Scripture: Luke 10:25–37
This month, we have been asking hard questions about the intersection of race and faith, asking what the Bible says about race and ethnicity and what are we, as Christians, called to do about racial injustice in our country? Pastor Matt began by preaching from two challenging texts that many of us want to forget are even in the Bible. When discussing the expulsion of the foreign wives in Ezra, Pastor Matt pointed to the three men who were recorded as being against the act and challenged us to be a people willing to go against the majority and call out injustice. Then, we turned to the story where Jesus calls a Syrophonician woman a dog, why Jesus called anyone that can be debated for ages, but instead, Pastor Matt encouraged us to look at Jesus’ actions of listening, valuing, and responding to the woman. And last week, our guest preacher LaMoine gave us a sermon packed full of important ideas but at its heart, she called us to look at each other as family members, saying that more than anything, racism is an issue of the heart where we learn and choose to see each other as “other” instead of the beloved, big family God created us to be. And now, I have the hard task of ending this series and trying to wrap things up in some way. So, let’s pray before we dive in deeper:
Lord God, Father, Mother, Creator of us all, may these words be your words, not my own, and blessed by your Holy Spirit. Give us open ears, hearts, and minds to hear how you may be speaking to us today. Bless this time, that we may be transformed to act more like You when we leave this space today. Amen.
This Bible story is one of the most well known parables in the Bible, and it is a story that has been foundational to my faith and theology. Before I could read the story on my own, I watched the VeggieTale version of this story about two rival towns who fought over the best thing to wear on your head. People, or veggies, from one town wore shoes on their heads, while those from the other town thought pots were the correct headgear. And everyday, the towns fought each other by catapulting shoes and pots at each other. One day, Larry the Cucumber, who wore a shoe on his head, decided to go on a walk, leaving town, and venturing into the valley, when robbers attacked him, took all he had, and left him stuck head first into a hole, with his shoe laying beside him. Two prominent shoe-wearers, the Mayor and a Doctor, see Larry stuck in the hole, hear his cries for help, but say they are too busy to help him and engage in a song about just how busy they are. Then, Junior the asparagus with a pot on his head walks by, sees the person in trouble, and hears his cries for help. He also sees the shoe lying beside the person, and remembers how mean they were to people from his town, but then he decides to help because that is what he would want someone to do for him. The segment ends with the rescuer reflecting on his choice to help through a song, “He has a shoe, and I have a pot, but when we look deeper there’s more that we’ve got. God made us special and now I can see if you’re special to God then you’re special to me. Love your neighbor…” That’s some solid theology, especially coming from a singing asparagus!
But this week, I was challenged to look at this story through a new set of questions, asking what this story has to say about race and faith.
I tried to look at the story with fresh eyes and understand how the people in Jesus’ day would have heard the story. So let’s imagine together how the first listener’s of this story would have experienced it. Even back then, a good teacher knew that sometimes the best way to answer a question is with another question, so the student can work to come to their own conclusions instead of being told the answer. And Jesus was a very good teacher, so he tells a story in response to the lawyer’s question of “Who is my neighbor?”
He tells the story of a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, a well-known, dangerous road with steep hills and rocks where bandits liked to work. This is not a road you should be travelling alone on. So already as a listener, you can probably guess something bad is going to happen. The scene has been set. Everyone knows you shouldn’t go down this road, and yet the main character does just that. If it were a movie, suspenseful music would start playing, building up to when the bandits jumped out and attacked the man, taking everything he had, and leaving him on the side of the road to die.
With this man in dire need of help, the listener begins to expect a hero to come along, someone to save the day and rescue the man. First a priest walks by, a likely candidate to help, someone who has been chosen to do the work of God for the people of God, but for whatever reason, the priest continues to walk on by. That might be a little disappointing, but clearly, the listener knows the story can’t be over yet.
So who comes by next? A Levite, another good option for a hero as Levites were godly men, who had the job to oversee the maintenance and care of the temple, along with leading singing and doing teaching there. Surely a Levite would be just the righteous person to help the man dying on the side of the road. But no, the Levite also passes the man by.
At this point in the story, Jesus’ listeners can guess what will happen next because Jesus has listed two groups of people that are commonly followed by a third. In those days, Jews fit into one of three common categories: (1) priests, or descendents of Aaron, (2) Levites, descendants of Levi, or (3) Israelites, descendants of the children of Jacob other than Levi. Just like in Goldilocks and the Three Bears there is Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear or the Three Stooges are Curly, Moe and Larry; Jesus’ listeners were expecting for an Israelite to walk down the road next and be the hero. And how great that would be! An average person, not someone with an important religious job, but a regular person just like you or me would be the hero of the story. That is how the listeners probably thought the story would go, but instead, there is a twist that no one sees coming. The third person coming down the road is a Samaritan, a group of people hated by the Jews.
At this point, we need to pause the story for a short history lesson to explain the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritans and Jews had the same ancestors, but when some Israelites were taken into exile by the Assyrians, others remained and began intermarrying with Assyrians that stayed living in the land. These people became known as the Samaritans. In time, the Samaritan’s religion became unique from Judaism as they developed their own version of the Holy Scriptures and believed that the temple of God should be at Mount Gerizim instead of in Jerusalem. So, the Jews looked at the Samaritans as sell-outs who married people outside the faith and defiled their religion. And the Samaritans believed that they were indeed the true descendants of Israel who had remained pure while the other Jews who went into exile had lost their way. Both groups thought that they were God’s chosen people and looked at each other as heretics and traitors. Long story short–the Jews and Samaritans did not like each other.
