Eons ago—okay it was the sixties—Dr. Thomas A. Harris wrote a hugely popular book called I’m Okay—You’re Okay. Harris’s bestseller claimed there are four primary approaches to relationships. The preferred one, of course, is the title of the book.
Harris’s well-intentioned work eventually became fodder for parody, but it&rquo;s worth considering the merits of his ideas. Is it healthy and helpful to view ourselves and others as okay?
What would Jesus say about that?
People tend to think of Jesus as the world’s nicest guy. He’s certainly “okay” in their book. But if we take a close look at the work and words of Jesus, we find he isn’t what we’d call nice. The stories he told had a way of saying, “You’re not okay.” Jesus ruffled feathers. He got under people’s skin.
He gets under my skin.
One such story is among his most popular: the parable of the Good Samaritan. The scene begins when “an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus” (Luke 10:25). This man’s expertise was in the law as established by the Jewish Scriptures and interpreted by the rabbis. Almost certainly he was well respected in Israel. He poses a simple yet timeless question: “What should I do to inherit eternal life?”
Luke, the narrator, gives us a behind-the-scenes insight that the legal expert has ulterior motives. He’s testing Jesus. The Master Storyteller, however, saw it coming and replied with a couple of questions of his own: “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?” (v. 26).
Nice counterpunch, Jesus! Make the lawyer interpret the law he knows so well.
The man was up to the challenge. Quoting the law directly, he gave the correct answer: “Love the Lord your God will all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.” He was careful to add, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 27). Bonus points!
Jesus gave him credit for his good answer and told him, “Do this and you will live” (v. 28). It’s then that we get to see the real lawyer. Luke lets us know that the man “wanted to justify his actions” (v. 29). What actions? We don’t know for certain. One possibility is that he harbored guilt over certain people he didn’t love—certain people who might possibly qualify as neighbors. Best to be sure.
So, doing what lawyers do, he requested a definition of the terms: “And who is my neighbor?” We can file this query under the category “looking for loopholes.”
The lawyer was probably trying to paint Jesus into a corner where he could easily manage him. He may have thought, If Jesus doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer, I’ve exposed a flaw in his reasoning. And if he does give me a good definition, I will possess clearly defined parameters within which I can attain eternal life. Because surely if anyone qualifies, I do.
But Jesus didn’t give him a definition that narrowed the category. Rather, he expanded it with his now familiar story. Let’s review the principal characters:
1) A Jewish man (the victim) traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho.
2) Jewish priest.
3) Temple assistant (also Jewish).
4) A “despised Samaritan.”
As the parable unfolds, it quickly becomes apparent that the two people most likely to follow the law scrupulously are not neighbors to their unfortunate countryman. Instead, it’s the “despised Samaritan” who stops to help—and he goes above and beyond in caring for the victim. Jesus, having set his trap for the lawyer, asks another question: “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” (v. 36).
Up to this point in his life, the lawyer has been sure of his reasons to despise the Samaritans. He knew their origins. He knew that the great Jewish leader Nehemiah, who led the rebuilding of the Temple in the fifth century BC, had banished a man for intermarrying with the Samaritans (see Nehemiah 13:28). At that time the Samaritans had already earned a reputation of mixing idolatry with their worship of God. It only got worse from there. They rejected a large portion of the Jewish Scriptures and didn’t go to the Temple in Jerusalem. The centuries-old hatred between the two groups was mutual. Jews and Samaritans did not associate with each other and preferred not to even see each other.
So steeped in his racism was this expert in the law, that he couldn’t even bring himself to identify “the Samaritan” as the hero of the story. Grudgingly he answered Jesus, “The one who had mercy on him” (v. 37).
Jesus’s point goes straight to the heart of the man’s biggest problem. He thinks he’s okay. He’s not. Jesus has clearly exposed his lack of love.
We might be tempted to blast the man for his racism and his religious elitism. But that isn’t what Jesus would want us to do. He wants us to see ourselves in the story—in the indifferent priest, in the Temple assistant who wouldn’t help, and in the one to whom Jesus told the story.
We usually don’t recognize racial or prejudicial attitudes in ourselves because we know our presuppositions are right. The legal expert “knew” that Samaritans were bad. He didn’t need to state his racial prejudice out loud by calling them half-breeds. He could easily fall back on the “right” religious reasons to despise the Samaritans.
Let’s bring this idea of the Good Samaritan closer to home. Think of the political side you most despise. (Perhaps you despise both sides equally.) Or choose any class of people you simply don’t like because of their long track record of bad behavior. Now imagine the Good Samaritan as one of them. Uncomfortable? Does it change your perspective? That’s exactly what Jesus was doing. Using the power of story, Jesus grabbed him by the robe and shook up his worldview. He wasn’t okay! He wasn’t even close.
You know what? I’m not okay either. I need help to see the world as my neighborhood, even—especially—the people from categories I deem unworthy of my time and attention.
Ultimately, we’re all in this together, because, at the heart of it all, we’re all not okay. And that’s okay! Jesus is showing us a new and better way.
Don’t ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Instead, be the neighbor!