“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
The story of the Good Samaritan is, among other things, a story about racism. An expert in the religious law acknowledges that loving God and loving neighbor is at the heart of God’s will for us, but then he wants to know exactly who his neighbor is. How broad a definition must he embrace? In other words, he wants to know who he has to love and who he can ignore.
In response Jesus tells a story that we’ve come to know as The Good Samaritan. Enmity between Jews and Samaritans ran deep, and had for centuries. The shock of hearing Jesus, a rabbi, extol a Samaritan as more faithful than a priest or a Levite would have left the legal expert breathless and offended. When Jesus asks, “Which would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” the legal expert’s disgust is so deep that he cannot respond with the most obvious answer, “the Samaritan”.
In turning the legal expert’s question around, from “who is my neighbor?” to “to whom am I being a neighbor?” Jesus gets at the heart of racism. Rather than defining our neighbor by the color of their skin or their ethnicity, Jesus implies that what defines our common humanity is our common need. Interestingly, when Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin into German and worked on this story, he had two German words that we would translate as “neighbor” from which to choose. One meant “the person next door.” One meant “the person in need.” Luther chose the second one because he understood the profound implications of Jesus’ parable.
Today (Monday) our nation is celebrating Martin Luther King Day in honor of Dr. King’s nonviolent activism in the Civil Rights Movement. The words of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial continue to articulate our hope for a world that embraces diversity and refuses to judge another human being by the color of their skin or their ethnicity. Ferguson, Chicago, Charleston, Minneapolis and so many more places in America have reminded us that we still live, not in the dream of racial harmony but in the nightmare of racial tension.
In honor of Dr. King and as an expression of our Christian hope for a world in which the “lion lies down with the lamb” and “they shall beat their spears into plowshares”, I invite you to pause and pray for peace in our world and in our own hearts. I also challenge you to spend a few minutes listening to this brief interview between Pastor Bill Hybels and TD Jakes on racism. I found this little interview helpful and inspiring.
Want to go deeper into the topic of racism? I’d encourage you to check out this book by Jim Wallis.
Let me leave you today with these defining words from Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. – Galatians 3:28
Jeff Marian serves as lead pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, MN