In March of 1959 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, were visiting Israel. They rented a car and decided to take a trip from Jerusalem to Jericho. While they were en route, Dr. King began to reflect out loud on the significance of the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan.
In Jesus’ parable, a man traveling on the road to Jericho is waylaid by robbers: he is mugged, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road. Not long after, some priests happen to walk by. Seeing the man left for dead, they simply pass on by. Later a Samaritan, who has little social clout and standing in the first century, passes by on the same road. When the Samaritan sees the man left for dead, he comes down from his own donkey and moves towards this man in his great need. He bandages his wounds, pouring oil and wine over him for medicinal purposes. He then brings the man to an inn where he can recover. Finally, the Samaritan gives the innkeeper some money and says, “Look after him, and when I return I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”
As Dr. King recounted this story with his wife, he noted the fundamental difference between the priests and the Samaritan. When the priests walked by and saw the man lying for dead, they asked themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Maybe the robbers were still around. Maybe the priests were afraid of becoming religiously unclean. Maybe they didn’t want to be late for an appointment. Whatever their reasons, they applied a cost-benefit analysis to the situation, and immediately concluded that the cost of moving towards this man exceeded any potential benefit they would receive. They demonstrated an attitude of self-preservation in the midst of need, and so the priests passed on by.
But, as Dr. King noted, when the Samaritan came along and saw the man left for dead he asked a completely different question: “If I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” There’s no cost-benefit analysis there. He demonstrated an attitude of self-sacrifice for the good of someone else. It was very costly for the Samaritan to move towards this man in need: it literally cost him time and money, and it was a potential risk to his personal safety. Knowing what it would cost, he chose to put the needs of another in front of his own.
Why does this matter today?
One of the distinctive features of networking and relationship-building is the tendency to approach nearly all relationships through the lens of our own cost-benefit analysis. Whether it’s a colleague, a friend, a church to attend, or even a romantic relationship, we are constantly and implicitly trying to discern if the benefits of a potential relationship will exceed the costs. If a relationship appears to be too challenging, if the needs are too great, if the person’s problems are too demanding, we don’t commit.
The message of Christmas means that Jesus knew what it would cost to meet us in our need and he chose to come anyways. At Christmas Jesus came down and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). The “us” John has in mind is a world filled with needy and broken people.
At Christmas, Jesus came to meet our need—our sin—with overwhelming grace. Christmas means that Jesus Christ is the ultimate Good Samaritan who came down, not from his donkey, but from the cosmos, to meet us in our need. He did so not merely risking his life, but giving it up in self-sacrifice. It cost him everything to be with us, yet he became man and went to the cross with joy (Heb 12:1-2). How might this good news of Christmas shape our lives today?
Once the message of Christmas begins to be rooted in our lives, one of the implications is that we become free to move towards others in their brokenness and suffering, because that’s what Jesus did for us. When we are confronted with needs around us, Christmas frees us from asking, “What will this cost me?” so that we can begin to ask, “How will this serve someone else?” By the power of the Spirit, becoming a Christmas people means growing out of our need to constantly evaluate relationships in terms of costs and benefits, and beginning to move towards others with grace and compassion.
Can you imagine what it would look like if Christians and churches became a Christmas people? Imagine the beauty of a community that lived together and served the world not in terms of costs and benefits, but from a posture of eagerness to share radical grace and mercy with one another, all as a response for what God in Christ has done for us.
In a Christmas sermon on Philippians 2, B.B. Warfield called Christians to imitate the incarnation. Towards the end of the sermon, after highlighting the wonders of the doctrine of the incarnation, Warfield makes this application:
“Self-sacrifice brought Christ into the world. And self-sacrifice will lead us, his followers, not away from but into the midst of men. Wherever men suffer, there will we be to comfort. Wherever men strive, there will we be to help. Wherever men fail, there will we be to uplift. Wherever men succeed, there will we be to rejoice. Self-sacrifice means not indifference to our times and our fellows: it means absorption into them. It means forgetfulness of self in others. It means not that we should live one life, but a thousand lives—binding ourselves to a thousand souls by so loving them that their lives become ours.”
What would our world look look like if the message of Christmas took root in our hearts and produced people who lived like this in our homes, our churches, and our neighborhoods? It would be beautiful, like light shining in the darkness. And it’s made possible because this is how God in Christ moved towards us on that first Christmas day.
This article was first published on the Rooted blog on December 26, 2017.