At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

Business: A Sequel to the Parable of the Good Samaritan

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When we think of the parable of the Good Samaritan, we tend to think of the importance of charity and giving to those in need. That is one of the chief points Jesus is making. But is it possible that the parable might have something to say about work and business as well?

A Sequel to the Good Samaritan

We are all familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man is going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and falls among robbers. Two religious people see him and pass by, but a Samaritan stops to help (and, it might be added, helps him generously and holistically).

One of the main lessons is: your neighbor is anyone in need. Now, go about the world looking to meet needs, treating others the way you would want them to treat you.

With this in mind, in his book Generous Justice, Tim Keller encourages us to consider a “sequel” to the parable. Imagine that the next day the Samaritan is traveling the road again, and comes across another person bleeding on the side of the road. A few weeks later, this happens again. And then again.

As it turns out, every time he makes the trip from Jerusalem to Jericho, he comes across another person laying in the road. Then he looks up, and sees hundreds of people likewise lying along the road, beaten and robbed. What should he do?

This is the question of social transformation.

When you see one person in need, you help. When you see multitudes in need, you of course still give whatever direct help you can, but if you are truly to love your neighbor as yourself, you also need to give thought to how you can help people on a larger scale. How can you address the underlying conditions that are causing so many people to fall into that situation in the first place?

This is where we typically begin to think about the role of non-profits, governments, and other organizations specifically dedicated to addressing local and global poverty. This is where Keller takes things next in Generous Justice.

Those organizations certainly play a vital role. But we can go even further, for there is a surprising piece that we often overlook when thinking about solutions to poverty: the place of business.

The Place of Business

Business is actually the only long-term solution to global poverty. This is because, as Wayne Grudem points out in his book, Business to the Glory of God,

…businesses produce goods, and businesses produce jobs. And businesses continue producing goods year after year, and continue providing jobs and paying wages year after year.

In other words, it is business that produces the goods and services that poor societies lack. There are certainly causes beneath this that pertain to why business is unable to flourish in certain societies, including:

  • Corrupt governments that seize a society’s wealth.
  • Excessive red tape that stops economic growth before it can begin.
  • Overly weak governments that do not punish crime or fraud.
  • Worldview issues that keep people from having the mindset to take initiative and make a difference.

None of this changes the fact that, at the end of the day, it is business that produces the goods and services that lift a society out of poverty. If we truly care about helping the poor as Christians, we need to give proper consideration not just to relief and development efforts, but also to the place of business.

A Way Forward

What does this mean for us specifically? Here are two things.

1. If you work in the business world, be encouraged.

If you do it for Christ, the work you do is good and pleasing to God. Though we don’t often recognize it, your work is doing far more than just providing for yourself and your family. You are actually part of God’s own long-term solution to keeping your nation out of poverty, or lifting it out of poverty if you are working in the developing world.

Working hard in the business world is not an excuse for not helping the literal person in need that you come across. But if you do your work with a mindset of love for God and love for others, realize that you are a part of the very important framework that God himself has put in place to meet the needs of others.

2. Second, as Christians, we need to encourage pro-business thinking and policies.

Certainly business can be abused and it comes with many temptations. But that shouldn’t keep us from recognizing that business in itself is good, and it is to be utilized as one of the chief means in God’s plan for lifting the poor out of poverty.

Toward this end, one of the first and best things we can do is educate ourselves. Here are three helpful resources to start with:

So why is business the sequel to the parable of the Good Samaritan? Because it addresses the underlying conditions of those in need by providing them not only with goods and services, but also with employment, wages, and the chance to contribute to the development of their economy. This is not only the most effective long-term solution to poverty, but also a solution that that is rooted in an affirmation of the dignity and creative capacity of all human beings, who are in the image of God.

Photo courtesy of Antonello Photography. 

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  • Bob Roller

    Business was also, in all likelihood, the prequel to the Good Samaritan, who has resources but does not appear to have come into them through inherited wealth. He was on his way, and he had to leave the man in someone else’s care because he had commitments. From this, it is likely that he was a businessman, and used his resources earned from his business to meet the needs.

  • Whereas the above article looked at how to extend the Good Samaritan Parable to business by eliminating crime and corruption, Martin Luther King even went further. He stated that we should examine, with the implication changing what was wrong, the system that place so many people in need. What is it about our capitalism that has caused both one of the largest disparities of wealth in the world along with the largest rate of incarceration in the world?

    So the issue isn’t just how much of what we have are we willing to give or whether we will play by the rules. Though those issues are important, the issue is whether we will be willing to change the game at which some of us are very skilled for the benefit of all.

    • Curt,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I have not done any research into the relationship between capitalism and the rate of incarceration, but the first thing I would ask there is whether those suggesting a link may be confusing correlation and causation.

      In relation to income disparity, I would first of all point you to the excellent paper on this website by Anne Bradley called “Why Does Income Inequality Exist?”, which can be found here:

      Then, here are some additional thoughts for you. Income inequality is not necessarily a bad thing. People have different gifts and different goals, and differences in income are necessarily going to result from that.

      Your point, I know, seems to be that the differences in income levels are _too sizable_. But in relation to that, I would say two things. First, I think the most important thing, as Anne points out in another article, is not to fixate on the gaps but rather ask this: “What is the level of flourishing of those at the bottom of the economic ladder? Do they have opportunities to move up that ladder, or are they trapped, no matter what they do?” The reason for this is that in trying to “fix” capitalism for perceived defects, for example, we often end up causing lots of other problems that are even worse than the problems we were trying to solve. One example is seeking to reduce income inequality through forced redistribution (taxes and other government actions). Measures like that tend to reduce the incentive to be productive, which tends to reduce job creation and investment, which in turn hurts the _poor_ most of all.

      Second, capitalism is often blamed for things that are not a result of capitalism at all. Thomas Sowell is the best at giving example after example of this (see, for example, his excellent book Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy). It tends to work like this: People say “capitalism has caused this problem,” and so the government acts to “fix” it. The government action, in turn, causes more problems — but since there is often a delay between the implementation of the policies and its effects, people forget about the political solution that originated the problems and blame capitalism for these new problems as well. This, in turn, is then used as justification for further intervention, which causes more problems…And so the cycle goes.

      At the end of the day, all of these attempts to interfere with the market end up hurting the poor. And that’s the reason capitalism matters so much to me. Yet, so often capitalism is wrongly characterized as a system that exists to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. That is not true in the slightest. Free markets are the best hope for the poor. For some more thoughts on this, here’s a post on my blog that you might find helpful:

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