One of my favorite sermon illustrations, albeit corny and perhaps even cliché by now, involves an awkward encounter between a successful businessman and a supposed homeless man in a café. It goes something like this:
A businessman orders coffee at a café during one of his free afternoons, hoping to get a lot of work done for a side project he is working on. While at the counter, he notices a special sale on cookies: “Three for $1!” Taking advantage of this great deal, the businessman grabs the package of three equally-proportioned chocolate chip cookies. He takes his belongings to a long table, and plops all of his work materials in front of him. Perhaps other customers will get the idea that I intend to be alone, he thinks.
Moments later, another man sits at the table. This new character looks much different from the businessman. He has wiry hair, a scraggly beard, dirty clothes. He also looks happy. Then, this homeless-looking man reaches into the bag of cookies sitting on the table, pulls one out, and takes a bite. The businessman, already annoyed by the unwelcome presence of this man, pulls the bag closer to himself with a disgruntled look on his face. He says nothing, but immediately pulls the second cookie from the bag. He takes a bite and notices that he wasn’t chewing on chocolate chips. Great! he thinks to himself, I ordered chocolate chip cookies, and they gave me oatmeal raisin! The businessman is growing angrier by the minute. Still smiling, the unkempt man reaches into the cookie bag, this time ripping off half of a cookie, stands up, pats the businessman’s shoulder, and leaves the café while humming a happy tune and munching on the piece of cookie. In a rage, the businessman stands up quickly to go give that cookie thief what he deserves.
As he stands, a package hits the floor. It’s a package of cookies. He slowly reaches down to pick them up, and opens it. Inside of this package are three whole chocolate chip cookies, the ones he purchased earlier. He sets them on the table next to the other package, which still had half of an oatmeal raisin cookie inside of it. In that moment, he realized that the homeless-looking man was no cookie thief at all. He sits back down, with three and a half cookies in front of him, and after thinking a while about the whole encounter, he notices that the true cookie thief was actually himself.
This story is intentionally awkward. There is no resolution. No hero who makes everything right. No final word. There is simply awkward silence. The one truly admirable character disappears before we can recognize his dignity; we have nothing left to do with him once he leaves. All we have is space to re-calibrate our senses to a thrown off reality, one wherein the businessman is deplorable and the beggared is benevolent.
Sometimes, stories include characters whose purpose is not to show us who we are supposed to be per se—though such characters might compel us to change something about ourselves or our outlooks on life. Rather, these characters exist solely to displace us from our comfortable perspectives into an awkward encounter where we are forced to reckon with an unforeseen reality.
The Good Samaritan is one such character.
The Good Samaritan, as the parabolic figure from Luke 10 has been termed, appears to be a character worth emulating. What a beautiful description of compassion, selflessness, humility, and grace this man is given by Jesus. He goes out of his way to take care of an injured victim of gang violence. When those who should have been there to help the victim simply ignored him, The Good Samaritan gives of his own time and finances to see that this helpless individual would have a successful recovery. It’s easy to see why countless sermons, Sunday school series, and VBS lessons have focused on The Good Samaritan as a role-model for building up our own moral character. In fact, Jesus even tells the Jewish lawyer, the original recipient of this story, to do as The Good Samaritan does (v. 37).
It would be nice to be like The Good Samaritan.
But you are not The Good Samaritan—at least, the point of this story is not for you to see yourself as The Good Samaritan. Rather, The Good Samaritan is that awkward character who forces a law-loving Jewish man to reconsider what qualifications legislate who truly is ones’ neighbor, and thus ones’ responsibilities to love that neighbor.
Let’s revisit the story from Luke 10:25–37:
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘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.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “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. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 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. 35 The next day he took out two denarii 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.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
The law expert asks, “Who is my neighbor?” This could imply, “What qualifications might someone define when considering the neighbor whom God expects him or her to love?” Perhaps he was waiting for Jesus to respond with geographic parameters: “Your neighbor is the one who lives within 100 feet of your place of residence,” or, “Your neighbor is the one who lives within your borders.” Maybe he was waiting for Jesus to respond with social parameters: “Your neighbor is the one who looks like you,” or, “shares your interests,” or, “owns a home as large as yours,” or, “belongs to your tribe,” or, “is a member of your religious community.”
Jesus gives no such parameters. He sets them up—he grabs your attention with them—but then he breaks those barriers down. The priest and the Levite, Jews who probably would have fit in nicely at the synagogue of Jesus’ questioner and who would have held up a good conversation with him concerning the Torah, are the very individuals who get the boot in Jesus’ qualifications for neighborliness. Why? Because neighborly love is not within them. As it turns out, the true neighbor of this story is the the one who may have lived farther away and looked further off from the ones you would have expected to be the neighbor. In other words, those who estranged the victim were those familiar to him, while the stranger of the victim was familial to him.
Instead of asking, “How am I like The Good Samaritan?” this story is gearing you to ponder, “Who is my neighbor?” which lends itself to, “Whom does God expect me to love?” And if your mind takes you to legal, geographical, social, or even religious qualifications, stop right there and remember what the awkward encounter of this story implies. Your neighbor is not based on these things.
You are not The Good Samaritan, much like the Jewish law expert in this story is not The Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan is the awkward encounter with reality that forces him (and us) to understand the world differently.
The Good Samaritan shows you that asking, “Who is my neighbor?” is the wrong sort of question. The correct question sounds something more like, “How can I be a neighbor?” The admirable character of this parable is a reminder that neighbors are found in the ones we least expect. True neighbors are ones who become neighbors to the neighbor-less.
This might be the very person you hate. Or the person who hates you.
This might be the pagan who disgusts you. Or the pagan who is disgusted by you.
This might be the criminal, the fool, the gun advocate, the snowflake, the Republican, the Democrat, the immigrant, or the Muslim.*
These are your neighbors. Go and do likewise.
*The Good Criminal, The Good Fool, The Good Gun Advocate, The Good Snowflake, The Good Republican, The Good Democrat, The Good Immigrant, The Good Muslim.