Sunday, 27 July 2014

Beyond Identity politics part 2: a reflection on Luke 9: 51-55

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”  But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.
This story about Jesus and his disciples is easily missed - often glossed over as a narrative filler between the feeding of the 5000, the transfiguration and the sending out of the 72. There's so much else of significance going on in Luke 9 and 10 there's no wonder that I've hardly (if ever) heard a sermon on these verses. Yet since Luke did include it in his gospel account then you can rest assured it's significant - after all, there must have been so much material he could have included but didn't. This story is more than mere scene setting.

In my Bible (NIV) this section is headed 'Samaritan Opposition'. Interesting choice of words. Why not 'Jewish opposition'? After all, the Samaritans may not have welcomed the pilgrims but the disciples wanted to see the Samaritans destroyed. Hardly a proportionate response.

The key to this passage is the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans. So what do we know about the rivalry between these people at the time of Jesus? It's pretty complex but here it is in a nutshell:

There were ethnic tensions: the Samaritans were descendants of those from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh who had married outside the boundary of faith - a sin in the eyes of the ethnically 'pure'. There were religious tensions: Samaritans regarded Mount Gerizim rather than Jerusalem as the location of the Temple. Hence, the Samaritan villagers didn't welcome Jesus and his disciples because they were heading to the Temple in Jerusalem on their pilgrimage. There were political tensions: Jews and Samaritans had forever accused the other of colluding with the regular invading forces to their region.

History records that the rivalry had led to atrocities committed by both sides for many years. This was identity politics at its worst - complex historical disagreements played out in the present reality.

So what can we take from this story?

Firstly, you have to wonder why Jesus sent the messengers to a Samaritan village. Surely he knew what the reaction would be. Well, this is not particularly out of character. In John 4, he happily shares a drink with a Samaritan woman and from time to time heads into Gentile territory. Seems like he enjoyed crossing the generally accepted boundaries of the time - subverting the narrative. I often wonder what the world might be like if more people were up for that. It's the start of moving beyond identity politics - hanging out in other people's space, looking to build bridges, finding opportunities to build a relationship.

Next, the Samaritan villagers and James and John behaved exactly true to type. The Samaritans offered no hospitality and the disciples, predictably, got angry. As shocking as their call for 'fire from heaven' might sound to us, it made complete sense to them. It wasn't some random punishment they made up, it was a reflection of their own schooling in their scriptures. James and John were merely echoing the story of Elijah (2 Kings 1:1-17) calling fire from heaven to consume the soldiers sent from Samaria to arrest him. Everybody it appears was simply behaving in the way they had been taught to behave: by their parents, by their community and even by their religious leaders. So what of us? Might there be things that we simply accept as normal because it's been handed down to us? It's almost certain that the stereotypes we hold about certain groups of people cause us to consider acceptable some highly questionable behaviour and attitudes.

And finally, what about Jesus' reaction? It's the best part of the story. No doubt James and John were expecting Jesus to congratulate them on knowing their scriptures so well. But he didn't. He 'turned and rebuked them'. I can almost picture him in my mind's eye, staring them down and putting them in their place. Not for the first time, Jesus demonstrates that he will not merrily go along with the accepted narrative of the way things are. The Jews and Samaritans may well have hated each other for centuries, but Jesus wants no part of it. The Samaritans may have refused to take Jesus in for the night after a long and tiring journey, but he won't have anyone slander them. The Samaritans may have closed themselves off to accepting him, but Jesus doesn't take it personally - he'll be back. The challenge for us here is to resist any prevailing narrative that drives a wedge between us and others. Ethnic, religious and political differences can cause us to stumble - to diminish others, to scapegoat them, even. That path is not the way of Jesus - that path leads only to his rebuke.

Shortly afterwards, Jesus tells a story about a Samaritan. I'm convinced this episode is in his mind when he tells what has become one of the best known tales in history. In this parable the Samaritan demonstrates what it means to be a good neighbour by showing love, respect and care for 'the other'. And Jesus orders his (Jewish) listeners to follow the Samaritan's example. He subverts the accepted narrative. He resists the identity politics. He goes beyond ethnic, religious and political boundaries. It's time for us to do the same.

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