For those of us who have lived only in the United States, the stories we hear of past hostilities between whites and blacks here might seem like some of the most hostile in history.
The brutal atrocity of chattel slavery, and the curse of Jim Crow, still hang for many like dark clouds over our union, with painful and lingering consequences of various kinds. And for many, feelings of progress have quickly worn away over the last year, as shootings, protests, debates, and riots have ripped at old wounds. True unity and enduring peace can begin to feel like a naive fantasy. How could we ever overcome a history like ours? How could we ever bridge the gulfs between us? How could we ever make real, tangible, durable progress?
As we read more devastating headlines of racial hostility and ponder the heart-wrenching history of the last five hundred years, we might slowly begin to think that the Bible has little to offer us here. That racial brokenness sits somewhere on the periphery of God’s plan. That the early church knew little of what America has experience so deeply. This kind of hostility is anything but unprecedented, though, and it is certainly not foreign to Scripture, even in Jesus’s day. The cause for racial harmony in twenty-first-century America may benefit from a walk through first-century Samaria.
Every Bit as Hostile
If we are familiar with the Gospels, we might recall something of the fierce hostility between Jews and Samaritans. When Jesus asks the woman at the well, a Samaritan, for a drink, she replies, “‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’ (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans)” (John 4:9). No dealings. Not even a cup of water in the heat of the day. Imagine refusing someone something as small and life-sustaining as water simply because of their ethnicity. Sadly, we don’t need a lot of imagination in America.
“The ethnic and cultural boundary between the Jews and the Samaritans,” J. Daniel Hays writes, “was every bit as rigid and hostile as the current boundary between Blacks and Whites in the most racist areas of the United States” (From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, 163). Hays’s excellent book alerted me to threads in Scripture that I had been prone to overlook or ignore altogether. Racial hostility and reconciliation, it turns out, not only is present in the Bible, but is a vital theme — a unique and striking way that God glorifies himself in the stories he has written in Scripture.
What Hays sees in the Judea-Samaria strife was especially eye-opening for me. Samaria appears in six major scenes in Luke and Acts, and only briefly elsewhere (except for the woman at the well). So, why would Luke keep returning to Samaria while others avoided going there? Luke in particular, it seems, wanted us to see the enduring power of the gospel to reconcile hostile peoples. He wanted us to believe that, despite how futile and frustrating the pursuit of racial harmony in diversity may feel at times, God really can do for us what he did for them.
Hints of Fierce Hostility
The first mention of Samaria in Luke far more than hints at the fierce hostility between these ethnic enemies. When Jesus took his first steps toward the cross, he decided to go through Samaria: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him” (Luke 9:51–52). This may sound like the preparations he made for the Last Supper, but the story ends very differently. In this case, there was no supper.
“But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53). There was room in the inn, but they refused him still. A Jew on his way to Jerusalem — a man with his blood, his culture, his religion — was not welcome here. Luke wants us to feel the offense, the prejudice, the antagonism. It sadly sounds like much of American history.
We know this was an assault because Jesus’s disciples were immediately ready to retaliate. “When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’” (Luke 9:54). Their response is as revealing as the Samaritans’ offense. There is a deep-seated, long-standing animosity between these groups. The kindling had been laid over centuries of hatred. Jesus knew, very personally, the pain and strain of ethnic hostility.
Even when wronged, though, Jesus smothered the disciples’ wrath (Luke 9:55–56), foreshadowing the far greater peace he would bring. But the images of falling fire do light the stage for the next mention of Samaria (in the next chapter). The bitterness in their refusal becomes the backdrop for a familiar and surprising parable.
Mercy Subdues Hostility
We know the story of the Good Samaritan. In fact, when we hear of Samaria, that’s likely the first thing that comes to mind. A lawyer was trying to justify himself, believing he had sufficiently loved his neighbors (at least neighbors as he liked to define them), but Jesus pressed on a sensitive and stubborn nerve: his quiet ethnic animosity. If he wanted to inherit eternal life, he would have to lay down his ill will toward Samaria. This was his sell-all-you-have moment.
For many in America, we are experiencing our own sell-all-you-have moment. God is violently confronting worldly ways of thinking and advocating on the right and the left. Will we in the church tolerate racism, in all its forms, traditional and progressive? Will we turn against one another? Will we turn a blind eye to injustice? Will we let the godless have their way? Hays writes,
The relationship between Whites and Blacks in America, even within the Church, is remarkably similar to that between Jews and Samaritans of the first century: one that has historically been characterized by prejudicial animosity and distrust, with clear boundaries delineating “them” from “us.” The Good Samaritan story, especially when placed within the overall theology of Luke-Acts, likewise destabilizes our inherited “Black-White” worldview, and challenges us to move beyond the “us-them” mentality of our culture to an “us-us, in Christ” unity that demolishes the ethnic boundaries of our society. (171)
We don’t know how the lawyer responded to Jesus. Did he keep excusing and justifying himself? Did he stay in line with the ethnocentrism around him? Did he shout, “Crucify him!”? Or did the walls around his narrow definitions of “neighbor” collapse before Christ?
Luke’s point, however, isn’t how the lawyer responded but how we will. With so much stacked against racial unity and neighborly love in America, how will we answer the call? Will we prove to be neighbors across difficult or strained barriers? Will we live with compassion and mercy and love?
Hostility Bows Before Christ
That’s not the last time Samaria is mentioned in Luke, though. While Jesus was walking between Samaria and Galilee, still on his way to Jerusalem, he was met by ten lepers. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Luke 17:13). He indeed had mercy on them, healing each and sending them to the priest to be declared clean (Luke 17:14). Imagine being healed from such an awful, lifelong disease. Imagine the curse, the shame, and the isolation of leprosy finally being removed. The plague of social distancing had ended. They could be touched again.
This story, however, is not about leprosy in the end. Only one of the ten who had been healed turned back to praise and thank his healer. A Samaritan. The least likely to approach him, much less bow. “Were not ten cleansed?” Jesus asks. “Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17–18). Except this foreigner, the only Samaritan. The only one with the faith to kneel. Jesus’s own people refused to humble themselves and give thanks. How is it that this man, a Samaritan, would stop and bow before a Jew?
This story is not only about Jesus’s authority over sickness, but about his authority over ethnic animosity — the sicknesses of difference. Even when Samaria hated him, he healed them. And even though Samaria hated him, a Samaritan came to love him. Racial hostility itself bowed before King Jesus. Hostility between us, between black and white and every other boundary and barrier, dies the same way: by bowing to Jesus.
Sent into Hostility
Jesus finally arrived at Jerusalem and received even more hostility at the hands of his own people. He submitted to the hostility, even to the point of death on a cross. Through hostility, he brought peace. He guaranteed the hostility would end. But not yet.
After he rose from the dead, he commissioned his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations (Luke 24:47). Luke picks up the commission again at the beginning of Acts, when Jesus says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). We may hear “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria,” and think in a whole lot of places. The disciples would have heard far more than that. “The movement from Judea to Samaria,” Hays writes, “demanded that these early Christians cross over a longstanding ethnic, religious, and cultural boundary. Samaritans were loathed by the Jewish community” (163).
When Jesus left the earth, he sent his witnesses not just to tell people like them, and not just to tell people different from them, but to go and tell the people who hated them most. He would not let them be content to see the gospel spread from friend to friend, from neighbor to neighbor, but from enemy to enemy. These were among the last words he said before ascending into heaven: Go tell Samaria what I have done for them. Even Samaria.
Think, for a moment, about the greatest hostility you’ve witnessed or experienced in your life. Do you believe that Christ could save even those people? Do you believe Christ could heal even that hostility? Could he, with his broken flesh and spilled blood, bring even them together? Samaria tells us he could — and he can.
Won from Hostility
Don’t miss what God does next in Samaria. Right after the Jews stone Stephen to death, and as Saul, a Jewish leader, is ravaging the church, we learn that Philip “went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ” (Acts 8:5). Went down doesn’t really capture the gravity of this walk. If the Jews stoned their own, what might Samaritans do to him? But if Christ had turned Philip, a sworn enemy and child of wrath, into a son, then Philip would turn and tell all — even his enemies, perhaps especially his enemies — what Christ could do for them. Imagine how angry some Jews would have been to see Philip go down that road.
And as hostility had bowed before Christ, it now bowed before his followers. Not only did the Samaritans not refuse Philip, but many believed, were baptized, and received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:12, 17). Walls that had stood for centuries fell in a matter of moments. As they were crucified together with Christ, through faith, what they assumed and hated about one another began to die with their old selves. Rivals became co-laborers. Enemies became brothers. Histories were forgiven. Hostility became, almost unthinkably, love.
How does Luke summarize those days? “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied” (Acts 9:31). The church throughout Judea and Samaria had peace. What a thought. What a church. What a God.
If the Spirit of God truly lives in us, no prejudice or bitterness is too great to overcome. Any reconciliation is possible. In fact, in Christ, we know that it is certain (Revelation 5:9).
The last mention of Samaria comes with more controversy and even greater hope. There was intense disagreement in the early church about whether Gentiles, including Samaritans, needed to be circumcised and adopt Jewish laws and customs to join the church (Acts 15:1–2). Did Gentiles need to become Jews? And of all the Gentiles, would any have been more controversial than Samaritans?
Paul and Barnabas were summoned to Jerusalem to testify. On their way, Luke writes, “they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers” (Acts 15:3). Think about that. People that had refused to have Jesus step foot in their town now rejoiced to receive their Jewish brothers in Christ. And not just any joy, but great joy. The sovereign God showed he could turn the most intense hatred into great joy, and in just a matter of a few short years.
After hearing what God had done among the nations (Acts 15:12), the council agreed not to lay the Jewish laws on Gentile believers (Acts 15:19–20). The peace they had tasted was now established, formalized, entrenched. God was not, in Christ, collapsing ethnic and cultural differences into one, but reconciling them all before his throne. The diversity, the nonconformity, even the former hostility were proving his worth and power like nothing else could.
Samaria and America
Many will notice Samaria through Luke and Acts and see nothing compelling or relevant for the racial hostility boiling in America today. I didn’t for years. Now, as Samaria emerges again and again, I feel the familiar heat of ethnic distrust and animosity. I marvel at the surprising, even startling, signs of unity, peace, and brotherhood. And I long for God to do for us — and in us — what he did between Jew and Samaritan. If the six mentions of Samaria in Luke and Acts tell us anything, they tell us that we who identify with Christ should have great hope for the church, no matter what happens next in the world.