All followers of Christ the Messiah are called to a life of unity and fellowship. We are one body, and one building—the holy temple of God. Jesus is the “chief cornerstone” of this temple, and it is through his death on the cross that our unity is possible. Just as the tabernacle was God’s way of dwelling among his people, so too will we be holy tabernacles filled by his spirit when we are reconciled with each other and learn to love each other as brothers and sisters.
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. John 17:20–23
Jesus prayed for our unity while he was on earth, that we would be one, just as he was one with God. When we are united, we bring glory to God, and our unity is a declaration of God’s victory to the whole world. To the world it will not make sense; how can Israelis and Palestinians love each other? How can they be one? But God delights in confounding our expectations. After all, “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:18). It is important to note that Jesus prayed for us, asking “that they may be one as we are one.” As we attempt to develop a theology of reconciliation, we should keep this in mind and be optimistic about the possibilities of shaping a positive future relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Jesus himself prayed for our success, and through our unity the heavens and the earth will know that the Lord is God.
As we have seen in this curriculum, reconciliation is a long, slow process with many different facets. Some of the topics we have covered have dealt with issues that relate to all conflicts, and some of them have been more specifically focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the issues covered in those chapters (and in the whole curriculum) are important, in this chapter we will attempt to outline a more comprehensive theological framework for reconciliation. This is a work in progress, and it is important that you as the teachers, group leaders and group facilitators know that you are doing groundbreaking work. It is up to you to write the future pages of this story. This chapter, and the entire curriculum, will hopefully be a helpful guide to this process.
One of the most important parts of developing a theology of reconciliation is doing the groundwork. If we come together and we are not prepared, the results could be disastrous; we might clash with each other and end up even further apart. We need to be prepared for the pain and anger that we feel and that they other side feels. One of the most important things to remember in preparation is awareness. We have to be aware of ourselves, and of each other. This is something which we have tired to highlight throughout the course of this curriculum. We need to be aware of the history of our conflict, and of the different historical narratives. We need to be aware of the different issues that divide us, and the reasons behind them. Furthermore, as we are approaching reconciliation from a theological standpoint, we need to be aware of our biblical hermeneutics, since it influences the way we think about each other and ourselves.
Many of these preparations have already been discussed. In chapter 8 we discussed the importance of history and historical narratives. This is vitally important, but we will only briefly touch on it here. First and foremost, we need to learn the history of the conflict. This involves a real investment of time and study, but it is crucial. We need to know our own historical narrative, and the historical narrative of the other side. Most importantly however, we need to be aware of the fact that our interpretation of history is limited. This will help us as we meet together, because it will cause us to be humble towards each other, recognizing that no one knows the whole story or sees the whole picture.
It is also important to be aware of the different political and theological issues which divide our two communities. We have covered some of these topics in previous chapters (such as justice, prophecy and the land in chapter 10, and election, covenant and sovereignty in chapter 16), but there are other issues as well. We need to learn as much as we can about these things, looking at them from every angle possible, and focus in on why they are divisive and controversial in order that we can take the next step and explore how to resolve them How do they divide us and why? As we develop our awareness of these subjects, we need to remember that our approach should be humble, no matter how passionate we are. Our perspective is limited, and we only see the issue from one point of view. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:12, we cannot see from God’s perspective until we are with God and know God fully. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (emphasis ours).
This sense of our own limited perception should be drawn into the way we understand and interpret scripture. This is difficult for most people, as we all think that our own interpretation of scripture is the “correct” interpretation, especially when we feel that God has given us insight or wisdom concerning his word. But the truth is, all of us approach the Bible from a very particular perspective; none of us read the word of God in a vacuum, and our interpretation is influenced by many different factors: our age, gender, ethnicity, family, friends, nationality, etc. This is also true of Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians. Both communities have developed very specific hermeneutical approaches to the scriptures, and both ground much of their identity, legitimacy and self-worth on their reading of the Bible.
First and foremost, we need to be aware and critical of our hermeneutical perspective on the Bible, learn what it is and where it comes from and identify what influences our perspective. This is a significant and difficult step. Once we come to understand that our perspective is one of many, it will be much easier for us to accept the perspective of someone else. This does not mean that we have to abandon our own views, but it does encourage us to approach the scripture and each other in humility.
