As a pastor’s kid, I grew up singing all of the classic Christian children’s songs. When I was in Sunday school, for instance, we sang:
Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world,
Red and yellow, black and white,
They’re all precious in his sight;
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
There were no red or yellow or black children in my Sunday school class, yet we were quite sure that Jesus loved them wherever they were.
Now that I’m older, I realize that the remarkable thing is not that Jesus loves the little children—little children are easy to love. They smile and laugh; they look at you with big eyes of wonderment. The remarkable thing is that Jesus also loves the stubborn, bickering, hostile, and prejudiced adults, those of us who are not so easy to love.
At Disneyland there is a famous ride called “It’s a Small World.” You step into the boat and are transported into a world of global diversity. As you ride along, mechanical children representing all the nations of the world sing, “It’s a small world after all.” If you don’t mind the repetitive chorus and sappy sentimentality, it’s a great song with a wonderful message, especially considering its free-market theme-park genesis. But how might the ride differ if the Small World featured adults rather than children?”
What if Tinker Bell sprinkled her magic fairy dust, and all the mechanical children became grown-ups? Suddenly, it would become Pirates of the Caribbean—the mechanized adults would begin shooting at each other; they’d burn the place down. The Americans and Arabs would proclaim that, “Yes, it is a small world, and there’s not room enough for the both of us.” The Palestinians and Israelis would hijack the boats and hold the tourists for ransom. The French wouldn’t fight, but they would openly despise everyone.
The fact is that there is something about adults—when they find the least little difference between one another, they gather into tribes made up of people exactly like themselves. They talk-up the things that are great about their little clan, and they discuss how terrible everyone else is. Why is it that even here in the twenty-first century we can’t embrace the simple concept of a small world where differences are to be celebrated instead of feared? We’ve come this far through human history, yet we still see widespread racial hatred, we still see violence and war and injustice. It seems that the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.
Many people are surprised to discover that Jesus had something to say about race. He spoke to the problem directly in a story that we don’t usually associate with the issue. We think of his story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) as a story about helping those in need. Of course, that’s an important part of the parable, but we should also note the ethnic identify of Jesus’s protagonist: he made the hero of the story a Samaritan, a despised ethnic group by first-century Jews. In so doing, Jesus made a powerful statement against racism.
Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a question—“Who is my neighbor?” It wasn’t a new question. For centuries, Jewish scholars had debated whether the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) referred only to fellow Hebrews, to those who looked as they looked, spoke as they spoke, shared the same history. They did not want consider people who were different from them as neighbors, people like the Arabs and the “half-breed” Samaritans—half Jewish and half Arab—who surrounded them. Many Jewish people felt that the Samaritans had corrupted their religion. They looked down on the Samaritans, had derogatory names for them, treated them as second-class citizens, segregated them from Jewish society, and considered them unclean. In the year 9 CE, when Jesus would have been a little child, a group of frustrated Samaritans scattered human bones around the temple in Jerusalem as an expression of their independence (Josephus Antiquities 11.342-346). This was incredibly offensive to the Jewish people, a really bad Halloween prank.
And so, when Jesus spoke this parable, the tensions between Jews and Samaritans were sky high. We can be sure that making a Samaritan the hero in this story was no random choice. Jesus was making a statement about race, and that’s why this story was told.
The story is well known but worth repeating: a Jewish man walks down a dangerous road and is waylaid by robbers who beat him and leave him for dead. Soon afterward, a pair of religious guys comes down the road, sees the man, and passes by on the other side to avoid helping him. Finally, a Samaritan sees and helps the man.
The men in the parable fall into three categories. The first is the robbers and their “What’s Yours Is Mine; I’ll Take It” attitude. They see that the Samaritan has something that they want, so they take it and beat him to a pulp in the process. The second are the religious characters, the priest and the Levite, who appear to live by a “What’s Mine Is Mine; I’ll Keep It” credo. They do not want to take nor do they want to give. Instead, they are comfortable with sticking to themselves. In the third category is the Samaritan, whose attitude was “What’s Mine Is Yours; I’ll Share It.” He offers his donkey, his money, and his time to the abused man without any concern for seeing a return. When it comes to race relations throughout history and around the world today, I believe we can still see the same attitudes at work.
The bandits on the road display the classic criminal mindset; it is the mentality of thieves and three-year-olds, and we all recognize it as selfish and wrong. And yet throughout history, this very same mindset has been adopted by governments, ethnic groups, and even the church. From the sixteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, the nations of Europe traveled all over the globe, to every continent, conquering and subjugating lands and peoples, carrying along with them this same attitude—what’s yours is mine; I’ll take it. They took the diamonds, they took the silver, they took the gold, and they took the agricultural resources. They stole away people’s autonomy and they drew lines on a map to divide things up in a way that would be economically convenient for them but resulted in disaster for the people who lived there. And they stole the very lives and identities of human beings, enslaving them for their own profit. This is perhaps the ultimate expression of the mentality, what’s yours is mine; I’ll take it.
