All of us are challenged by this ever-changing world. For many of us, society is much different from what we knew as children or even as young adults. One of the great dynamics of our age is the number of new and different faces that are entering our lives whether through the media, in our schools or right next door in our neighborhoods.
In one sense, the growing reality of globalization is pushing us together with people we have never dealt with before. The global neighborhood is simply getting crowded. Dynamic advances in technology, transportation and communication have brought new faces, accents and traditions into our everyday lives. Our comfortable world of "sameness" is being stretched, if not actually shaken.
This is no longer simply a New York, London or Los Angeles phenomenon, but it's happening everywhere-just look out the door, or pick up your local newspaper, or look up the names in your phone book. How we deal with "others" is going to be one of the great personal challenges of the 21st century.
Society today is split on dealing with this issue of "others." In one sense, society has become more tolerant of people from different backgrounds. Today we see much interaction between different groups and an appreciation of others. At the same time, other parts of society are fragmenting into isolation and tribalism.
We find this in all the various racial and ethnic groups. "Balkanization" of nations, states, counties and cities is an ever-present dilemma facing responsible people. The hyphenated person or group is a big part of modern society and how we view ourselves. These two terms, "globalization" and "Balkanization" are two very real dynamics that will affect your world, your church and yourself in the 21st century. How you view "others" is very telling as to how you view yourself, and ultimately how you view God.
Let's look through the lens of Scripture and see how Jesus Christ and His followers dealt with their own multicultural world. We'll come to see that each in his own way and in his own time made real headway in dealing with "others."
How big is your box?
Jesus was once engaged in a conversation with a young lawyer. We find the story in Luke 10:25-29. The young man responded to Christ's question regarding how to inherit eternal life by stating, "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself."
Christ encouraged the man, "You have answered rightly; do this and you will live." But the young man, being a lawyer and perhaps looking for the "loophole" in the law asked, "And who is my neighbor?" Without missing a beat, Christ moved into the story that has come to be known as the "Parable of the Good Samaritan." In speaking to conservative religious folk of His day, He purposefully inserts the example of a Samaritan. The Jewish community at this time viewed Samaritans as a mixed breed of people, and had nothing to do with them!
In this environment, Christ breaks the mold and daringly inserts the reference to "another," and gives him life, heart and purpose. At the end of the famous story, He asks a simple question: "Which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?" (It is interesting that the term "good" is never used in the story, but rather has been attached to the parable by its readers.) Christ puts none above another in the way that He tells the parable, challenging the human tendency towards prejudice. He powerfully illustrates that it's not who you are, or what you know, but what you do that is essential.
But this was not simply a token gesture. At another time and place, while visiting a Samaritan village, we again find Christ boldly taking the initiative in dealing with "others." In John 4, we find Him tired, resting and sitting by a well. A Samaritan woman approaches. He does what would have been unthinkable in light of the common custom of the day. He simply states, "Give Me a drink" (verse 7). He does not wait to be asked, but rather He initiates the contact. The woman is startled and responds, "How is it that You being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?" (verse 9). He goes on to explain many things to her.
When the disciples returned, they reflected common prejudices-"they marveled that He talked with a woman." As human beings, all of us have our own lines that we like to draw and boxes that we like to fill, boxes filled with "us" and lines that keep us comfortable. But that is not the story of the gospel. And we don't always get it all at once or in one sitting. The original disciples certainly didn't.
Have you ever noticed whom it was that James and John wanted supernatural fire to consume? Notice in Luke 9:52, "And as they went they entered a village of the Samaritans, to prepare for Him." The zealous sons of Zebedee were set for action! They asked Christ, "Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?" (verse 54).
Many communities throughout Judea and Galilee rebuffed Jesus, but the disciples didn't ask that they be burned like this. Why Samaria, and not Judea? Simply put, dealing with "others" is not always how we deal with ourselves. It rolled off the lips much more quickly to miraculously "nuke" the Samaritans rather than their fellow citizens. You see, even religious folk may have tough times with the powerful question, "Who is my neighbor?"
Christ didn't. He answered, "You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives but to save them" (verse 56). Yes, even Samaritans.