In our preparation for the journey of reconciliation, we also need to develop a hermeneutic of reconciliation. If we approach the scripture together, it will mean something different to us than if we approach it separately. The Bible is clear on this point; we are commanded to dwell in unity and community, and we are called to be reconciled with God and with each other. 1 John 4:20 says, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” Coming to the scripture together, as Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians, acts as a sign of our love for each other, and a sign of our fellowship. We may not agree on what the scriptures mean exactly, but if we read together in love and with sensitivity towards each other, God will bless us. Our fellowship is a sign of God’s victory over sin and death, and we must lay all of our concerns at the feet of the cross.
Even if we are well prepared, the road to reconciliation is never an easy one but we are able to be hopeful for it because of what God has already achieved through Jesus. God has not called us to an impossible task. Perfect unity in the Messiah will never happen on earth as long as it is governed by a humanity that is wicked and bent on destruction, but the God of the universe has given us a mandate to work towards reconciliation. As Jesus said, “Everything is possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23).
In this curriculum we have already explored the biblical principles of reconciliation. But it is also important to remember that reconciliation is also needed for a very practical reason. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there has been a lot of pain and death on both sides. There is a great store of hatred and a desire for revenge. On the political level, peace negotiations have been taking place for years, but they have made little headway in mending intergroup relationships and establishing a culture of peace and tolerance. Daniel Philpott, a professor of Peace Studies, writes that the forms of peace-making often favored by international organizations, works towards the prosecution of war criminals and the building up of liberal institutions, liberal democracies and free markets.1 What it does not do, however, is deal with hatred, anger and cycles of revenge. Reconciliation is a much more holistic method of peace-building. While it often includes many of the same tenets, such as championing human rights and liberal democracy, reconciliation primarily works towards restoring relationships and redressing wounds created by conflict. This is why it is important, and this is why we must develop a theology of reconciliation. Our politicians may find a way to a negotiated settlement, but they will never find true peace unless we introduce the healing power of God into the process.
As we have already seen in chapter 3, the cross plays a very significant role in the theology of reconciliation, because it is the cross that frees us from the burden of sin and acts as the climax of salvation history. The cross is the greatest demonstration of God’s love for us, and ends the enmity between humanity and God which first began with Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden. In this way, the entire biblical narrative is the story of reconciliation between God and his creation. We are reconciled to God through the grace of the cross. 1 John 4:9–10 states this clearly, saying, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
But this reconciliation is meaningless outside of a social reconciliation with our brothers and sisters. The very next verse declares, “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). Our reconciliation with God is dependant on our reconciliation with each other, just as our reconciliation with each other would be impossible without our reconciliation with God. This dual understanding of reconciliation is also seen in Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees who came to question him (Matt. 22:34–40). One of them, “an expert in the law,” asked him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus answered him, saying “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
In this passage, the first commandment to love God is related to our reconciliation with God. The second commandment, to love our neighbors, is related to our reconciliation with each other. Significantly, Jesus says that the two commandments are alike, and that all of the Law and the Prophets hang on them. He could not do more to emphasize the importance of these two principles, and we cannot ignore them without also ignoring one of the most foundational aspects of his message: we are to be reconciled with each other through him.
The cross is central in drawing this dual reconciliation together. In The Crucified God, the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote:
The cross is not and cannot be loved. Yet only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes the world because it is no longer afraid of death. In his time the crucified Christ was regarded as a scandal and foolishness. Today, too, it is considered old fashioned to put him in the centre of the Christian faith and of theology. Yet only when men are reminded to him . . . can they be set free from the power of the facts of the present time, and from the laws and compulsions of history, and be offered a future which will never grow dark again.
The cross is able to radically transform the world in ways that may seem impossible to us. For most people, reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians sounds foolish and naïve, or even scandalous, just as it was foolish for Christ to offer himself as a sacrifice for our sins. If we are willing to submit to the cross, and lay down our cares in its shadow, God will use us to bring about his transformation.
As Israelis and Palestinians we have many different reasons to suspect each other, and we have talked at length about the issues of justice, the fulfillment of prophecy and the land. All of these issues are important, and must be dealt with, but none of them are as important as our fellowship together. They cannot be more important to us than the cross and all that the cross means for us as followers of Christ. If these issues become so important to us that they prevent us from having fellowship with each other, then we have raised them above the cross and we are guilty of idolatry.
