In the life of a child raised in religion, it becomes very clear that there are lines that divide some people from others. For those raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, it may at first seem that the world is made up primarily of Adventists and non-Adventists: Those who knew the truth, and those who just didn’t care. When one learns about the Protestant Reformation, it may then become a question of Protestants vs. Catholics: those who lived by the Bible, and those who did not. Or, when encountering the secular world of humanism and science, inter-Christian debates about atonement theory and other theological issues get put to the side. It becomes Christians vs. Atheists, creation vs. evolution, ‘morality’ vs. ‘depravity’.
The labels changed, but the binaries always remained. In vs. out. Right vs. wrong. Us – the smart, good, and most importantly, correct – vs. all the rest of Them.
During the time of Jesus’ ministry, the Jews thought the same way. They even had a name for all non-Jewish people – “Gentiles” – and rules to match. They saw Gentiles as idolaters who didn’t worship the true God, though they were willing to hire Gentiles to do work for them on the Sabbath. Jews weren’t allowed to marry Gentiles, and while they weren’t allowed to charge interest on money lent to other Jews, they could charge Gentiles. The most extreme statement of animosity on record comes from second century rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, who wrote that “the best of the gentiles should be killed” – a sentiment that, thankfully, never gained popularity.
If there was one group that Jews really especially hated, though, it was Samaritans. Interestingly enough, many Samaritans would have also considered themselves God’s chosen people. When political tensions led to ancient Israel dividing into two kingdoms, the northern Israel and the southern Judah, the northern kingdom established its capital at Shechem, and later the hilltop city of Samaria. The Assyrians conquered Israel in 722 B.C. and brought in Gentile colonists who intermarried with the remaining Jews and began to worship idols alongside God. The southern kingdom of Judah fell to Babylon in 600 B.C., and then 70 years later thousands of Jews were allowed to return to rebuild Jerusalem. But the people of northern Israel, now called the Samaritans, vehemently opposed their efforts. The two groups clashed over worship, over land, and over ethnicity – a division that would last for more than 500 years.
This background of animosity is what makes two of Jesus’ encounters with non Jewish women – seemingly very different ones – so significant.
In the first, which you can read in John 4:1-45, Jesus and his disciples are resting in Samaria. Just being there is already shameful, but they’re tired and hungry enough that they stop anyway. While the disciples are off looking for something to eat, Jesus talks to the last person imaginable: a Samaritan woman – one who has been married five times, and was currently living with a man she was not married to. Talking to an enemy woman? One who would be considered “soiled” and “fallen”? It’s a scandal.
Jesus asks her for water – a request for hospitality – and she gladly provides it. Then, never missing the chance for an illustration, Jesus offers her living water – eternal life through him. After a little more conversation, Jesus confirms her suspicion that He is, in fact, the Messiah. Overwhelmed, she accepts this, and then runs to town and tells everyone about what Jesus has done for her.
This is all it takes – a simple conversation – and a promiscuous Samaritan woman is part of the Kingdom of God. This story is so familiar and heartwarming to us that it makes Jesus’ encounter with another Gentile woman all the more shocking (Matthew 15:21-28 or Mark 7:24-30).
In the northern city of Tyre, a Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman approaches Jesus and asks him to heal her daughter of demon possession. Jesus’ reply seems cruel: “‘Let the children [Jews] be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs [Gentiles]’” (Mark 7:27 ESV).
Jesus is not really expressing his own opinions but those of the people around him: beliefs that he is about to subvert.
But the woman doesn’t give up or get angry. Instead, she shoots back a witty reply: “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table [the word she uses is close to puppies, or little pets] eat the children’s crumbs’” (7:28). Jesus, apparently, is impressed, because tells her that “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter” (7:29).
What do we make of this Jesus who compares a non-Jew to a dog? Do we chalk it up to the writer’s bias? Do we decide that even Jesus held prejudices or had off days? Or is it possible that Jesus is trying to communicate something else – something under the surface?
“What if,” F. F. Bruce suggests, “there was a twinkle in his eye as he spoke, as much as to say, ‘You know what we Jews are supposed to think of you Gentiles; do you think it is right for you to come and ask for a share in the healing which I have come to impart to Jews?’” In the same story, Jesus was sitting in silence while his disciples had been urging him to send the woman away from them. Jesus is not really expressing his own opinions but those of the people around him: beliefs that he is about to subvert.
In both these instances, Jesus is forcing his audience to confront the binaries in their lives. “Why do you get to decide who deserves my love and who doesn’t?” He asks. Is Jesus implying that no one has a monopoly on the truth? In the kingdom of God, are insiders and outsiders defined by humanity’s cultural standards, or by their participation in faith and God’s love?
There is another story where Jesus reaches across a social divide: the divide between an oppressor from a different religion altogether - the Roman Centurion. Read Matthew 8:5-13. What dynamics are at work here?
How does the social status of the Roman Army Commander compare to the social status of Jesus - an artisan/craftsman who is from a region subjugated to Rome? How do these things factor into their conversation? The Roman Centurion was not a Jew - but Jesus still commends his faith. What does that mean?
Read John 4:19-26, and especially note verse 22 where Jesus says “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” Is that a discriminatory or ethnocentric thing for Jesus to say? Why or why not? What might his point have been in saying that?
In both stories we studied today, non-Jews have direct encounters with Jesus and are saved through those. Ellen White, however, writes that there will be people in heaven who have almost no knowledge of God. With this in mind, how important is it to be Adventist? How about Christian? If people can inadvertently follow God without knowledge of him, then what is the point in telling them about him?
“Those whom Christ commends in the judgment may have known little of theology, but they have cherished his principles. Through the influence of the divine Spirit they have been a blessing to those about them. Even among the heathens are those who have cherished the spirit of kindness; before the words of life had fallen upon their ears, they have befriended the missionaries, even ministering to them at the peril of their own lives. Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Those ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God.” – Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages
How do we reconcile this idea with Jesus’ clear instruction in Matthew 28:16-20 to go make disciples of all the world?
How do we react to people who believe they are earnestly following God correctly, but have different beliefs or practices than we do? What if they even claim to be part of the same belief system as us?
The Samaritans were the Gentiles that the Jews disliked the most - even though the Samaritans were, in fact, partly Israelites. There is a tendency in culture and religion to dislike the group that is closest or most similar to your own. Think of your own religious tradition: are there any other religious that yours tends to be especially suspicious of, or hostile to? If so, can you identify some similarities between your groups.
In John 10:16, Jesus said “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” What did this mean in that context? What does it mean for us today?