I remember when a new coworker opened her very first paycheck stoically, because it was only supposed to contain two days’ pay. She discovered to her surprise that she had been paid eight hours of holiday pay for the Fourth of July—even though her actual start date was after the fourth. At first, she was delighted with the extra money, but her gladness quickly faded when she realized that she had been placed into an ethical dilemma: Should she bring this to the payroll department’s attention? What if they take the money back? And so we discussed the topic that every conversation of ethics inevitably comes around to:
What if the ethical thing to do is to my detriment?
This brought to mind a passage from Luke:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered: “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
—Luke 10:25-37, NIV
We have all heard this story before. We have all learned to revere it. Our reaction is automatic, as if it were the national anthem: as soon as we hear it, we doff our hats and rise to our feet and pay homage to its sublime truth. But in our hearts we are hypocrites who revere the truth but do not practice it. Even as we walk down the sidewalk discussing its sublime implications with our spiritually minded friends, we cross to the other side of the road to avoid the impoverished and the afflicted as assiduously as any Pharisee avoided a leper crying out, “Unclean! Unclean!”
Bolder and more honest people among us admit—out loud—the very thoughts the rest of us conceal behind our superficial piety: it’s a nice story, but it isn’t practical. Well, maybe it was practical in Judea in the first century, but certainly not in midtown Manhattan at midnight! If you stop to help motorists in distress, they might whip out a gun. If you take an interest in the spaced-out people in the streets, you might find yourself entangled with deeply disturbed weirdoes. If you open your home to strangers, they might overpower you and steal what you own. So we concede that the good Samaritan was a really nice guy, and that he embodies the attitudes that we should always bear in mind, but actually going out and putting this sort of personal activism into practice might be dangerous.
It’s wrong to think that the parable made more sense in the first century than it does in the twenty-first century; it’s actually the other way around. For in the days when Jesus told this parable, it was easy for bands of robbers to roam the highways and overpower people—in fact, that is the very scenario that Jesus depicts. If Jesus’ story had happened in the twenty-first century, a person driving by could have phoned for help from the safety of an air-conditioned car, or a passing police car could have radioed for help. Or the victim could have crawled to a phone booth to call a trusted friend or the auto club—but none of these alternatives existed back then, and there was nothing to take their place. The more I think of it, the more I think midtown Manhattan might be safer: there was no helicopter to air-lift him to the shock-trauma team at Jericho General Hospital, and even if the helicopter had existed and even if it had had a hospital to fly to, there were no modern doctors to help him. So the parable was actually harder for listeners in first-century Judea than it is for us.
The real problem we have here is the age-old ethical dilemma I mentioned before: What if the right thing to do is to my detriment? Unlike the good Samaritan, we evaluate each situation with our own interests in mind, and we avoid ethical choices that place us at a disadvantage. We even pride ourselves in how well we do this balancing act! If we trust no God, if we have no hope beyond what is in this life, that is a shrewd thing to do. A godless ethic must analyze the risk in every choice and compromise with personal interests. Thus a godless ethic is necessarily a compromised ethic.
But if you truly love God and if you are truly on good terms with the Management of the Universe, you can have confidence that God will see your good deeds and the damage you sustained because of them, and that He will somehow balance the books. When you pursue virtue you can go out on a limb, no matter how fragile it is, if you have faith in God to catch you when you fall.
In some ways, life is like a game of Monopoly. The godless play the game in earnest, always careful to make sure that their winnings are sufficient, often merciless when other players land on their squares—for to them, that’s all there is. The only point to the game—if it is to have any point at all—is to survive to the end and rack up a big score. The godly, on the other hand, know that at the end of the game, the board will be folded up, the little plastic houses will be collected, the play money will be gathered, everything will be put back in the box and the box will be put back on the shelf. Then God, having tested our sportsmanship, our stewardship, and our concern for each other with the Monopoly game, will entrust us with real and substantive things that do not pass away. Therefore we who are godly can afford to be a nice guy, to take a loss, or even to lose the game early, because we know that “winning” the game is not the point.
So I ask you, what if a panhandler rips you off? What if a stranger steals your stuff? What if your intended beneficiary turns on you with a gun? Is there nothing more valuable than your money? Is there nothing more lasting than your material possessions? Do you have no hope at all beyond this mortal life? If you are a godless person, the good Samaritan took a great risk. If you are a godly person, the good Samaritan made a wise investment.
Now about my coworker and her unearned pay. If she’s a godly person, there is absolutely no risk in reporting the error to the Payroll Department, because if they take away the money, God will repay her virtue with His providence. God’s providence is more valuable than eight hours of pay, no matter what bills are due. Now you must be wondering what my coworker did. I don’t know, but it’s probably good for my soul to think about it. If I had found the extra money in my paycheck, what would I have done? And when I pass by motorists in distress, what do I do? And when I’m looking out for Number One, who is Number One?