But back to today’s story, the listeners were expecting a Jew to walk down the road next and be the hero of the story. But instead, Jesus gives a plot twist that no one sees coming–a Samaritan is the hero of the story. In fact, Jesus’ listeners would be distressed to hear that this parable is referred to as the Story of the Good Samaritan because in their opinion, a Good Samaritan did not exist. It was an oxymoron. And yet, here he was–a Samaritan–choosing to save the day, touching an almost dead man, treating his wounds, and spending his own money for the man’s care to continue in his absence. The people listening would have been shocked. A no-good, traitorous, heretic saves the day.
And the surprises are not quite over yet, for at the end of the story, Jesus asks the lawyer an unexpected question. Instead of who was a neighbor to the injured man, which would be the expected question, Jesus asked who acted like a neighbor to this man? The lawyer, not being able to utter the word Samaritan, instead responded, “The one who showed him mercy.” What a story! The enemy becomes the hero.
And by asking an unexpected question, Jesus changed the focus, saying it is not as important who your neighbor is but how you treat those around you in need. Jesus was not interested in drawing lines around who was worthy and unworthy of love. Instead, Jesus erased lines others had drawn, talking to the worst sinners–tax collectors, adulterous women, and even Samaritans. He showed us that how the world sees and defines people is not how God sees them. And I am thankful for that good news, but I also realize that I often see people through my own biases, instead of how God sees them.
Reflecting on this, I realized how bias and discrimination are underlying currents moving this story along. If you’ve ever been to a diversity, anti-racism, or cultural competency training, one of the first things you are taught is about bias. It is defined by Sandra Theiderman as, “a rigid, positive or negative, conscious or unconscious belief about the nature, character, and abilities of an individual based on the person belongs.” If bias is casting judgment before knowing a person, discrimination is acting on those judgments. This story has several elements of bias and discrimination.
First, there is the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” Right away, this person is implying that there are some people that are not his neighbors. In asking that question, he was also asking, “Who is not my neighbor? Who can I get away with not showing love to? Who can I discriminate against?” He wants to know where he can draw the lines around his neighborhood.
Next, there is the listener’s expectation that a Jew would save the day–that’s how the story should have gone if it had followed the normal pattern. Like many humans, the listeners had a bias towards their own people.
Then, the S-word appears in the story, the Samaritan, who the listeners most certainly would have had a bias against. They believed there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. The lawyer could not even say the name and acknowledge the ethnicity of the hero of the story because that would mean Samaritans were in fact people, just like the Jews. So instead, the lawyer just calls him “the one who showed mercy,” which was probably a difficult enough thing to say.
Friends–Sisters, brothers, siblings in Christ–we can do better. We should be able to name and recognize that everyone is indeed a person, beloved and created in the image of God. In order to do this, we need to get familiar with our own biases because we all do have them. Research shows that between the ages of 2 and 4, most kids already have racial biases. Working at a preschool, I have seen this as a Asian-American student told me that Snow White was her favorite princess because she was beautiful and that she wished she had white skin like Snow White, and a white preschooler told me that she liked all the princesses except the black one and another preschooler told me that someone told him that bad guys were black. I heard all of these things from smart, sweet 4-year olds from families that I do not think would not endorse racist sentiments, yet, they already had beliefs that white is right, good and better than other skin colors. And those are thoughts of 4 year olds. The rest of us have had many more years of explicit and implicit biases seep into us. The good news is that we are not stuck with our biases, we can work to correct them to see others as God sees them.
This is hard, spiritual work that God is calling all of us to take part in. It means looking deep inside our thoughts and feelings and admitting ugly things are sometimes there and confessing them to God and apologizing to others when it’s necessary. And then, it means taking corrective action to work to change those biases in the future. This is a spiritual challenge because by calling out our biases, we are working to see all as equally important, valued, and made in God’s image.
I have been intentionally doing the work of calling out my biases for several years now, and I will tell you it is not fun when I have realized that I unconsciously made an assumption about someone or left someone out because of the color of their skin, but it is necessary work. I can tell you that as I have worked to identify my biases and then self-correct them in my mind, my negative racial biases have lessened. God did not create our ideas to be set in stone but instead gave us the ability to change the way we think when we realize our thoughts are contrary to God’s. So when we have consciously or unconsciously drawn lines in our minds, judging people into groups, we can work to erase those lines.
Because in today’s story, Jesus did not create a map, drawing lines between people and gerrymandering odd-shaped sections of who you need to love and who you can ignore. Instead, he told a story and asked who acted like a neighbor. When the lawyer replied, the one who showed mercy, Jesus told him to go and do likewise. We, too, are called to do the same. Our biases can act just like the lawyer who tried to justify only showing love to some. Jesus is not in the business of drawing lines saying only some are created in the image of God and only some are worthy of God’s love. No, all people have been created in the image of God and all people are loved by God, not because we deserve it, but because that is how God created us to be. God created us as beloved and made in their image, and it is our call as Christians to see everyone as such. May it be so.
Today we are going to end by singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It was written by James Weldon Johnson & John Rosmond Johnson for a school choir in honor of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. Since then, it has become a cherished song amongst the African American community and it was named by the NAACP as the Black National Anthem. I love this song because it beautifully mixes joy and sorrow, hardships and hope that can be heard not only with the words but also the melody. As a predominantly white congregation, we need to be careful that we are not appropriating this song, but instead are singing it acknowledging and lamenting the part white Christians have played in the oppression of people of color, and saying that we are working towards and hopeful for a more just and unified future.
If anyone feels called to come forward during this song to share with the church they have committed their life to Christ or want to join the church, they are welcome to do so.