Beyond Charity

“Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” Luke 10:36-37

On the day after the 12th anniversary of Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans my heart, like many others’, is heavy as I learn about the devastation in Texas caused by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey. Over 50 inches of rain have fallen on some parts of Houston’s flooded metro, the most rain of any weather event in United States history. As I watch rescues on the news and think about the extent of the physical and emotional damage, I am reminded of how desperately we all need each other to weather life’s storms.

Only recently in human history have governments made provision for people experiencing catastrophe. In ancient times, there were no government-sanctioned safety-nets for the ill, the poor, the orphaned, or those struck by disaster. The Jewish people lived counter-culturally because their law provided for the marginalized in society. Caring for widows and orphans was sacrosanct. Farmers left ten percent of crops in their fields to allow the poor to glean food. I learned from a peer in my Bible study this week that it was customary among ancient Jews to invite the poor to wedding feasts, and this was an important way the poor were fed. There was also a special tithe for the poor. There were multiple Jewish laws that provided for the most vulnerable in their community.

However, Jesus challenges his followers to go a step beyond basic charity in taking care of our neighbors in one of his most memorable parables. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, a traveling man is robbed, beaten, and left for dead. A priest and a Levite pass by the injured man without stopping to help. It is a Samaritan, a group often thought of as an enemy by the Jews of Jesus’ time, who stops to help. The Samaritan cleans the man’s wounds with his own two hands, pouring on wine and oil. The Samaritan puts the injured man on his own animal, meaning he will have to walk the rest of the journey. And, finally, the Samaritan takes the man to an inn and takes care of him, paying the inn keeper a sum of two days’ wages to care for him when he has to leave. To summarize, Jesus challenges his followers in their thinking of not only who is their neighbor but also how to be a neighbor. To be a neighbor is to show extravagant mercy to those facing tragedy.

I often jokingly disparage Texas because, well, Texas is big, bombastic, full of contradictions, and an easy target from Louisiana. However, today Texans aren’t just my physical neighbors, they’re also the neighbors Jesus was talking about in his parable.

As someone who wants to follow Jesus, I have been reflecting on what it looks like to show mercy to those hurt by Harvey. This is one of those moments where we can’t be the priest or the Levite. I’m assuming that, like most Jews of the day, the priest and the Levite tithed, prayed, and fasted. Maybe they assumed they’d already given enough to their community and that their tithes would be sufficient to help the unfortunate. But Jesus’ parable was as much a critique on their legalism as it was a call to arms.

I’m thankful that our country has incorporated some of the Judeo-Christian ideas of providing a safety-net into its policies and programs to ensure that the old, those with disabilities, and the poor can live with dignity. I’m confident that the federal government will approve of aid for Texas like they did for New Orleans after Katrina and for New York and New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy. But in catastrophes like Harvey, there is so much more that needs to be done than government will ever be able to do through aid packages.

There is no ambiguity in Jesus’ story about the call to serve beyond what is required through taxes and tithes, the call to be a Samaritan. So what does it mean for me today to give beyond my typical giving to a realm of discomfort? What does it mean to serve past convenience? I’m still processing the answer to these questions, but where I’ve landed for now is that I’m going to forego the Labor Day weekend shopping I was planning to do and donate that money instead, and I’m going to plan a time to go to Houston in the near future even though most of my weekends this fall are already booked and I have very few vacation days at my current job.

Now I’d love to hear from you. I need some more ideas! What suggestions do you have to be a neighbor to those affected by Harvey? Share below, and thank you for reading.

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