Of parables and policies

I’m a much poorer Christian than I wish I were. But I think I’m a pretty good interpreter of Scripture (I’ve certainly had enough training) so let’s give it a try. I’ve seen several bloggers urging particular political policies (especially in the light of the Katrina disaster) using Christian charity as their argument. For example, Making Light draws our attention to two New Testament passages. The first is the Parable of the Good Samaritan:

And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, “Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

He said unto him, “What is written in the law? how readest thou?”

And he answering said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.”

And he said unto him, “Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.”

But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

And Jesus answering said, “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, ‘Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.’

“Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?”

And he said, “He that shewed mercy on him.”

Then said Jesus unto him, “Go, and do thou likewise.”

(Luke 10:25-37)


When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

(Matthew 25:31-46)

concluding “Anyone who thinks this has nothing to do with current politics is invited to think again.” (hat tip: Brad DeLong).

I agree that caring about and for those who are clear objects for our mercy and compassion are affirmative obligations for Christians. I can give another example from Scripture:

And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?

And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments

He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,

Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.

(Matthew 19:16-21)

That’s a very high bar. That’s why Chesterton was right when he wrote that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

What Jesus did not say was that there was an affirmative obligation to hire people whose putative duty was to help the poor or people in genuine need of help. He easily could have. He could have imagined the Samaritan as, rather than binding the wounds of the man who fell among thieves, taking him to an inn himself, and pressing money on the innkeeper to take care of him, tossing a shekel at him and hurrying on his way or speeding his way to the nearest town to notify the authorities. Or, rather than saying “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” he could have said, “Petition the authorities to feed the poor and clothe the naked”.

And, in particular, I don’t think Jesus taught that paying taxes (or voting for policies that caused other people to pay taxes) to support a government which, among other things, helped the poor and those genuinely in need of help was particularly virtuous. Quite to the contrary he said “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”.

If the central issue were helping the poor and those in need of help, it might have been more effective. But that’s not what He said. He said to feel compassion and take direct action yourself and I think there’s a very different spiritual conformation and commitment required to do that.

So, should Christians vote for government policies that purport to help the poor and people in need? I’d say certainly, but only insofar as the policies actually achieve those ends not according to the aspirations that those who advocate the policies claim to have. And I also believe that in order for this to be a good and decent society we should urge others to treat people kindly and decently and advocate political policies that actually achieve those things. But none of those things in any way satisfies the Christian’s affirmative responsibility for caring for others himself in his own flesh with his own resources and his own commitment.

But, then again, I’m a poor Christian.

1 comment… add one
  • That was deftly argued, Dave.

    I also recall, albeit dimly and without being able to cite chapter and verse, that Christian Scripture inidicated that God took a dim view of charity and good works done with a view toward acquiring public notoriety. I think a Pharisee was involved as a negative example.

Leave a Comment