More than geography

When I was a kid, our family had a globe. It was big enough to have a light bulb inside of it. Pull the little chain, and the world lit up from within. The countries glowed in separate colors, their political borders clearly marked. I could stare at that globe for minutes on end, spinning it this way and that, until I could smell the plastic beginning to overheat and burn.

Geography is important. Human beings need a sense of place. But that globe would be largely irrelevant today. Many of the nations I wondered about back then no longer exist. Names have changed; boundaries have been redrawn.

Biblical geography, of course, describes an even more distant world. Scholars debate which places named in Scripture should be matched to which present-day locations. But when Jesus tells his disciples that they will be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NRSV), the geography seems clear enough.

I have to wonder, though: is it just about geography?

For the most part, the drama of the gospels moves miracle by miracle, conflict by conflict, from north to south. The action begins in Galilee and eventually makes it way down to Jerusalem for the final showdown. John’s gospel is the exception; we already find Jesus in Jerusalem in chapter 2. This makes sense: surely Jesus made regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the feasts. But Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story in such a way that Jerusalem represents the center of opposition to Jesus and a fitting locale for the climax of the conflict.

Luke, additionally, seems to make a point of saying that when Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), he went through the region of the Samaritans, the ethnic enemies of the Jews. Thus, the geographic sequence of Jesus’ command in Acts 1 is the reverse of the sequence in Luke’s gospel. Whereas the gospel of Luke moves from Galilee through Samaria into the region of Judea and finally to the city of Jerusalem, the movement in Acts will now go the other way as the gospel goes forth to lands even further beyond.

Luke, writing as a historian, would surely appreciate such contextual details. But it seems to me that more is at stake.

One of the major themes of Acts, after all, is that the good news of God’s promised Messiah is not for the Jews alone, but for the Gentiles. Christians today may not find that particularly noteworthy, for we take for granted the outward-moving missionary work of which we have been the spiritual beneficiaries. But in biblical times, the very idea of the gospel going to the Gentiles was radical enough to cause dissent among Jesus’ followers and to require an official church council to decide the matter.

So again, I have to wonder: is it just about geography? When Jesus told his disciples that they would be his witnesses in Samaria, did they just think of Samaria as the next train stop on the campaign trail? Or did they have a visceral reaction — Of course we’ll be your witnesses, Lord…Wait, did you say Samaria???

It’s in the gospel of Luke, in the context of Jesus and his disciples traveling through Samaria, that we are given the so-called Parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37). Jesus tells the story in response to a lawyer’s attempt to save face by asking a cagey question: “Who is my neighbor?” (vs. 29). The story illustrates that the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself is fulfilled, not simply by begrudgingly being nice to people you hate (namely, Samaritans), but by accepting that the people you hate can actually be the ones you should emulate — because they may be more merciful than you.

There is a whole wide world out there that needs the gospel. But the mission is not just to people “out there” in lands unknown to us. The mission is also here, right where we are, to those we consider our own people, and especially to those we might consider enemies.

We cannot escape the logic of love in Jesus’ teaching: anyone can love their friends, but godliness is demonstrated in the love for one’s enemies (Matt 5:43-48). Similarly, the logic of Jesus’ commission is not just geographical, but spiritual. How credible is our witness to the wider world when we don’t have our own house in order, when we aren’t living in gospel newness in relation to those around us, including the neighbors we despise?

So…who are the Samaritans in your life? And what might God be calling you to do?