This past Friday, in an interview with a Vancouver reporter, Canada’s Industry Minister James Moore caused a ruckus when he suggested addressing child poverty isn’t the responsibility of the federal government. Obviously nobody wants kids to go to school hungry, he said, but is that always the government’s job? And it wasn’t just the government he wanted to get off the hook: Is it the government’s job my job to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so.”
Such sentiments may seldom be expressed so bluntly, but they are hardly uncommon. The idea that poverty is someone else’s concernthat I bear no personal responsibility in caring for my neighboursis a regrettable consequence of self-centered North American individualism: If it doesn’t impact me directly, then it’s not my problem.
It doesn’t really matter what your economic allegiances are, either. You can believe in trickle down capitalism or interventionist government, and still absolve yourself from personal responsibility in caring for your neighbour: The system will take care of them; the government will take care of them. I’m doing my part by making and spending money in local businesses; I’m doing my part by paying my taxes. But that’s as far as many people seem to take it: they’ll participate in the system, but it’s someone else’s job to make sure the poor are actually cared for.
Is it my job to feed my neighbor’s child? We may as well ask if we are our brother’s keeper. The Scriptures make it clear that we are, in fact, morally bound to help our neighbors where we can. In his Small Catechism , Martin Luther reminds us that the Ten Commandments not only forbid certain actions (thou shalt not . . . ) but implicitly call us to perform other actions. Thus, in the Seventh Commandment, we are not only forbidden to take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, he writes, but we are further impelled to help him to improve and protect his possessions and income. Likewise, in the Ninth Commandment, we learn we must not scheme to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, or get it a way which only appears right, Luther says, but instead help and be of service to him in keeping it.
We must not only abstain from harming our neighbors; we must proactively help them. It is for this reason that Jesus summarizes the Second Table of the Ten Commandments not with a don’t but with a do: Love your neighbor as yourself.
Of course, this selfless love for neighbor does not come naturally to us. Rather the opposite is true, as we see in Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan. There help does not come from those from whom we would have every right to expect it; it is not the Priest or the Levite who care for the wounded man. Either could do something for him, and yet no one doesno one, that is, except a foreigner, and a social pariah at that. The others pass by on the other side. The thought-process at work seems clear: If I don’t get too closeif I leave enough space between usthen his problem can’t be said to be my responsibility.
It is not without reason that Christ tells us to emulate the Samaritan here. By that, I don’t just mean that the Samaritan had the right response to the situation and that we should imitate him, though of course that is true also. Instead, I mean to say that we need the command to act like the Samaritan precisely because it is so unnatural to us. We do not, of our own accord, set our neighbor’s needs on the same level as our own. We do not love our neighbors as ourselves. We need to be commanded to do so.
How different is God’s response to us! He looks down and sees us beaten down by sin, dying on the side of the road. There is no health in us. And though we have disobeyed him, mocked him, even hated him, he sends his Son to be our Good Samaritan. In humility, this Great High Priest does not pass by on the other side of the road. No, he stoops down to lift us up. And what is more, he does not simply care for our sufferings; he transfers them to himself, and by his wounds we are healed.
This is loving one’s neighbor and more. Let us reflect on such divine love this Christmas, and may it inspire in us a desire to love our own neighbors in meaningful ways. For while we can never repay God’s love to us, we can share it with others. We can be our brother’s keeper, claiming it not only as our moral obligation but also as a way of thanking the God who first loved usthe God who made it his personal responsibility to care for those who could not care for themselves.