Jesus lived in a land filled with prejudices

Many in Galilee disliked the Samaritans, and the feeling was mutual. Even the way they worshipped and their holy sites were different.

Sep 25, 2021

By Anil Netto

Recently, I watched an old video clip from 1958, in which a panel of youth speakers from Southeast Asia, including then-Malaya, and a few from Europe, were interviewed about their views on people of other ethnic groups and the foreigners they had encountered.

The youths’ blatant prejudices – not only ethnic but class prejudices – were appalling and cringeworthy. When one or two of the young speakers recounted the rude behaviour of people of a particular ethnic group whom they had encountered, other speakers from that ethnic group countered by saying that not all people of that ethnic group were like that: that uncouth person the other speakers had met was probably someone from a “lower class” of that ethnic group! In many countries, systemic or even institutionalised racism prevails. This is not something that is easily dispelled.

In Malaysia, we are no strangers to such ethnic, religious and even class prejudice.

Even during the time of Jesus, people had their own prejudices.

Many in Galilee disliked the Samaritans, and the feeling was mutual. Even the way they worshipped and their holy sites were different.

People despised or looked down on the tax collectors, the “unclean”, those on the lower rungs of society, the prostitutes…. People with leprosy were ostracised by society (much like how people with COVID these days are shunned?).

The occupying Roman officials probably looked down on the people of Judea and Galilee as a troublesome lot.

Men viewed women and children as having a lesser role in society back then.

Rivalry brewed between Galilee in the north, which had a cosmopolitan historical background, and Judea in the south, which was more religiously conservative or ‘pure’.

Lower Galilee had rich fertile farmlands, irrigated by underground springs. Because of this, the area had waves of settlers, traders and invaders over the centuries, including Canaanite farmers and herders from Mesopotamia and Syria, the Israelite settlers, the Assyrian settlers, Persian officials, Phoenician traders ...

Hellenistic influence (Greek culture) crept into the land as Alexander the Great and his generals ruled neighbouring countries. A busy trade route also passed through Galilee, subjecting it to even more foreign influence.

But earlier, David had chosen Jerusalem in Judea as a holy site for the nation, fuelling resentment with the Galileans in the north, who probably felt they had their own sacred sites.

Later, when the Temple of Jerusalem was rebuilt, officials set about ridding the area of foreign influences. Even the neighbouring Samaritans were denied involvement in the rebuilding effort. Judea was turned into a theocratic state governed by a priestly elite until 6 AD, when it fell under direct Roman rule.

Over in Galilee in the north, Jesus and his followers in Nazareth and Capernaum, largely Jewish, lived close to cities and towns with Greek influence like Sepphoris, Tiberias and the towns of the Decapolis. Jesus himself spoke Aramaic (though he probably was familiar with Hebrew and some Greek).

Many of the people of Judea in the south would have regarded the northerners from Galilee as living in a land ‘contaminated’ with foreign influences and pagan cultures.

When Jesus and his largely northern band of followers from Galilee entered Judea and the cauldron of the Temple, they had to contend with such prejudices.

People from cities of importance like Caesar Mauritima and Jerusalem in Judea must have felt a class above the fisherfolk, farmers and artisans from the north, viewing the Galileans as ‘country cousins’ or ‘country bumpkins’.Even the latter's Galilean dialect or accent probably made them stand out in Jerusalem.

We can almost hear the condescending, if not contemptuous, tone of the bystanders in the courtyard of the high priest: “You are certainly one of them! Why, you are a Galilean” (Mark 14:70).

Even Jesus was not spared from prevailing prejudices, even in Galilee. “From Nazareth? Can anything good come from that place?' (John 1:46). How could Nazareth, an almost anonymous hamlet subjected to Roman and Greek influences from the nearby city of Sepphoris, bring forth a Messiah? The Romans had even razed Sepphoris to the ground in 4BC following a tax revolt, its people sold to slavery.

How could anything good come from that ‘God-forsaken’ area, even if Herod Antipas was rebuilding the city?

Prejudice was not confined to people of other faiths. Even the new Christians had to grapple with Gentile converts. Could they become Christians directly or did they first have to adopt Jewish customs such as circumcision before becoming Christians? Eventually they settled for the former, but not without heated argument.

Jesus, through his ministry, was constantly breaking down such prejudices and barriers, every step of the way.

Women were among his band of followers. He defended the children. He spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well. He healed the Roman centurion’s servant. He dined with tax collectors and prostitutes. He spent his time mainly in Galilee, a region ‘contaminated’ by foreign influences. He related the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the foreigner turned out to be the ‘good guy’. He cited passages from Scripture which showed God favouring foreigners, for which he was hounded out of town.

As Christians living in a multicultural society, we must constantly check our own personal prejudices. Jesus came to show us we are all children of the one God. Ethnic and religious prejudices should have no place in our heart. After all, we are all human beings, created and loved by the Father.

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