Although there are many lines that divide our country today, the most visible and contentious one is the line of race – in particular how black and white people perceive and act toward each other.
The reality of tension between people groups isn’t unique to our time. Racial and social tensions have been present throughout centuries past.
This issue served as the foundation for Jesus’ parable “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37), one of the lectionary readings for Sunday, July 10.
There was considerable hostility between the not-so-distantly related Jews and Samaritans. Andrew Prior describes Samaritans as a “source for moral infuriation” for any good Jew.
In Luke 9, Jesus sent a group to a Samaritan village to let them know that he would be traveling through on his way to Jerusalem, but the Samaritan inhabitants refused to accommodate Jesus and his followers.
James and John became enraged and asked Jesus about calling down fire from heaven to destroy that village.
With this incident in their recent memory, Jesus makes someone who represented the people group that had just spurned him and his followers the example of grace and mercy that the disciples were to imitate.
We should place ourselves in the shoes of the parable’s characters to better understand the issues involved.
How would you feel if you were the unnamed victim in the parable? What would you need in his situation?
You would need someone to come along and help you. You wouldn’t care if it was your biggest enemy from high school. All you would care about is if that person was willing to help you.
A Jewish priest walks by – a person who was part of your “tribe” – a person who could relate to you. But, the priest doesn’t stop.
Instead, he crosses over to the other side of the road and continues to walk into the distance, leaving you bloody and dying.
Now, imagine that you’re the priest. You know you’re walking on a dangerous road. People are attacked and killed there on a regular basis.
The questions in the priest’s mind are probably, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? Is this a trap? Is this a setup? Are the people that did this to him still hiding, waiting to jump out and attack me too?”
He also may have been thinking that if the man is dead already, what sense is there in stopping? He couldn’t bring him back to life. He’ll advise the powers that be of what he saw on the road.
Self-preservation and inconvenience are likely on the priest’s mind. But, I may be giving the priest the benefit of the doubt.
He may not have helped the man simply because he was preoccupied with other things. Things like his family or his job or, if he’s like me, he was anxious to get to his tee time.
He may not have wanted to be inconvenienced with the problems of someone else whom he didn’t know. For all the priest knew, this man may have gotten what he deserved.
Everyone knew that particular road was dangerous, and the priest may have thought that the man should have done something different in order to not put himself in that predicament.
As the events unfolded in recent weeks, did any of us think that? Did any of us think that if those two black men that were shot by police would have done things differently, they would still be alive today? If they would have just done what they were told, multiple police officers wouldn’t have been shot in Dallas.
As the parable concludes, a Samaritan appears on the scene. A person whose village would still be burning from holy fire if it were up to James and John. The Samaritan is the only person to put self-preservation and personal convenience aside.
The relevance, the importance of a Samaritan doing this for a Jew is like a Hatfield helping an injured McCoy, or a Union soldier helping a Confederate soldier who had been injured on the battlefield, or a Cardinal’s fan helping a Cubs fan who was injured at Busch Stadium.
The Samaritan had every reason not to help the injured man. The Samaritan could have gloated at this man’s situation and thought to himself, “Well, that’s what he gets. He’s not like me. He’s ‘other.’ He thinks and believes differently than me. He thinks he’s better than me. Let him die. It won’t affect my life. That’s what all people like him should experience.”
Instead, he had compassion. Jesus says that he was “was moved with pity.” The Samaritan saw the man’s need and had to do something to help him.
Debie Thomas writes, “What Jesus did when he deemed the Samaritan ‘good’ was radical and risky; it stunned his Jewish listeners. He was asking them to dream of a different kind of kingdom. He was inviting them to consider the possibility that a person might add up to more than the sum of (his/her) political, racial, cultural and economic identities.”
In light of what occurred recently, and the multiple responses that we have heard from various talking heads, I wonder who is worthy of our compassion?
What will you do when someone who is wholly different from you comes to you in need of empathy? What happens when someone who is on the opposite end of what we consider acceptable wants to be welcomed by you? Will you be willing to accept them or will they have to be the “right” kind of person?
This conversation is much bigger than what goes on inside the four walls of our churches. This plays out in daily life through how we view and interact with people who aren’t acceptable because they are different from us.
Ultimately, the question that we have to answer is whether we are willing to be compassionate to anyone, regardless of external factors.
Are we willing to, as Scott Hoezee says, “feel a genuine distress over another person’s suffering accompanied by a firm desire to relieve that suffering (and then to actually relieve it if possible)”?
This is the question that we all have to answer following recent incidents.
Terrell Carter is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates, assistant professor and director of Contextualized Learning at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, and pastor of Webster Groves Baptist Church. He is the author of the forthcoming volumes, “Leadership in Black and White: Practical Suggestions to Help the Church Become a Healing Presence Between Racially Divided Communities” and “Ten Commandments for Good Negroes: Public Conversations about Black Maleness and Society’s Responses to It.” A version of this article first appeared on the Pinnacle blog and is used with permission. His writings can be viewed at his website, and you can follow him on Twitter @tcarterstl.
A pastor, author and educator living in St. Louis, Missouri, he is the author of several books, including The Gospel According to Broadway and Taking Apart Bootstrap Theology: Gospel of Generosity and Justice.