Jesus Preached Ethnic Equality
Without Using The Words
Ethnicity was never a discussion point for Jesus. He never mentioned the topic specifically or addressed it directly but in spite of that, the issue predominates.
The Gospels and the New Testament are riddled with both subtle and pointed references to ethnic issues. The thread runs consistently throughout. For Example:
The Wise Men
The story of Jesus starts out with a very interesting ethnic twist and we don’t easily see it. We are so accustomed to reading the Christmas story, filled with wonder and delight, that we miss how strange it is that middle eastern dignitaries, magi, would show up uninvited in Jerusalem to visit the recently born King of the Jews.
This was unusual. National entities in New Testament days weren’t known for mutual trust and Israel’s sitting King, Herod, was particularly nasty. He killed his first wife and had her three sons executed.
The only reason these wise men received a hearing instead of a beheading was because they were wise men, attendees at court, which no doubt gave them political clout, and they were apparently wealthy too. They came bearing very expensive gifts for the new King.
But they were outsiders. Had it not been for their intriguing story about a new and recently born King of the Jews, they might have been run out of town.
All of that is to say that the story of Jesus starts out with an ethnic wake-up call. And it wasn’t just that the wise men represented a different ethnicity who joined the joined the brethren in receiving the King. They seemed to be the only ones who actually got it.
The Pharisees, the superior group, along with most of Israel and the rest of the world were completely blindsided. How is it that people on the outside, marginalized by religious Judaism, saw in Jesus what the Jews could not?
The people in the best position to recognize the first coming of Jesus weren’t looking or expectant. That alone is weird! But then it becomes even more unusual when recognition comes from another ethnic group.
That’s like saying Vatican City missed it but the Gypsies got it!
The point, of course – at least one of them – is the fact ethnicity isn’t a barrier to searching for and finding truth. The ability to recognize God is not unique to any one ethnic group.
But the ethnic thread doesn’t stop there.
A Mixed Crowd
Fairly early in His public life, Jesus ministers to a large and mixed crowd that included people from Jerusalem and Judea, and from Decapolis and from beyond Jordan (Mark 3:7-12). Put simply, this brief statement paints a picture of a large crowd of people, including both Jews and Canaanites, mixing and mingling in very close quarters, all trying to touch Jesus. Think of a music concert with everyone reaching for the stage.
This was neither a comfortable nor a common situation. Jews and Canaanites weren’t known to spend time in close proximity, but what makes this interesting is the fact that it is mentioned in passing as if it is a normal occurrence. And we read it as if the only miracle was the healing Jesus performed on the suffering when in reality a much bigger miracle was taking place.
Namely: People from fiercely opposing ethnicities were huddled together apparently without incident. There were no fractious moments to record. The only trouble came from people pressing a little too forcefully trying to get within touching range of Jesus.
The Jews and Canaanites didn’t point at each other and whisper obscenities under the breath. There was no them vs us.
And there’s more.
Samaritan Woman At The Well
On another occasion, Jesus speaks to a woman at a public well in Samaria and then spends two days visiting and ministering to her family and friends, also in Samaria (John 4).
The disciples are dumbfounded by this. Speechless might be a better word. They were afraid to even ask Jesus why He spoke to a strange woman at all, especially one that was a Samaritan. When she finally went her way, the only thing they could do was suggest He eat. It was lunchtime. It was the obvious thing to do.
And His reply confused them even more. He talked about a kind of meat of which they had no knowledge. It was a metaphor for evangelism. Their training never involved evangelism and if it had, it would never have focused on undesirable ethnicities like Samaritans.
It was a very pointed statement by Jesus and was intended to help them see the error of their thinking but, unfortunately, it was quite a long while before they got His meaning.
What blinded them was their ethnic bias. Samaritans were people to avoid rather than evangelize.
And there is still more.
Canaanite Woman’s Daughter
Jesus continues this madness by visiting the area of Tyre and Sidon. This was Canaanite territory. It wasn’t a holiday spot for godly people. No doubt the disciples were wary, but while there, Jesus does something even more unthinkable.
After a Canaanite woman begs Him repeatedly, He delivers her daughter from demon possession (Matthew 15:21-28). Again, in the popular thinking of both Jews and Gentiles, the two groups didn’t mix. It required bravery for her to approach Jesus in the first place. It required both intelligence and faith for her to persist.
