Crossing divides with Jesus

by Tom Greggs.

I have a terrible habit. Well, I have several; ask my wife for details! But the terrible habit I have which is relevant to this context is that every morning before anything else that I do I take my phone and press the BBC app to read the news. Before praying, before a coffee, before telling my wife I love her, before getting a shower, my addiction to the news has to be satisfied.

Part of this addiction stems from what seems to be an ever-increasing changed reality in the world: we are divided, and we are entrenching ourselves in our divides. Brexit is the pressing example, but there are so many. And globally, there are increased tensions between nations, and there is a tide of populism which sets one group at odds with another and intensifies differences.

Having grown up in what seem to be (for me at least) the halcyon days of the 1990’s with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the Good Friday Agreement, and Third Way Politics, it is easy to see this new ‘glocalism’ as it is termed with all of its potential for vicious cycles of divisive politics as a new phenomena. Perhaps some of us feel a little like we are reliving past global periods from the previous century—whether the 1910’s or 1930’s. But the capacity for humans to create divisions among ourselves is as old as time. And it is an issue to which the gospel addresses itself directly.

I cannot help but think of Jesus’ engagement with the Samaritans when faced with the divisions we see in our contemporary world. It’s difficult for us to understand the level of hostility, stretching back many centuries, that existed between Jews and Samaritans.[i] The Samaritans were the descendants of the Jews who did not go into exile and were hostile to the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple. Their purity as a people was called into question, and, although they recognized only the first five books of the Jewish scriptures, they did follow Jewish ritual. These themes were focused on the establishment of a rival temple at Mt Gerezim, and the recognition of a different line of priestly descent. Their proximity to and alienation from the Jewish people led to fierce rivalry between the peoples.[ii] Perhaps we hear this most clearly of all in Jesus’ interaction with the woman of Samaria: “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)” (Jn 4:9). Even the basics of water seem to be an impossible offering for these two so different people—divided by religious grouping and by gender.

When we read stories of Jesus engaging with these groups, we are wise to recall his capacity to cross divisions and divides with grace and with truth because Jesus never leaves the divisions there without interrupting, traversing and disturbing the divides. He doesn’t blur the lines, or falsely claim that “we all agree really”. He doesn’t sacrifice truth for grace any more than he sacrifices grace for truth. He is after all clear: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (Jn 4:22). But this doesn’t stop him affirming, ministering to and loving the member of the other ‘tribe’ as one of God’s children.

Jesus, after all, repeatedly attends to the needs of the Samaritans he meets. As well as the role of needs in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, in the story of Jesus cleansing the ten lepers in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus attends to the Samaritan’s physical needs by curing him of his leprosy (Lk. 17.16-19).  Human needs are also pointed to in the famous story of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37). Feeling pity for the injured man, the Samaritan tends to his needs (v.33), and the Christian is charged in her relation with the other from whom she is divided to respond with mercy, and to recognize the mercy with which others may attend to her.

Jesus acknowledges who these people are before God—as God’s children despite the tribal differences that exist. He does not villainise them, but makes them heroes and examples of God’s mercy (the Good Samaritan), or those who give thanks to God (the Samaritan Leper), or one who will worship in spirit and in truth (the Samaritan woman). He does not see them first as Samaritans, but first—even in all their divisions from Jesus—as the children of the One God.

What are we, in so divided a nation and so divided a world, to learn from the one who crossed the most difficult socio-political divides of his own age with truth and with grace?

[i] Relations between the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel following the period of the united monarchy of Saul, David and Solomon were never particularly good. When the northern kingdom fell in 722-721BCE, the Assyrians deported the Israelites and brought in pagans from neighbouring nations who worshipped Yahweh alongside other gods. This was a practice that 2 Kings 17.41 suggests was carried out by the descendents of these new inhabitants, thus polluting the purity of the theology and ritual of the northern nation. Moreover, in the years 589 and 587BCE the ancient Jewish people were disrupted by the most cataclysmic disaster of their history to that point. Having been brought to the promised land, having built the temple and centralised the cult upon it, the people were sent into exile by Nebuchadnezzar. The effects of this were enormous, and most significant among them was the loss of the temple in 587BCE. The people who returned following the exile began to understand themselves as superior to the people who had remained in the land, and to their neighbours to the north who lived around the city of Samaria. The root of this antagonism seems to be the opposition of the authorities in Samaria to the rebuilding of the temple and the city walls of Jerusalem. The Samaritans had their own rival priesthood and temple at Mount Gerezim, and opposed the Jerusalem cult, even enacting violence towards pilgrims travelling through Samaria.

[ii] For more on the Samaritans, see Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 378f. & 499-501; and Richard Bauckham, ‘The Scrupulous Priest and the Good Samaritan: Jesus’ Parabolic Interpretation of the Law of Moses’, New Testament Studies, 44:4 (1998), 475-489.

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