The second attitude is that of the religious men, the priest and the Levite, who walked by on the other side of the road. When we read this story, we condemn these men. We think they are the real antagonists, the ones who could have helped but didn’t—what’s wrong with these people?
But there may have been some good reasons why they didn’t stop to assist the victim. On this particular road, it was a common trick for bandits to plant a decoy just like this, someone pretending to be hurt. When a would-be helper came approached the “victim,” the bandits would jump him and leave him poor and bloody. This road was notoriously dangerous, so smart people were careful and guarded when they traveled it.
Moreover, perhaps the religious men weren’t only thinking of their personal interests. Perhaps they were thinking of their families, the people who depended on them, who counted on them returning home safely. It would be imprudent and irresponsible for the men to put themselves at risk like that. Indeed, there were no life insurance policies, and widows were often left in a dire circumstance at the death of a husband.
Finally, the religious fellows may have been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the need. Perhaps under their breath they asked, “How many beaten and bloody guys am I going to find along this road? This is a long road. It’s filled with people who have problems. I simply don’t have the time or the resources to take care of everyone on this road; it is simply too much.”
As we consider these factors, we may conclude that the religious men were acting reasonably. I know that I can relate: I have a responsibility to my family; I know that there are people who will try to deceive and take advantage of me, and I certainly can’t meet every need that I pass by. What’s mine is mine; I’ll keep it makes a certain kind of sense; it is a reasonable point of view.
But it is not the point of view to which Jesus is calling us. If we are serious about being his disciples, if we desire to be his followers, if we are committed to his lordship in our lives, then we cannot carry the kind of attitude that says “What’s mine is mine; I’ll keep it.”
When my kids were still living at home, I would sometimes come downstairs and find a big mess in the kitchen or living room. I would call them and say, “You kids get in here—who made this mess and left it?” But nobody made the mess, no one would own up. It was the evil fairies who lived in our home and made messes while we slept. I told the kids, “All right, even though none of us made the mess, we are all going to clean it up together, because we are a family, and we all live here together.” Can you guess their response? Great shouts of “That’s not fair!” and “Why should I have to clean up a mess that I didn’t make? It’s not my mess!”
Well, our ancestors made a mess. And they’re not going to clean it up—they’re all dead. And so, because we live in this place together, this place called the United States of America, and because we are a family, I believe we are the ones who must clean it up. That’s what Jesus is telling us in this story, that we have to move beyond the mine is mine mentality. We have to move beyond that, to something better, to the attitude of the good Samaritan.
A Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.” (Luke 10:33–35)
The Samaritan said, “What’s mine is yours; I’ll share it.” Jesus is telling us that it is insufficient to say, “Hey, I’m not a racist!” It’s not enough to believe in diversity, racial tolerance, and equality, to occasionally hang out with people of color. Jesus is saying we need to do more, to do more than decency requires. We need to go the extra mile, to take the risks, to cross the lines, and go to the other side of the road where people have been beaten and robbed. We need to clean up their mess.
We all know the old joke about why the chicken crossed the road. There are many interesting variations to be found on the internet. The New York City police say: You give me five minutes with the chicken, and I’ll find out. Hemingway said: He crossed the road. To die. In the rain. Martin Luther King Jr. said: I see a world where all chickens will be free to cross roads, and, thank god a-mighty, be free at last. Bill Clinton says: To the best of my recollection, that chicken did not engage in what I would call “road crossing behavior.”
But why did the Christian cross the road? The answer is that he crosses the road to follow Jesus. She crosses the road to clean up the mess that somebody else has made. This is why churches must provide as many opportunities as they can for their people to cross the road. This is why Christian organizations are taking millions of American Christians to Africa and to South America on mission trips, to literally cross the road, or the border, or the ocean, in a desire to follow Jesus and make a dent in cleaning up the mess. It’s a small world after all.
This is why there is a new emphasis on integrating our churches and starting multicultural congregations, so that we don’t just occasionally hang out with people who are different, but that we actually live in community with people who are different. This is why we must partner with those organizations that seek to develop entrepreneurship in the underdeveloped regions and neighborhoods of our country, and why we must break old cycles of dependency by giving real opportunity. This is why churches should be taking the lead in integrating refugees into their communities. Red, yellow, black and white we are all precious in Jesus’s sight; we are all the recipients of what is his, and it is his desire that we share those resources with our neighbors.