“On the way they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for (Jesus’) reception there, but they would not welcome him….When…James and John saw this they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?’ Jesus turned and rebuked them….” (Luke 9:52-55)
Your brother routinely makes anti-Semitic comments. Your neighbor uses the N-word in casual conversation. Your co-worker ribs you about your Italian surname, asking if you’re in the mafia. Your classmate insults something by saying, “That’s so gay.” And you stand there, in silence, thinking, “What can I say in response to that?” Or you laugh along, uncomfortably. Or, frustrated or angry, you walk away without saying anything, thinking later, “I should have said something.”
According to an ancient Hebrew story, Abraham, the first patriarch, was sitting outside his tent one evening when he saw an old man, weary from age and journey, coming toward him. Abraham rushed out, greeted him, and then invited him into his tent. There he washed the old man’s feet and gave him food and drink. The old man immediately began eating without saying any prayer or blessing.
So Abraham asked him, “Don’t you worship God?” The old traveler replied, “I worship fire only and reverence no other god.” When he heard this, Abraham became incensed, grabbed the old man by the shoulders, and threw him out of his tent into the cold night air.
When the old man had departed, God called to his friend, Abraham, and asked where the stranger was. Abraham replied, “I forced him out because he did not worship you.” God answered, “I have suffered him these 80 years although he dishonors me. Could you not endure him one night?”
Like Abraham in the story, James and John in today’s gospel demonstrate that when it comes to dealing with people outside their comfort zone, they just don’t get it. Jesus had only days earlier sent the twelve out in pairs to proclaim the kingdom of God, empowering them to heal the sick and cast out demons. The two brothers enter a Samaritan town seeking hospitality for Jesus and the twelve, but the townspeople refuse. Not surprising, after all, since Samaritans and Jews, despite their common Semitic heritage and devotion to the Torah, had been feuding for centuries over various religious issues. And how do the brothers with their newly conferred powers want to respond to the perceived insult? By nuking that Samaritan town back to the Stone Age! So much for loving your neighbor!
Obviously, James and John missed the point about what kind of messiah Jesus intended to be. Recall, that these are the same two who, after coming down from the Mount of the Transfiguration, argue about which of them should have the greater place of honor in the new kingdom. No, they just don’t get it.
Today, in Luke’s gospel, we begin a journey with Jesus and his disciples. The journey moves from northern Galilee to Jerusalem and focuses on two themes: the identity of Jesus (Christology) and the nature of discipleship. Despite the trials along the way, Jesus resolutely “sets his face” toward Jerusalem. There, he will encounter misunderstanding, rejection, suffering and death. But there also, will be the place of his ultimate vindication and glorification at Easter.
The journey will be nonviolent, not the march of a military conqueror imposing his will by force on those who refuse to accept the new order he offers. This is why Jesus rebukes James and John for suggesting the destruction of the Samaritan town. Rejection is something Jesus had experienced before, even in his own home town of Nazareth, and would certainly experience again, big time, in Jerusalem. Moreover, God is greater than religion; faith is greater than dogma.
In refusing to call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans (and on the hated Romans, for that matter), as most Jews of the time expected their messiah to do, Jesus shows himself to be the best example of his own teaching about loving others unconditionally, even people difficult to love, including enemies. His message clearly includes tolerance of human diversity. History, unfortunately, is filled with countless instances of intolerance among people resulting in so much human misery. Even the Church at times has failed to practice what she preaches on the issue, for example, during the Middle Ages when tens of thousands were put to death by the Holy Inquisition as heretics and sorcerers. And our own beloved country whose birthday we celebrate on Wednesday is no different. Consider, for example, the treatment of Native Americans during the period of westward expansion.
Every hour in the United States someone commits a hate crime. Every day at least eight blacks, three whites, three gays, three Jews and one Latino become hate crime victims. Four weeks ago a gay bashing incident involving four assailants and eight victims happened right here in Rochester at the corner of Monroe Avenue and South Goodman Street. The appropriateness of the police response is still under internal investigation. Hate in America is a dreadful, daily reality. The dragging death of a black man in Jasper, Texas; the crucifixion of a gay man in Laramie, Wyoming.; and post-9.11 hate crimes against hundreds of Arab Americans, Muslim Americans and Sikhs are not “isolated incidents.”
Bias is a human condition, and American history is rife with prejudice against groups and individuals because of their race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or other differences. The 20th century saw major progress in outlawing discrimination, and most Americans today support integrated schools and neighborhoods. But stereotypes and unequal treatment persist, an atmosphere often exploited by hate groups. When bias motivates an unlawful act, it’s considered a hate crime. Race and religion inspire most hate crimes. Consider, for example, what’s happening in the Middle East and Sudan.
In dealing with people outside our comfort zones, things haven’t changed much over the millennia. When it comes to how we should deal with one another, however, the Judeo-Christian response remains unchanged – with love. Judging others is still God’s province alone, not ours. Besides, today’s technological advances make tolerance of human diversity more than a virtue; it makes it a requirement for survival.
Tolerance means respecting and learning from others, valuing differences, bridging cultural gaps, rejecting unfair stereotypes, discovering common ground, and creating new bonds. It’s something we must teach our young. Tolerance is not only a requirement for survival; it’s also a requirement of discipleship. Abraham, James and John didn’t get it.Do we?
Deacon Anthony J. Sciolino
1 Kings 19:16, 19-21/99; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; Luke 9:51-62. 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time. July 1, 2007 (Cycle C)