Jesus was an equal-opportunity party attender. He’d show up whether the host was a legalistic Pharisee or a lawbreaking tax collector. And in those days, a shared meal signified a shared life. Even more, he had long conversations with Gentiles and Samaritans, the “outsiders” of his culture. Whether in Israel or nearby Gentile lands, Jesus ministered to any kind of person he encountered.
If Jesus lived on earth today, perhaps he would spend hours in coﬀee shops in mixed neighborhoods, striking up conversations with cleaners and engineers, construction workers and law brokers.
Either way, his practices should shape our thoughts and deeds as we navigate the social, economic, and racial tensions of our day. And this requires us to take an honest look at Jesus’s stated missionand practice in the Gospels.
Mission to Outcasts
Jesus explained his goal in his first sermon, saying the Spirit of the Lord “anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor . . . to proclaim liberty to the captives” (Luke 4:18–19). Shortly afterward, he liberated a demoniac, summoned a group of fishermen, and healed a leper (Luke 4:31–5:16).
This wasn’t an auspicious group. Fishermen could have been middle-class, but lepers and demoniacs were clearly outcasts. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’s first encounters are the same as inLuke: fishermen, demoniac, and leper. But Matthew develops this theme even more.
In Matthew, after the Sermon on the Mount, great crowds follow Jesus down the mountain because they’re amazed at his teaching (Matt. 7:29–8:1). Suddenly, a leper breaks through the ranks, kneels before Jesus, and confesses, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” (Matt. 8:2).
We might imagine the crowd parting in horror as the leper—a contagious social outcast—approaches. Leprosy was considered incurable (2 Kings 5:5–8), but this leper believes Jesus has power to heal and authority to decide. Jesus meets the leper’s faith with a surprising eagerness: “I will; be clean” (Matt. 8:3).
Before anyone can swallow the first shock, a second comes when Jesus enters Capernaum—a junction of two major roads with a garrison of Roman soldiers. A credentialed centurion—leader of the group enforcing Rome’s oppressive occupation of Israel—has the audacity to beg Jesus, a Jew, for help: “Only say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Matt. 8:8).
Amazed, Jesus says he’s never found such faith in Israel. Then he heals the man (Matt. 8:5–13).
Why would Jesus start his public life this way, healing both an outcast and an oppressor? If his goal was to disappoint or antagonize his fellow Jews, he could do no better. Jesus next heals a demoniac, a paralytic, a young girl, and a chronically bleeding woman (Matt. 8:1–9:31). Even more, he calls Matthew—a tax collector who aligned himself with Rome for the sake of money—to be his disciple (Matt. 9:9).
Clearly, calling outcasts was Jesus’s plan, not a deviation from a more “sensible” strategy.
Becoming Barrier-Crossing Neighbors
Yes, Jesus loved leaders too, but typically he spent his energy on people the world had forgotten or despised (Matt. 11:19; 1 Cor. 1:26–28). He continuously loved people with whom he had no natural bonds. If we follow Jesus, then this pattern must become our own. We might not be able to heal with a touch, but we can love others by crossing barriers to become neighbors.
What does it mean to become a barrier-crossing neighbor? Jesus makes this clear when a legal expert asks, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” to which Jesus replies, “What is written in the Law?” (Luke 10:25–26). The man obliges: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
When Jesus aﬃrms this, the lawyer counters, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). In other words, “do detestable Gentiles and Samaritans count as my neighbors?” Jews publicly cursed Samaritans in the synagogue, partly because they’d desecrated the temple decades earlier. If a Samaritan oﬀered a needy Jew food or aid, the Jew was supposed to refuse and say, “Begone.”
So the lawyer probably thinks, If my fellow Jews count as neighbors and others don’t, maybe I can just love them and still gain eternal life. Jesus, knowing the man’s heart (and our own self-justifying hearts), tells a story about a man beaten and left for dead on the desolate road from Jerusalem to Jericho, passed over by a priest and Levite.
Shockingly, Jesus makes a Samaritan, not a Jew, the hero of his story. Apparently moral heroes can arise from anywhere! The Samaritan sees the wounded man, feels compassion, binds his wounds, and caresfor him at his own expense (Luke 10:30–35). Since Samaritans were a tiny sect living miles from Jericho, the robbery victim is not likely the Samaritan’s neighbor—yet the Samaritan becomes a neighbor to him.
Likewise, instead of asking who is (and isn’t) our neighbor, we should become neighbors to the needy who cross our path. If we follow Jesus, we cannot simply scan someone and conclude, “Outsider. Not my neighbor, not my problem.” We are our brother’s keeper.
Following Our Lord
Jesus says, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). Jesus’s actions in the Gospels speak a clear word against racism and socioeconomic bias. He crosses, defies, and breaks down the barriers of ethnicity, social status, and culture that separate people and foster hatred (Gal. 3:27–28; Eph. 2:11–16). His followers must do the same.
To that end, let us ask: who in our culture is like the leper, demoniac, tax collector, Gentile, and Samaritan? Drug addicts? Convicts? Undocumented immigrants? Ethnic minorities?
Will you and I seek them out and become their outcast-driven, barrier-crossing neighbors?
Dr. Dan Doriani is Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Covenant Seminary. This post was originally published at The Gospel Coalition on December 28, 2020.