This is seen in the life of Peter. In Acts 11:14–18 Peter was criticized for having fellowship with the “uncircumcised,” the non-Jews. He responded by explaining the vision he had seen, in Acts 10:9–16, when God showed him the unclean food. The meaning of the vision was clear; all who believe in the Messiah are a part of the body; none are unclean. Exclusion is no longer an option after the action Jesus took on the cross. Later, in Galatians 2:11–21 Peter and Paul are in Antioch. Peter sat and ate with his new brothers and sisters, even though they were not Jews. However, when other Jews came to Antioch, Peter “began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles” (v. 12). Paul rebuked Peter for this hypocrisy, and spoke out against this kind of exclusion.
As a result of the pressure he felt from his own people, Peter stumbled in this situation. We always feel pressure to exclude those who are different, the stranger and outsider, especially when we are in a conflict. For Peter, the failure was particularly hypocritical because he, more than anyone, should have been able to overcome this pressure. After all, God had given him a vision and spoken to him personally on this very issue. We can understand from Peter’s failure that it is hard to stand up for one’s convictions; it is not easy to resist the pressure. We also see from this passage that our actions matter. What we do counts and can influence others, either positively or negatively. Peter was a leader and was closely watched to see which side he would take in the debate, and as a result of his weakness, “the other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray” (Gal. 2:13).
In this story we see two communities with theological, even political disagreements. The problem was not that they disagreed with each other, for it is not a sin to disagree on theological or political grounds. The problem was that they allowed their disagreements to stand in the way of fellowship. Once they did this, they were in disobeying God’s will, and his commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39).
One of the reasons fellowship can be so difficult is that we define ourselves in opposition to others. Our identity, as either a Jew or a Palestinian, is so central to our understanding of who we are, and so important to our sense of self-worth, that we hold on to it with all of our might. But this is something else that we have to be ready to lay down in the shadow of the cross. The issue of identity is dealt with in Ephesians 2.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Eph. 2:13–18)
Jesus came, and we have been “brought near” to God by his blood. Jesus himself “is our peace,” and he has “made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (vv. 13–14). We also see from this passage that this reconciliation is due to the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, for “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (vv. 15–16). When we put our old identity in the shadow of the cross, Jesus is able to take us and create “one new humanity” out of us. Though we were divided, we are now one!
This does not mean that our unique identities should fade away, or blend into one colorless, bland uniformity. We retain our distinctiveness, even as we become one body. We can think of it like marriage between a man and a woman. Through the sacred bonds of marriage, they are joined together and become one, but they still retain their distinctive qualities as male and female. The Bible shows us that this diversity is pleasing to God. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to the disciples who began to speak in the languages of the tribes and nations present in the city, “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:9–11).
God wants us to celebrate our identity, and he desires that, “All the nations” he has made “will bring glory” to his name (Psalm 86:9). We should be proud of who we are, and as Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians, we both have a rich heritage to draw on. But our identities should never be allowed to prevent our fellowship and unity. We must retain our identities, but remember that our primary identity is in God, and our loyalty is to him first and foremost. He is our ultimate heritage, and “he himself is our peace” (v. 14).
Later on in Ephesians we see that God has called us to fight. We are in a conflict, and must arm ourselves for battle, but our battle is not against each other, nor any “flesh and blood,” but “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Our unity in Christ is a declaration to the heavens that God has won the victory. “Therefore” we must “put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Eph. 6:13). In this struggle, we are assured the victory; the only way we can suffer defeat is if we allow our differences to keep us from unity.
Conclusion: The Good Samaritan
When we look at the life and teachings of Jesus, the message of reconciliation stands out very prominently. In Matthew, we saw Jesus define the two greatest commandments, and how they relate to reconciliation. First we are to love God (reconciliation with God), and second we are to love our neighbor (reconciliation with each other). The first command is straightforward; we know we are supposed to love God. But the second is a bit more complicated. We know we are supposed to love our neighbor, but who is our neighbor? What did this commandment mean for Jesus and his followers? Thankfully, Jesus was asked this very question, so we can look at his answer and know what it meant to him, which will give us a good idea about what it means for us today.
