his time, his plans, and his safety. He was required to step into the unknown. On top of this, the Samaritan walked into a situation he did not incite. Given the circumstances, the Samaritan did not excuse himself by exclaiming that he did not cause the situation and therefore was not required to assist with resolving it. Many in our generation feel this sentiment, they feel that they have not caused the racial divide and they would rather not be bothered by it. Many feel like the priest or the levite in the story who had legitimate concerns about their safety and their plans. It was extremely inconvenient for the Samaritan to help the man on the side of the road as it would have been extremely inconvenient for the priest or the levite to step in and help. It was not easy for the Samaritan to give of himself and step into this appalling situation. It was not easy for him to use his time and his resources to ensure his recovery. Many of us look at the racial divides we face in America and we say, ‘I did not cause this racial divide so why do I have to step in and mend it?’ The parable teaches us that this is the wrong question to ask. The Samaritan stepped into this costly situation, but the situation did not deter the Samaritan, he saw that the man was stripped, beaten and left for dead and he did something about it. Are we willing to do the same? Who are those in our society who have been robbed, beaten and left for dead? Who are their neighbors? Are we? If we leave a person stripped beaten and left for dead on the side of the road and do nothing to help him are we not complicit in the act that will eventually result in his death? How many have died on the side of a road in our day? Do we add Keith Scott and Terrence Crutcher? How many more have to die?
The hope the Samaritan gives us is the hope that if we place ourselves aside and respond to the needs of our neighbors we can save lives. Now the concerns for one’s plans, one’s profession, one’s family and one’s safety are legitimate concerns. However Jesus disqualified those who put their own concerns above the needs of the person who was beaten. This included the priest and the levite who shared many of these concerns. Jesus today would disqualify anyone who does not do anything about our nation’s racial divides. If we have any hope of healing America of its division, we must come to grips with the things that have broken it apart. We must come to grips with the fact that we are descendents of slaves and slave owners. We have to come to grips with the hundreds of years of inhumane treatment, the laws of Jim Crow that spewed for years upon America’s blacks and subsequently to every other minority group in America that they are somehow less dignified. This is the problem. We can’t sweep it underneath the rug anymore. We have to deal with these mortal wounds if we are to make it past this dark night. The illusion that one race is better than another is a lie. This cancer must be surgically removed if we are going to survive. The Samaritan did not ignore the wounds of the man, but poured oil and wine on them to heal them. We cannot ignore America’s mortal wounds but must acknowledge them and pour all our resources into healing them.
Who is the good Samaritan in America? Can we be? Who will recognize that blacks have dealt with the history of being enslaved, dehumanized, ostracized, kept out of jobs by Jim Crow laws, and now mass incarcerated. Who will recognize that many Latino immigrants are treated in similar fashion, being hired and then threatened with deportation by the very bosses who hired them. Who will recognize that the thirst for power and wealth has bred a racism that lasts to this very day. Who will mend these wounds, who will heal them at whatever cost? Who will stop asking the question, “what does this situation have to do with me? I did not cause it.” Who will take from their own resources and pay whatever cost to ensure that our brothers and sisters are treated with dignity.
I believe white America needs to stop asking “what does black America have to do with me?” I believe that black America needs to stop asking “what does white America have to do with me.” I believe we all have to stop asking “what does Latin America, Asian America or any other group of people have to do with me?” And I believe we need to start asking who are the people who are most vulnerable and what can I do to make sure they are secure and healed of their situation. Are we willing to bandage the wounds others have left behind, are we willing to use our resources to mend injuries others have caused? Are we willing to go out of our way to make sure these people are better? Are we ignoring the situation like the priest or the levite? Or do we hold our excuse ready, that we are too busy with church or too busy with work? The answer is we are not too busy, we are all called to be like this Samaritan.
The hope that we have is that Jesus’ mission was successful, the disciples went from wanting to knock on the doors of the Samaritans with fire to knocking on their doors with love. When Jesus commissioned his followers to make disciples out of all people, one of the first places they ran to was Samaria. The Hope that we have is that Jesus’ struggle, just like Paul’s struggle was not in vain. The Hope we have is that when we act to mend this racial divide we will be acting like Jesus. The Hope that we have is that the Jews, the Gentiles and the Samaritans became one in Jesus. Why not Black, White, Latino and Asian? It is my conviction that in the struggle and the victory of our predecessors we have the hope we need to mend a racially divided America.
Born and raised in Harlem, NYC, Jensy Acosta is an Associate Pastor at Trinity Church Harlem and has also served as an adjunct professor of The New Testament at Nyack College. He holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. With a fervent passion towards the perennial guidance provided by The Bible, he believes it is instrumental and vital in the restoration of a socially divided 21st century. On days off, he enjoys relaxing and watching a good superhero movie.Visit Trinity Harlem at www.trinityharlem.com