One good thing about this season is that there’s often some extra time to do those things that normally get squeezed out. For me, that includes reading the newspaper.
This last weekend it was The Times. Not a bad read – and two articles especially caught my attention. What they had in common was a take on what Jesus might have meant in doing or saying what he did. One was just trying to get a laugh at how much sentimentality there is in Christianity nowadays, especially at Christmas. I rather agreed with what was said.
The other was much more serious and had a strong point to make: ‘Should we – especially in the ‘season of goodwill’ – continue to make compassion for those in need a criterion for national welfare schemes? Even when the country can’t afford them?’
The writer said that it was Jesus’ story about the good Samaritan that was at the bottom of our tendency to pour resources into those who are very needy and who use up disproportionate amounts of the national wealth. Fair point. We probably all know someone who seems constantly to be a ‘taker’ rather than a ‘giver’. He or she is certainly needy but whatever is done never seems to make any difference: the neediness continues, resisting every effort for change and the person continues to drift.
In those circumstances, should the state continue to act as sole support, financially, medically, emotionally?
Bringing Jesus into the debate begs the question: who was Jesus expecting to provide help? You may recall that at the centre of his story is a man who’s been robbed, beaten up and left by the roadside. The first two people who pass by are representatives of the main social agencies of the time – one a priest from the temple in Jerusalem and the other a Levite, one of a group who carried out administrative tasks linked to the Jewish religious system. They did nothing and passed by.
The third person was a foreigner with a particular dislike of Jews (something like a Palestinian today). He stopped, looked after the victim and made sure that he was catered for. This was certainly ‘compassion for those in need’. So was the Times’ writer correct to blame Jesus for our current welfare system that we can’t sustain?
I don’t think so. Jesus’ point was that those involved in large scale enterprises (for ‘Jewish temple/religious system’ read ‘social services’ or ‘NHS’) may not always have individually the compassion their organisation stands for. We know that from the current debate about care-home or hospital nursing standards. What he was saying was that even when you’re from a very different background to people you meet, be ready to show mercy and kindness. That doesn’t come from big institutions but from you and me.
Who knows? Acts of kindness done years ago to those who are now ‘drains on the system’ might have made all the difference. We can’t deal with every social problem but we can deal respectfully and compassionately with the people we meet every day. People at work, in the pub, at family gatherings (they can be the hardest) – treat them as you’d like them to treat you. Jesus was saying that it’s my individual responsibility to treat people well.
Easy? Not at all. But this is where ‘welfare’ starts – helping people to feel good about themselves however brief our contact with them. For that moment or two, that person’s my neighbour.
It’s Christmas. Let there be peace on earth and goodwill to the human race – shown by me and you, here in Worthing.
By Nigel O’Dwyer, who leads Goring New Life Church, and lives and works in Worthing.