There’s a popular quote floating around social media: “If you don’t want your tax dollars to help the poor, then stop saying you want a country based on Christian values, because you don’t.” The assumption is clear: good Christians vote for increased tax spending.
But is that in line with God’s Word?
Many Christians point to the story of the Good Samaritan to argue that it is. But it’s surprising how often we get that famous parable wrong.
“Love Your Neighbor as Yourself”
If you’re unfamiliar with the tale, it can be found in Luke 10:25-37.
Jesus had been asked, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” After a reminder that the law requires us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself”, the question naturally arose: “Who is my neighbor?”
The story of the Good Samaritan served as Jesus’ response:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’
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 10:30-37, ESV)
What makes the story especially compelling is that the priest and the Levite were each considered holy men. In contrast, Jews and Samaritans had a long history of hatred toward each other. Yet it was the man from Samaria who showed compassion to the beleaguered Jewish traveler.
How Jesus Wants Us to Serve Others
The leap from Jesus’ command to love our neighbors to voting for increased tax spending for government programs that help the less fortunate may seem logical on the surface. And when we factor in the inherent differences between the traveler and the kind man, the story of the Good Samaritan seems a natural illustration.
But this view of the story misses the point.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the Samaritan man’s actions to see what we can learn about how Jesus expects us to serve others.
1. Help the person right in front of you.
“… as he journeyed, he came to where he was, and when he saw him…he went to him…”
It’s human nature to avoid getting involved; it’s so much easier to write a check, click a GoFundMe link, or vote to increase taxes. But the neighborly Samaritan man didn’t contribute to a fund to help “people who have been injured.” He saw a hurting person right in front of him, and he took a closer look.
Granted, there’s nothing wrong with supporting causes, or helping those we can’t see. It can be noble, in fact. But it doesn’t replace Jesus’ imperative to help the person right in front of us. Indeed, sometimes our more impersonal ways of helping let us off the hook for helping those closest to us.
Research shows that when we recall a time that we performed a good deed—or even thought about performing a good deed—we’re more likely to give ourselves a pass when we’re confronted with a new opportunity to help, a concept called moral licensing. That may explain the behavior of the priest and the Levite. Perhaps they reasoned that their whole job description includes helping the poor and unfortunate, which may have made it easier for them to pass by the hurting man, reasoning that they already “gave at the office.”
2. Act out of compassion.
“…and when he saw him, he had compassion.”
Although compassion isn’t crucial to acting in a loving manner, it certainly helps. I learned that lesson one beautiful day when my friends asked for a ride. They’d gone hiking, gotten turned around on the trail, and ended up miles from their car. I confess, I was annoyed to take out time from my busy afternoon to rescue them from their foolish mistake.
But, as much as I grumbled to myself on my way to meet them, when I saw their sweaty, worn out faces—and their young children in tow—my heart softened, and I was truly compassionate.
God created our bodies and minds to ensure that compassion fuels our giving and builds relationships. He gave us a hormone called oxytocin, which is nicknamed the bonding hormone because a woman releases it as she breastfeeds her baby, and both men and women release it into their bloodstreams during sex.
Research shows that oxytocin is also released when someone feels empathy, and that increased oxytocin levels are associated with increases in generosity. So when we empathize with someone, oxytocin floods into our bloodstream, causing us to become more generous.
Paying taxes doesn’t foster compassion, and it doesn’t release oxytocin into the bloodstream. (If it did, we’d all be a lot more pleasant on Tax Day.) In fact, government programs themselves are cold and clinical. And no one experiences the peaceful, calm feeling of oxytocin’s release while filling out bureaucratic paperwork—not the taxpayer, the person being helped, or even the government worker.
We were created to be moved to compassion by helping directly, and to bond over help given and received.
3. Get your hands dirty.
“He…bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine…. and took care of him.”
Jesus is a hands-on savior, ministering to people’s needs directly and expecting his disciples to do the same. The Bible tells us: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15-16, ESV)
Imagine the battered man in today’s society. Would he be given a phone number or web address so he could get free insurance coverage? How might that response feel to the man lying in agony on the side of the road?
Government intervention is impersonal and inefficient. And because these programs are either federally- or state-funded, they’re not the best way to meet the specific needs of individuals in local communities. They’re also slow. Due to the legislative funding process, government aid often is a reaction to a problem identified months or years earlier.
4. Sacrifice your own comfort and plans
“Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.”
The journey from Jerusalem to Jericho is about 18 miles downhill on a steep incline. Whether the Samaritan man was walking or riding on his animal (probably a mule or donkey), the journey was treacherous. Bringing an injured man with him would have increased the hardship, the risk, and the length of his trip.
Even today, loving and caring for others can be inconvenient.
It’s easy to say, “Somebody should help the poor.” And when we vote for “the government” or “the wealthy” to institute a new program, it can feel like we’re doing something noble.
But Jesus didn’t command us to love one another when it’s convenient, or to delegate loving others to those who have excess time, energy, or money. Indeed, he expected us to be inconvenienced—just as he was.
5. Spend your own money.
“And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you…”
It’s tempting to equate paying taxes with helping the poor. However, U.S. citizens are compelled to pay taxes by threat of penalty (including monetary penalties, loss of privileges, and in some cases, prison)—which is a far cry from giving with a cheerful heart (2 Corinthians 9:7).
In fact, research shows that the more a person sees it as the government’s responsibility to help the unfortunate, the less charitable they are with their own time and money—regardless of their income, class, or wealth—a well-documented finding that defies stereotypes.
Voting to raise taxes, it seems, can give us moral licensing we didn’t even earn.
One reason for this disconnect is the concept of diffusion of responsibility. It’s the same reason the shared microwave in your office building is always filthy. It’s also why, when a crowd of people sees a person in distress, any single individual is less likely to help than if he were the only witness.
People choose not to give of their money or time because:
- they think it’s someone else’s responsibility (as in the microwave example)
- they assume someone else is better positioned or more qualified to help, or
- they reason that if it were a legitimate need, someone else would have already stepped up (as in the bystander example).
6. Return to check up
“…I will repay you when I come back.”
Our duty as Christians doesn’t end the moment we provide for someone’s immediate needs. In fact, Harry Harlow’s classic (albeit disturbing) research with orphaned baby rhesus monkeys showed that meeting an animal’s need for nourishment was not sufficient for causing them to thrive. The poor monkeys, deprived of their real mamas, clung to a cloth surrogate for comfort, even though it didn’t provide food.
Because bureaucratic programs are impersonal, it’s easy for people to fall through the cracks. As Christians, it’s important to provide comfort as well as basic supplies so that others may thrive.
Why the Government Cannot Fulfill Our Christian Duty
The command to love one another occurs more than a dozen times in the New Testament Scriptures and, although it’s always directed toward a group of people (whether in person or in a letter to a congregation), it’s an individual mandate.
In fact, the impetus for Jesus telling the story of the neighborly Samaritan man began with a question: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Not “what shall we as a congregation do…” or “what shall we as a country do…?” (Luke 10:25 ESV)
Our responsibility to love and care for others is individual, just as our salvation is.
We can certainly work together to provide for those in need, as the early Christians did. But even in those instances, the Apostle Paul warned that “each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”(1 Thessalonians 4:10, 2 Corinthians 9:1-7 ESV)
Loving our neighbors requires personal sacrifice, something the government is incapable of—no matter how much we increase taxes.