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I have a bit of a walk to my car from the Acton Institute offices, and I like to use that time to reflect on the day’s events. One wintry day recently, I was ruminating on the parable of the Good Samaritan and, as theologians sometimes do, attempting to abstract some greater principle from the story.

I was pulled from my reverie by a slouching man wearing a hat, who approached me and asked for help. His watch battery was broken, and he needed $2.50 for a new one. Somewhat irritated by the interruption, and weary from a busy day of work, I was skeptical. His speech was mumbled and his explanation unconvincing. Part of me was concerned that he might use the money for some ill purpose. However, compassion for the needy soul also weighed heavily on me. I was faced with the dilemma of how to most effectively help him. This uncertainty only spurred my irritation. Noting my hesitation, he sought to assuage my conscience by despairingly pleading that he needed to fix his watch so he could get to work on time. Then he authoritatively said, “I know you must be a Christian.”

It sounded like a challenge, and I felt my duty was clear. I instinctively replied, “Yes, sir, I am,” and as I spoke, I reflexively handed him the change I had left over from my morning coffee. He hurried away, leaving me relieved that the encounter was over. It wasn’t until after later reflection that relief was replaced with regret and guilt.

It struck me that I had been contemplating the parable of the Good Samaritan just as a destitute man confronted me on a snowy street. This didn’t prevent me, however, from completely ignoring the model of compassion embodied in the parable. I perceived the person in need as a distracting annoyance. He was essentially a problem that required a solution as quickly and painlessly as possible so I could continue on my way. My solution was to heedlessly throw some money at the problem and hope it would go away.

What did the Good Samaritan do differently? Everything! He didn’t treat his fellow man like a problem, but rather as a human being, engaging him as a person. The Good Samaritan didn’t simply toss the robbery victim some money and proceed blithely on his way. Instead, he did the much more “uncomfortable” task of providing for the person’s needs as if they were his own, as he “took him to an inn and took care of him” (Luke 10:34 NIV).

During my exchange with the man with the broken watch, there was a Big Boy restaurant less than 10 feet away. If I had taken the parable to heart and learned from its example, I would have offered to take the man into the warmth of the restaurant and buy him dinner and a coffee. This way I would have provided him with food and fellowship instead of flinging him money that could be wasted. In this way, I would have engaged the man as a person rather than a problem, an opportunity rather than an annoyance. As it happened, our exchange ended without my even bothering to ask the man his name.

The difference in these two attitudes toward the poor is played out every day in the world on a much larger scale. Private charities and faith-based organizations, modeled on the example of the Good Samaritan, seek to actively engage the needy as whole persons: body and soul. Faith-based organizations, when unimpeded by the government, are able to bind up both the individual’s physical and spiritual wounds, to minister to the whole person.

Conversely, the welfare state tends to treat the poor as a problem, a set of faceless names on a list. The solution to such problems is often seen in purely economic terms, a case of the “haves” versus the “have-nots.” This attitude is counterproductive in numerous ways, not the least of which is that it tends to create a cycle of dependency. When a person is in need of assistance, the solution is not to give them material assistance without empowering them to begin to provide for themselves, all the while ignoring their spiritual needs.

The Good Samaritan is a model of effective compassion because he engages the fallen man as a person; he treats him as his “neighbor.” This can at times be “inconvenient,” and it is rarely simple, but there is no other way to make compassion effective than to follow Christ’s command to “go and do likewise.”

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute where he also serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality.