Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Basics 3: Loving Mercy

Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.

Three passages encapsulate the biblical view of compassion: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). And the parable of the Good Samaritan: “He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said” (Luke 10:34–35)

In each case, one (a) motivated by love gave (b) his own resources (c) for the (eternal) benefit of another. All three aspects are important. God looks at the heart, and anyone who gives out of selfish motives is sinning (1 Cor 13:3). The Good Samaritan could have caught the priest or the Levite and forced them to take care of the mugging victim, but Jesus makes a point of emphasizing that the man used “his own” donkey (and so presumably his own oil, wine, and silver coins, not to mention his time and effort). Finally, God sent his Son, not so we could build a Christian America or live our present lives under our own vines and fig trees, but so that we would know eternal life even if it meant an early death.

Given that definition of compassion, can government be compassionate? Can a government love? Individuals in government can love, but the government itself is an abstraction and so is incapable of love.

Can loving individuals, acting as government officials, give of their own resources? “Ah,” you say, “that’s what taxes are all about: giving loving government officials the resources to give others.”

But apart from an official designation as a government official, what makes collecting taxes for redistribution different from the Good Samaritan putting a gun in the belly of the Levite and telling him to take care of the mugging victim?

“But Romans 13:6 says specifically that that’s what taxation is all about.”

I have two problems with that. The first is an analogy. Romans 13:4 says that the ruler “is God's servant to do you good. … He does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Reading the Naboth incident through the lens of a strict reading of Romans 13 gives every reason to believe that Naboth was a wrongdoer. He was, after all, convicted on the testimony of “two or three witnesses” (Deut 17:6) who were presumably the first to throw the stones that killed him (1 Kgs 21:13). Yet the larger context of the story tells us that Naboth was murdered. If Romans 13 needs to be understood loosely in regard to justice, it probably also needs to be understood loosely in regard to charity.

The second objection has to do with method. Jesus calls us to be servants: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:25–26). Even kings are not to consider themselves above commoners (Deut 17:20). How can we pass school levies by outvoting our neighbors without thereby lording it over them? How can we take money from our neighbors’ grandchildren—or our employers, for that matter—to fund our retirement and health care without thereby considering ourselves as better than they are? In both cases, are we not doing to them what we wouldn’t want them to do to us, that is, treating them unjustly?

The argument that we wouldn’t be able to care for the poor or the weak without government compassion is a classic end-justifies-the-means argument: how do we know which ends justify which means? If means are ends in themselves, then Christian compassion has to be based on justice; if we need to violate people’s bodies or property to do it, it’s not compassion, it’s injustice. When we expect the government to be our agent of compassion, we are basing our care for the poor and weak on injustice.

If we are acting unjustly, is it any wonder the world doesn’t look at Christians as good neighbors?


  1. I've been tossing around in my head for awhile now, what really is compassion? Where does it start and when does it end, if it does end? As caring persons, many people are called out of compassion to assist in various charities. Be it human nature, their faith, or just common decency, it would all be out of compassion that they give, right?

    As you mention above, governments redistributing others income through taxes is really not compassion. I was glad to see that, as I agree. "The Good Samaritan could have caught the priest or the Levite and forced them to take care of the mugging victim, but Jesus makes a point of emphasizing that the man used “his own” donkey (and so presumably his own oil, wine, and silver coins, not to mention his time and effort)."

    So where does it leave those of us who believe that it is our duty, our call, to give of our own flesh, time, money, etc. to help others, be it an actual neighbor, friend, charity, or even someone unknown to us but someone we know needs help? If the government takes so much of our monetary wealth that we no longer have enough to share with our neighbors out of our own compassion, do we lose out on the salvation of Jesus because we no longer have enough to share? Or do we just have to keep on digging deeper and keep sharing with the government and our neighbor? Or do we say the government has taken it and our obligation has ended? Is the government interfering with our ability to be faithful people of God by taking what does not belong to them? I think so.

    My frustration is out of taxation, as I'm sure you understand, that is so high that it leaves people little else to share as they otherwise would. How dare the government decide that my personal compassion is not good enough and that the government is better on deciding how my wealth should be spent in charity towards others.

    Historically, conservatives give of their time, talent and treasure at a much higher rate than the liberal. Our own president and VP are good examples of liberals who give little. Both have plenty to spare, but give next to nothing when compared to those who don't come close to their wealth but give more. "The woman at the well" comes to mind.

    It hurts me to think that the world doesn't see Christians as good neighbors. There are so many wonderful organizations of Christian charity that serve around the world. Medical Teams International (formerly known as Northwest Medical Teams) is one of the first organizations allowed into a war torn country to help. They were among the first in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were there almost immediately after Katrina. There is Christian Children's Fund, Mercy Corp, etc and the list goes on. These organizations even allow the common individual to help out where there is need, not just the official personnel. I guess I have more hope that the world thinks well of Christians.


  2. Thanks as always for your comments and questions, Kathryn. It’s what makes blogging worthwhile.

    “Do we lose out on the salvation of Jesus because we no longer have enough to share?”

    Our salvation was purchased for us by God. It doesn’t depend on anything we did or will do. So if we’re saved, we’re saved, and that’s final.

    But if we love the Lord, we will have compassion on others. We won’t regard anything as ours, before or after taxes (Acts 4:32).

    As Tim Keller puts it in his excellent Ministries of Mercy, compassion means literally “to feeling or suffering with”; if we truly have compassion, we’ll truly hurt. If we want to bear a burden, we’ll truly be burdened. That is, if we’re not suffering under our neighbors’ burdens, we aren’t truly compassionate.

    Writing this blog isn’t exactly biblical suffering.

    Much as I would like to consider my job done when the tax man’s through with me, I don’t think that’ll play in heaven. We have more left after taxes than most people who have ever lived ever had. My kid goes to private school, my car is up to date on oil, I’ve eaten three satisfactory meals every day for as long as I can remember, and my house has two wireless Internet–able computers (and Internet service). I complain because I can’t afford to buy a house even today, we skip trips to the dentist, our Internet service is a gift from my father (that’s right, I still haven’t grown up), and we buy second-hand outerwear, but how many people would kill to have my problems?

    I don’t think God counts our taxes as compassion or even as income. We are being robbed, plain and simple, and God is sovereign over robbers the same as he is over earthquakes, hailstorms, drought, and other misfortunes (Rom 13:1-7). “If the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have” (2 Cor 8:12). I think it was Wesley who said something like, “Earn as much as you can. Save as much as you can. Give as much as you can.” Ask God to teach you to hold your time and goods lightly, and you’ll get your chance to share.

    I’m writing this blog because I know too many Christians who are perfectly happy to be taxed—that is, they vote for such things as school levies and for candidates who believe in government munificence—provided that the money goes to “the right [word carefully chosen] causes”: Social Security and Medicare, Medicaid (as long as it’s not for abortion), public schools that have Bible readings and teach creationism and sexual abstinence, “wholesome family entertainment” on the Mall on the Fourth of July, the wars on drugs and Islam, freeways, subsidies for approved businesses, and so forth. They happily vote money out of our pockets and then complain that it is goes to fund things to which they are morally opposed. I think the fine Christian organizations you mention would be better funded, and there would be more of them, if Christians stopped lining up at the public trough and did everything they could to direct their money toward loving their neighbors in Jesus’ name. Nagging them to change is fun, but I’ll be more convincing when I can lead by example.

  3. Thanks for your insights Henry. I appreciate your input.