Poverty: Do Something Different

[The following is an excerpt from Victor Boutros' 2014 Kuyper lecture]

[The views expressed here are the author’s, speaking in his personal capacity, and do not purport to
represent the views of the U.S. Department of Justice.]

We serve a God who takes sides, who has declared Himself to be the God of justice.  Justice for God is not an abstract theory or a noble ideal, it is something that makes his heart race and his pulse surge:   “The wicked and those who love violence his soul hates. . . .  For the LORD is righteous, he loves justice” (Ps. 11:5-7).  

Indeed, one of the central markers of Christian discipleship is that we are beginning to know and share God’s passion for justice: “Let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth, for in these I delight.” (Jer 9:23-24).   Kuyper warns us never to “forget how Christ (just as his prophets before him and his apostles after him) invariably took sides against those who were powerful and living in luxury, and for the suffering and the oppressed.” (Kuyper, The Problem of Poverty, at 62).

Perhaps nowhere is this more powerfully illustrated than in Jesus’s familiar parable of the Good Samaritan.    Remarkably, Jesus’s seminal parable on love is about loving a victim of everyday criminal violence.  And Jesus very intentionally sets the story in a real place that everyone in the audience knew well.  The Jericho Road was a treacherous path that everyone knew to be a place of lawless violence.  Assaults and robberies were so common that it was called “the bloody way.” The teacher of the law and most of the crowd had probably actually seen the very scenario Jesus was describing.  Indeed, there were almost certainly folks present who had not only seen the aftermath of an assault, but had turned the corner as a band of robbers was actually assaulting someone before their very eyes or who had themselves been the victims of an assault.

Jesus tells the story in response to a powerful member of the religious elite, who is pressing Jesus on just how far one must go in counting someone as a neighbor who he is required by law to love.

There is a key to unlocking the parable that I had missed for many years.  If I had been crafting the story to illustrate who counts as the law expert’s neighbor, I would have had one rescuer, representing the law expert, and three victims of violence.   Maybe even a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan – all lying on the side of the Jericho Road.

If the story had been told my way, the law expert probably would have had compassion on the Priest and the Levite (or, at least, said he would), but he would never have seen the Samaritan as his neighbor.  Samaritans were not neighbors.  They were enemies.  Jews derided Samaritans as pagans and half-breeds.  In fact, in John 8, Jewish religious elites are so angry and outraged at Jesus that they call him the two worst things they could think of: demon-possessed and a Samaritan, and they probably were not sure which was worse.  What is clear is that no one listening to the dialogue between Jesus and the law expert would have thought there was any kind of legal or moral duty for a Jew to help a Samaritan.

But Jesus turns everything around.  Instead of casting the law expert as the rescuer deciding who counts as a neighbor he is required to love, Jesus casts the law expert as the victim of violence in desperate need on the side of the road.  Luckily, along comes a priest, who was actually a public health officer charged with caring for those who are wounded.  But he passes by.  Next comes the Levite – a member of the priestly class and the officer charged with giving alms to the poor.  But he, too, passes by.  Finally, along comes a Samaritan – someone who owes the victim nothing. But, to the audience’s amazement, the Samaritan has compassion on him. More shocking still, the Samaritan doesn’t merely throw a five dollar bill his way and wish him well, but is willing to turn his life upside down,  ruin his schedule, and expend enormous resources to love a victim of everyday criminal violence in a way that utterly changes his life.

By reversing the story in this way, Jesus also powerfully reverses the question.  The question is no longer how far must I go in reaching out to those in need, but how far would I want others to go if I were the one in desperate need.  Kuyper echoes this point in a speech that gently confronts my own tendency to want to look the other way when I confront the Lucilas, Mariammas, Calebs, and Constances, lying along the Jericho Road:

The only sound permitted here is the stirring and eloquent voice of the merciful Samaritan whispering in our ears.  There is suffering round about you, and those who suffer are your brothers, sharers of your nature, your own flesh and blood. You might have been in their place and they in your more pleasant position. . . . There cannot be two different faiths – one for you and one for the poor.   The question  on  which  the  whole  social  problemreally  pivots  is  whether  you recognize in the less fortunate, even in the poorest, not merely a creature, a person in wretched circumstances, but one of your own flesh and blood: for the sake of Christ, your brother.

This is why we have to start talking differently about poverty – and start doing something differently as well.

-Victor Boutros is a federal prosecutor who investigates and tries nationally significant cases of international human trafficking around the country on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice.