Scarcity, Charity, and the Good Samaritan | by Dylan Pahman

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The term “Good Samaritan” does not appear in the Bible, but it has become the common name for the answer Jesus gave to the question, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) In our time, “Good Samaritan” is a common idiom for a charitable person, especially someone who would do as the Samaritan in Jesus’s parable did:

A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead…. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. (Luke 10:30, 33-34)

While the Samaritan offers a beautiful picture of what holistic and loving compassion looks like, we run the risk of misunderstanding it if we do not read it carefully. The differences between our context and that of the Samaritan can make a big difference in what “being a neighbor” looks like. In particular, the element of scarcity highlights the social nature of the human person and the good of cooperative and less personal ministries.

At least two observations are key to making a healthy comparison to our own lives:

  1. The man has a life-or-death need. Jesus says that the thieves leave him “half dead,” and we can assume that he’d be “all dead” soon if no one helped him.
  2. The Samaritan has the means to meet the man’s need. He has bandages, oil and wine, a beast of burden, and more than “two denarii” (Luke 10:35)—two month’s wages for most people at that time—to give to the innkeeper. The Samaritan doesn’t just toss him some change. He uses his resources wisely, making sure that the man is able to fully recover.

I do not say this to offer justification for anyone who wants an excuse not to help people in their own lives. In fact, the unfortunate lawyer who asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” did so “wanting to justify himself” (Luke 10:29). Christ comes to us in every person that we meet, and he especially identifies himself with the marginalized and hurting, saying, “I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me” (Matthew 25:35-36).

Rather, the point is only that we need to compare apples to apples. It is when I happen to be just the right person, who knows just how to help someone and has just the right resources (material or otherwise) to do so, that I find myself in the situation of the Samaritan. In those cases I cannot keep walking.

But what if we slightly changed the details of the parable? What if the Samaritan came upon not just one person “half dead” on the side of the road, but ten? Would he have had enough bandages? Could he have fit them all on his animal? Would there have been enough rooms at the inn for all of them? Would the Samaritan have had enough money to pay their bill while he’s gone?

The answer to most (if not all) of these questions is no.

So what then? What could the Samaritan do? How could he still be a neighbor to those who fell among the thieves?

There may be many good answers to that question, but I want to focus on one in particular: The Samaritan can get help from his friends.

No individual, no matter how isolated, can ever fully disconnect themselves from his or her dependence on others. As the Russian Orthodox philosopher Vladimir Solovyov put it, “Deprive a man of what he owes to others, beginning with his parents and ending with the state and world-history, and nothing will be left of his existence, let alone his freedom. It would be madness to deny this fact of inevitable dependence.”

Acknowledging the communal nature of our lives offers us a solution to the problem of scarcity in this case. Adam Smith famously pointed out that scarcity in an economy can be overcome through the cooperation of many people doing different tasks to increase production through the division of labor. Indeed, this in itself has been the most important way in which widespread, extreme poverty has been overcome around the world. Similarly, organized charity is capable of helping many more people than any one individual can do alone.

Giving to charitable organizations doesn’t often feel like being a “good Samaritan.” But just like the division of labor greatly increases economic production, so also, at their best, organized ministries of mercy allow us to help many more people far more adequately than each of us could alone.

I suspect that the disconnect between our feelings and this reality comes from the fact that large institutions are typically impersonal, whereas on the individual level what the Samaritan did was deeply personal. Of course, as I’ve already said, for such a problem what he did is the right response. But when we add the problem of scarcity to the parable by increasing the number of people in need, then the solution changes.

As the economist and theologian Paul Heyne pointed out:

In a family, or another face-to-face society, the members know one another well. In these situations people can reasonably be expected to take the other person’s specific interests and values into account. But in a large society this is impossible. If I tried to apply in a class of 50 or even 25 students the principles of justice that I try to use in my own family, such as “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need,” I would end up behaving not justly but arbitrarily. And therefore unjustly.

We need to be open to the individuals in our lives that we are best suited to help and who desperately need it. Yet at least ever since the birth of the Church, we also live in a world where there are responsible organizations where people come together to do far more good than they could alone.

While the bigger problem for the poor is typically not lack of aid but dysfunctional institutional structures, that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything that can’t be done to help before those are problems are fixed. I’m certainly not recommending just carelessly throwing more money at problems without asking whether doing so will help or hurt. Rather, PovertyCure provides a helpful list of partner organizations that have joined the ongoing conversation about how to pursue effective, enterprise-based approaches to the problem of poverty today, imitating the Samaritan who didn’t just throw a few coins at the man on the side of the road but helped him stand again on his own two feet.

Contributing to such ministries is a vital way that we can “be a neighbor” to people we may never meet. Just writing a check may feel impersonal and less important than actually helping someone ourselves, but if done prudently it may do much more good than we imagine.


Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also a fellow of the Sophia Institute: International Advanced Research Forum for the Study of Eastern Christian Life and Culture. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanPahman.

Giving From The Heart | By Ismael Hernandez

Recently I joined the board of directors of a local non-profit organization, St. Martin de Porres Ministries. I met the ministry’s founders years ago while they were distributing food to the poor in an inner-city area of Fort Myers. Out of the back of a pickup truck in a parking lot, Mercedes and Fernando Castillo, their children, and a couple of volunteers packed bags of donated food and gently handed it to people waiting in line. There was never a lack of a loving handshake _JLW0417 size mainor a heartfelt embrace.

Most of the time, those waiting in line were Hispanic migrants, with a sprinkle of other ethnicities. Most were women and many of them were there with infants. Why would this humble family take time to do this? I wondered. I found it remarkable that they engaged their children in the process and they all seemed to be having a great time.

People noticed their efforts and rewarded them. Soon, ladies from local churches began to join them and helped them find resources. They understood that their loving efforts needed a structure, piety needed technique. Eventually, the Castillos were able to purchase a building and they are now expanding their services to the community.

Here you have a very humble family receiving no salary and dedicating a good portion of their lives to help others. They became a virtuous magnet whose pull was love. I often take the time to ponder about the meaning of social life after I encounter people like Mercedes and Fernando. I question the way we try to solve problems with “experts” or create huge bureaucracies of compassion within our churches that become feel-good alternatives to an encounter that grows systemically, from the heart.

I’m not trying to judge negatively here. Every person I have ever encountered who is trying to do something for others has always inspired me in some way. Even those whose technique might need some “tweaking” or whose only involvement is to write the occasional check ought to be commended, supported, and encouraged. But our resources are wasted at times because we reject the first principle of what I call the Human Flourishing Model: simplicity.

The Castillos found out that I was offering training on “effective compassion” at a local church and attended. I could see their excitement at the concepts and told me how they have been trying to move in the direction of helping people help themselves for a long time but simply did not know how. I could see the spark in their eyes as they spoke of being able for the first time to articulate what they have felt some time—they knew there was a missing link somewhere but did not know how to identify it and fill the void.

After a few weeks, I was about to begin another Effective Compassion Training session at a different church and I saw the Castillos coming again! They went through the entire training twice. They invited me to join their board and I was delighted. While I am very busy growing the Freedom & Virtue Institute, I just could not say no. My heart remains, after all, the heart of an activist.

Today, the entire board consisting of the same humble ladies with their husbands and a few other good people, is making big plans to transform the ministry into one that remains committed to providing a loving support to people in need; yet, now with a vision of human flourishing that is challenging the way we view the poor. Together we are showing that massive distributions of goods might be only a first step into a different type of service.

We are planning to use adjacent land to start a farm with areas dedicated to each family who regularly comes for food. If they want to continue to receive donated food they will have to tend the garden (Genesis 2:15). Through the help of a few donors, the children in each family will also work the plot with their parents and earn money that will go into a BB&T bank account. The bank account will be a dedicated account to help the children earn money for educational purposes such as school supplies, a backpack, uniforms, and the like.

These are just baby steps but very important ones. These steps are consistent with right order but informed by a profound love for the poor. And I could not be more overjoyed.