We don’t usually mention it but she was probably shunned by her peers for approaching a Jew for help. In today’s thinking, it would be like a Muslim seeking help from a Christian organization. The bigotry went both ways.
The antagonism between the two groups was so strong that when Jesus didn’t respond to the woman’s first cry for help (He said nothing), the disciples felt safe expressing their thoughts on the matter, “send her away!” Obviously, they didn’t like Canaanites and were probably uncomfortable just visiting in the area. They also assumed Jesus was on their side, but were closed-mouthed by His response.
Not only did Jesus heal her daughter but her persistent begging also elicited from Jesus the kind of remark we should all want to hear:
Great is thy faith! (Matthew 15:28)
The Bible doesn’t tell us what the disciples concluded immediately following this interchange but we know from history, they didn’t start to catch on till Acts 8 (revival in Samaria) and it was a process. They were sometimes open to other ethnic groups and sometimes not.
And yet again, the thread continues.
Sermon On The Mount
If there was a place in the New Testament you would expect to hear something about ethnicity, it’s the Sermon on the Mount. But instead, you find nothing. Jesus talked through a variety of different laws and how they should be interpreted but mentioned nothing about ethnic groups specifically.
Several of His remarks could be applied to ethnic relationships the most obvious being His reference to enemies. He said we are to love them, which interpreted ethnically is kind of like saying:
“Get over your bigotted selves!”
And again. It never stops!
Dining With Publicans
Coming a little closer to home, Jesus dined with a large group of people including a Jewish man named Matthew and all his sinful friends. Their sinfulness was implied, of course. Nothing specific was mentioned other than their employment. Matthew and his friends were employed by the Roman governement to collect taxes from Jews (Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32, Matthew 9:10-11) and that made them traitors of the worst kind.
It was bad enough that Matthew associated with another ethnic group, the Romans. The fact that he worked for them was way over the top.
Jesus, of course, had no problem with that.
Redefining The Word Samaritan
Jesus honored a Samaritan who, unlike the Priest and Levite before him, helped a beaten and stranded traveler (Luke 10:30-37). He spent time and money to take care of the man and Jesus was the one who shared the story. This man’s generosity changed forever how we view Samaritans.
The important truth here is the fact that Jesus transformed an ethnic slur – Samaritan – into a compliment. He didn’t ban the use of the word, He redefined it.
Namaan And The Widow Of Zarephath
Jesus remembered and recognized both the widow of Zarephath and Naaman for their faith (Luke 4:25-28). The widow was a Canaanite. Naaman was a Syrian. Both were ethnic outsiders and considered enemies of Israel. Both, however, exhibited great faith and were blessed by God during a period when blessings were few and far between even for Israel. The point is faith can be found everywhere, even among the ethnically undesirable.
Both these people came from the wrong ethnic group but both represented the worst of each group. Widows were the least influential in any society of that day and Namaan was a Syrian military leader. Israel and Syria had a long history of military conflict. Jesus ascribing great faith to these two teaches an important lesson. You can find spiritual character and belief exhibited in any ethnic group even from those in lowest layers of the group.
The Pharisees got His meaning but missed the point. They were incensed.
Ethnic Diversity On The Day Of Pentecost
The Book of Acts opens with Peter preaching to what could only be described as an ethnic alphabet soup in Jerusalem. The crowd was made up of people from all over the middle eastern world. Some were born Jewish. Others were Gentiles converted to Judaism. All were ethnically diverse. None fit in completely with the ethnic flavor of Jerusalem.
It was probably this crowd that hung around too long following Pentecost.
Jerusalem was the religious pinnacle before salvation and after salvation probably felt like a new home. You couldn’t get any higher or closer to God. There was no doubt ethnic fear bubbling below the surface too.
This opening event sets the theme for the rest of the book. By Chapter 8 disciples are evangelizing outside Jerusalem and from there the trend never stops.
Missions Predominantly Focused On Ethnic Groups
The Book Acts is mostly the history of missionaries taking the Gospel to different ethnic groups all over the world. If it weren’t for ethnic groups the book of Acts would be very short and very boring.
The New Testament would also be very short. There was only one book written to Jews. Every other book was written, not to Gentiles generally, but to specific ethnic areas throughout the evangelized world.
One very important point made by the New Testament is ethnic is another word for diverse equals.