In Luke 10:25–37, we find the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus was approached by a man who asked him what he should do to inherit eternal life.
“What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?”
To this the man, an “expert in the law” after all, responds “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But the man was not satisfied with this answer. He asked Jesus to clarify. “Who is my neighbor?” he asked.
Jesus responded with this parable:
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.
When he finished telling his story, Jesus asked the man, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The man replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
In order to understand this parable, it is important to know a little bit about the historical setting in which Jesus lived and taught. In that time, there was a huge theological and political conflict between the Samaritans and the Jews. They lived side by side, but they were enemies, totally separate and cut off from each other. They had separate towns and villages, and separate Temples for worship. They also disagreed over the origins of the Samaritan people. The Samaritans claimed that they were the original, indigenous people and survivors of the Assyrian invasion in 722 BC which destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel and deported much of its population back to Assyria. The Judeans believed that the Samaritans were originally from Babylon, and were settled by the Assyrian King to repopulate the region.
There is proof of this hostility between the Judeans and the Samaritans in the Bible. Matthew 10:5 states, “Do not go among the Gentiles, or enter any town of the Samaritan.” Similarly John 4:9 states, “Jews do not associate with Samaritans” in order to make it clear why it was so out of the ordinary that Jesus was talking to a Samaritan woman. In this context, Samaritans were certainly not considered neighbors; they were viewed with suspicion at best, and usually as dangerous outsiders.
When the man asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” he was asking a question with the intent of excluding some people. His assumption was that some people are his neighbors, and others are not. In essence, he is asking “What are the limits of my responsibilities towards others?” He knew that he was obliged to treat his fellow Jews as neighbors, but he wanted to know how far this obligation extended. He may have anticipated an answer like “Your neighbors are your fellow Jews” or “Your neighbors are those who believe like you.” But he was certainly not expecting the answer Jesus gave him.
The parable Jesus told was radical for three reasons. First, the man who was left half dead on the side of the road was stripped of all his clothing. There would have been no easy way to identify him as a Jew or a Samaritan, or anyone else. This automatically challenges the assumed categorization established by the “expert in the law” who asked Jesus the question. Maybe there are some people who are our neighbors and some who are not, but in this situation there was no easy way to tell. The priest and the Levite must have assumed that he was not a fellow Jew, and thus not their neighbor. They walk by him and leave him in his suffering.
Second, by bringing a Samaritan into the discussion, Jesus moves the conversation from an inter-communal discussion on obligation, to a universal discussion on compassion and love. The fact that a Samaritan helped the man when the priest and the Levite did not, immediately defeats any notion of ethnic or national superiority. Also, the priest and the Levite (and the expert in the law) were basing their action on what they assumed to be their legal obligation, but the Samaritan was different. He was moved by “pity” and rather than a sense of legal obligation.
Third, Jesus ends his parable by asking the expert in the law a question of his own. The man had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus asks, “Who was his neighbor?” The man was thinking of himself, and when he first heard the story he probably imagined himself as the beaten, dying man. But Jesus turns this thinking on its head, and forces the man to imagine himself as one of the three passersby. “Which of these three was this man’s real neighbor?”
The message of Jesus’ teaching is one that has meaning for us today, especially for those of us who live in a conflict setting. Our identities based on gender, ethnicity, language, culture or belief must give way to a more inclusive identity in the Messiah. This is particularly true for communities like ours, Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians, who are in conflict with each other. The guiding principles of our engagement with others must be built on moral and ethical behavior, and not conditional on agreement. We are called to turn towards those we are in conflict with and embrace them, just as Esau embraced Jacob (Gen. 33:4) and the Father embraced the prodigal son (Luke 15:20). We must be moved by compassion and love to be neighbors to each other. Israelis must embrace Palestinians, and Palestinians must embrace Israelis. This is God’s command to us, our challenge and our calling.
Esler, Philip F. “Jesus and the Reduction of Intergroup Conflict: The Parable of the Good Samaritan in the Light of Social Identity Theory.” In Biblical Interpretation 8 (2000): 325–357.
Moltmann, Jüngen. The Crucified God. London: SCM Press, 2001.
Philpott, Daniel. “An Ethic of Political Reconciliation.” In Ethics and International
Affairs 23 (2009): 389–407.