Ismael Hernandez is the founder of the Freedom and Virtue Institute.

Poverty, Inc.: The Global Poverty Industry |By Russ Debenport

The room was packed, occupied by some of the most inspiring Christian leaders I’ve met from across the continent of Africa. I began my afternoon presentation in Ethiopia with a movie trailer for a new documentary, Poverty, Inc., that seeks to reveal some of the pitfalls of the global aid system.

At one point in the movie trailer, an entrepreneur in Haiti states, “No one wants to be a beggar for life.” The room immediately erupted in applause! I knew at that moment this documentary would be important in the dialogue of how we partner with the church for children in poverty.

  Poverty, Inc. is a projectinc by PovertyCure and Acton Institute, and was directed and produced by Michael Matheson Miller.

In early 2015, Compassion invited Miller and his colleagues Jonathan Moody, Managing Director of PovertyCure, and Simon Scionka, director of photography for Poverty, Inc., to provide an early screening of the movie and to engage Compassion in a conversation about what they’ve learned and what it means for Compassion.

The film provides a critique of the system of aid that began as a response to the global needs following World War II,  and     shows how those same financial solutions are often misapplied to a wide variety of holistic problems facing the evolving global economy.

 Poverty, Inc. asks the probing question, “Could I be part of the problem?”

The documentary cites the impact of food tariffs and subsidies between USA-based rice producers and Haiti that have undermined local food production and ruined aspects of the Haitian economy. Subsidized rice from the USA has become so cheap that it now dominates the diet and has supplanted other indigenous foods.

Other examples of aid that can do more harm than good include: mass clothing donations to Africa, one-for-one giving models that are not locally sourced, and solar power hardware donations.

Poverty, Inc. labels this system of aid “the global poverty industry,” and it distributed over $134 billion (USD) in official development assistance in 2013 alone.

The main players in this industry, according to the documentary, include the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. From these organizations, foreign aid flows directly between countries and is also routed through a complex web of grants to NGOs, consultants, and multi-national corporations.

So what’s the film’s answer to this powerful system that continues to promote solutions that seem to be keeping people in poverty instead of releasing them from it?

The solution it promotes is a local market-driven approach that honors the God-given potential in each of us to be agents of human flourishing for ourselves, our families, and our communities.

As I’ve heard my friends in Africa often say, “The future is trade, not aid.”

A key element of this approach is the importance of access to markets so people can work for themselves, earn a living for their family, and produce value. One of the documentary’s featured local business owners puts it this way, “The people here are not stupid. They are just disconnected from global trade.”

At the heart of the film’s solution to the global poverty industry is a historically Christian social principle called “subsidiarity.”

Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that states social problems should be solved at the most immediate local levels possible without interference from centralized authority.

This belief undergirds many of the statements that Christians make about the role of the church in solving local problems as opposed to the role of the state.

As I watched Poverty, Inc. I continually asked myself two questions:

  1. How does Compassion measure up to these ideas?
  2. What can Compassion learn from this documentary?

First off, I have viewed this documentary multiple times and have engaged with other Acton Institute content. Every time I do, I’m really glad to be part of Compassion.

Compassion has practiced effective local child development approaches for a long time. Recent academic research like the study by Dr. Bruce Wydick from the University of San Francisco proves the impact of Compassion’s holistic child development programs.

Compassion’s effectiveness is based on a highly relational development model that connects people, instead of governments. It is focused on releasing the potential of children so they can contribute to local solutions, economies, and families.

And Compassion doesn’t receive a single dollar of government aid.

Secondly, after watching Poverty Inc. I’m reminded that we still have a lot to learn. The documentary reveals a system of aid that often undermines the very people it’s intended to help. At Compassion, we want to continually learn how to better impact children in poverty in partnership with local churches.

As the film states so well, “Having a heart for the poor isn’t hard. Having a mind for the poor… that’s the challenge.”

Russ Debenport is the Director of Global Advocacy Strategy at Compassion International. This piece was originally written for the Compassion International Blog.