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What Makes Us Who We Are?

Gracie was around ten weeks old when we adopted her. We had gone looking for an older dog, not a puppy. An abandoned or discarded former pet less likely to be welcomed into someone else’s home. But that’s not how things worked out.

Gracie did not jostle with the rest of the pack to get our attention and affection. Instead she lay off to one side, curled in a ball, alone and sleeping. She seemed to me to have given up, having been passed over again and again for cuter, more enthusiastic dogs.

While she was still sleeping I scooped her up and held her for a bit. Then Joy cuddled her against her chest. That’s how this little black, mixed-breed dog joined our family. We loved her from the start.

Out of curiosity we bought a doggie-DNA kit to learn about her past. The results told us that she’s a mix of retriever, hound, terrier, and cattle dog. But we’ve never been interested in establishing her pedigree. For us, she’s just one of a kind. She’s Gracie.

By contrast, bloodline is important to people wanting to show and to breed dogs. The bloodline should be pure. There shouldn’t be a Bulldog hidden somewhere in a Sheltie’s lineage. Then they’re nothing more than mixed breeds. Mutts. They will never be admitted to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Bloodline is an antiquated way to express what we now know as DNA. But once upon a time we talked about dog breeds in terms of the kind of blood running through their veins. And some blood was held to be better than others.

As ghastly as it is to admit, many people have until very recently thought in chillingly similar terms about our fellow human beings.

For instance, in 1935 the Nazi Party established the Nuremberg Laws. These statutes stripped anyone with a sufficient amount of Jewish blood of all rights as a citizen. You were a Jew if your bloodline included three or four Jewish grandparents. Eventually, this led to the gas chambers and to the near extermination of the Jews of Europe.

Closer to home, some of our states passed legislation using blood to define race. The notorious one-drop rule held that even a single drop of “Negro blood” sufficed to classify someone as “colored.” In Louisiana a law repealed in 1983 stated that a person can be considered white if they have 1/32 or less of “Negro blood.”

The question of bloodline in such states was more than a matter of ancestral curiosity. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, being black could legally bar a person from voting and exclude them from public bathrooms and water fountains as well as restaurants and hotels. Your legal racial classification could be found on your birth certificate.

We have used some version of bloodlines to say that some people are better than others. This has been more than a matter of the personal prejudice and hateful ignorance of individuals. Laws and the power of the state and common business practices give some people a leg up and put others at a disadvantage.

As it turns out, Jesus confronted bloodline-thinking in his own day. For instance, Luke tells us that, on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus passed through a village along the border of Galilee and Samaria. At the outskirts of town he healed ten lepers. 

Adhering to scriptural protocol, he sent all of them to the priest. Only a priest had the authority to pronounce them clean and to restore them from outcast status to normal life among their neighbors.

One of those lepers raced back to thank Jesus. He said, “Why look! Only one of the people I healed took the time to thank me. And what you know! It’s a Samaritan.”

Readers can reasonably draw a lesson about gratitude from this story. After all, Jesus himself takes the man’s gratefulness as an expression of his robust, exemplary faith. But Jesus wants us to notice not so much the gratitude as who is being grateful. It’s a Samaritan.

You see, Samaritans were the remnant of the Northern Kingdom. After David’s and Solomon’s united Israel had been divided into two separate Kingdoms—Israel in the north and Judah in the south—the Assyrians conquered the north. They scattered many of its citizens and intermarriage with other ethnic groups became common.

In other words, many residents of Judah looked askance at the bloodline of the Samaritans. They were half-breeds. Not the true children of God. So when Jesus praises the Samaritan’s faith and virtue, the disciples would have heard something like this:

Each of us is one of a kind, and yet we all belong to one bloodline. God’s love makes you the true child of God. Not where you grew up. Not who your parents were. Not the language you speak or the color of your skin. And God loves everybody. So we’re all God’s children. Now let’s start acting like it.

Friends I’m on vacation in October, so I’ll be posting previously published essays each Friday based on the Lectionary for the coming Sunday. This one first appeared October 11, 2019. It was later included in Looking for God in Messy Places: A Book About Hope. Click here to learn more and get a copy. I’ll be posting new stuff again in November (and maybe even some sneak peeks of my next book). As always, you can click the contact page of my site to schedule an event with me in-person or via Zoom.

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