God shows no partiality
God is very patient and He brings the lesson back to us until we get it and do it like He does. Interestingly John was given another opportunity to "get it right." Have you ever noticed who were the first two apostles to follow Philip into Samaria and assist in baptizing the Samaritans? One was John-the same John who had wanted to "nuke 'em." Every step into Samaria must have weighed heavily on his mind. But when the big moment came, "they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit" (Acts 8:17). Such an act for a Jew was one of ritual uncleanness! John had now embraced the "others" in a daring act of spiritual courage.
Not only John, but also the entire Church would be taken back to another point of initial failure in understanding the powerful lesson of "who is my neighbor?" The port of Joppa had long ago been the point of departure for Jonah's ill-fated cruise to escape his responsibility of dealing with his "others," the Assyrians. Have you ever noticed in Acts 10:5 where Peter was staying when he received the vision to go to the gentile Cornelius? That's right, it was Joppa.
Peter had to make a decision. Ultimately, the risk was even greater for him and the Church, for the call was not only to preach repentance, but also to embrace the gentiles. What would people think? Who gave him permission to "draw new lines," to step "out of the box" and to conclude: "In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him" (Acts 10:34)?
Luke, the author of Acts, must have been smiling when he wrote these words, for he himself had been, in the eyes of the Jews, an "other." Luke is the one who shares the story of the Good Samaritan as well as the story of the healing of the lepers in Luke 17. He specifically points out in verse 16 that the grateful one was a Samaritan. Luke is the one who shares the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. He is the only one of the synoptic authors who quotes the fullness of John the Baptist's statement from Isaiah 40:5, "all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:6).
Luke recognized the difference that God's Holy Spirit made in people before and after conversion. He recognized that his own Greek people had their whole list of "others." They had a concept referred to as "autochthonous" which literally means, "springing up from the soil of Attica." To not be of Attica was to be a "barbarian." That is the Greek term they used for everyone other than themselves. Perhaps that is why Luke wrote a detailed record of Paul's powerful address to the intellectual leaders of Athens, people who would have been steeped in this notion. Paul challenged their perspective with the words: "And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth" (Acts 17:26).
"Hath not a Jew…?"
Common blood, a common father and common hopes and aspirations is a theme that William Shakespeare gave voice to through Shylock the Jew in Merchant of Venice. At this time, the Jews were the "others" in Italy. In Act III, Shylock bellows:
"He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, hated mine enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that."
We can read the examples of Christ, take encouragement from fellow Christians as John, Peter and Paul-even marvel at the wisdom and eloquence of Shakespeare and draw strength. And we need to, because it's a tough world out there on the job, in the schools or in the neighborhoods. We need to recognize that even "good people" can be pushed back into small boxes and reverse their growth steps. You may think that you would never say disparaging remarks toward someone else of another racial or ethnic group or disassociate yourself with certain friends when the pressure is on. Be careful. Notice a powerful drama played out in Antioch.
"But when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face…for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy" (Galatians 2:11-13).
When the Bible states "even Barnabas," it is making a powerful point! Barnabas was "the son of encouragement," Paul's mentor, the one man who always stood up for people-but he also had human failings. It is the humanity of this wonderful man put out before us here to remind us that we don't find our values in a trial, we take them into the trial with us.
Birds of a feather
I have been raising chickens for over 20 years. Many nights I have gone out to see if my birds are all right and shined my flashlight into the coop. No surprises here! All "the birds of a feather flock together" to stay warm and cozy, even in the darkest night. People can be like chickens in many ways. We've all heard of the "pecking order of life," and I know some people that have never gotten past "the feathers" of other people. But Christ never looked at feathers; He focused on hearts.
As we continue to read the headlines and articles in our newspapers or the subjects we cover in World News and Prophecy, let's realize many of these articles will deal with people different from us. They will deal with racial tension, conflict and, unfortunately, even death, because humanity as a whole hasn't gotten beyond "the feathers." Racism, culture wars and ethnic tensions will continue to intensify. Right now, a Christian's responsibility is not to change the world. Only the literal rule of Jesus Christ on earth is going to accomplish that. But we are to change ourselves and be responsible for our actions within our spheres of influence, whether our family, our school or our jobs.
It is Jesus Christ, Himself, who tells us "this is the way walk you in it" with His simple command: "Love your neighbor as yourself."