“For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.” - Deuteronomy 10:17-19
There is a scene in one of my favorite situation comedy series, Fawlty Towers, where one of the permanent residents of a hotel in Torquay, England, an elderly retired British officer, somewhat senile, who comments on all the labor strikes and political unrest going on by saying, “I don’t know why we bother.” The hotel manager, Mr. Fawlty, replies, but too softly for the Major to hear, “I didn’t know you did!” Seen in context, it’s quite funny, or at least you must trust me on that point. But the more important point is the question, “Why should we bother?” Why should the suffering of people we don’t know or people we would rather not know, and certainly of people who could never do us any good, matter to us?
The answer may seem obvious to you. You may be thinking, “Why of course we should care for those who are less fortunate or who are being mistreated! It would be inhuman not to.” And you would be right, without question. But I wonder if you have ever thought through why you, I and most people are so certain about this. We may think that it is “human nature” to care about what happens to other humans, even ones who could never return the favor. But perhaps we should examine this a little more carefully.
While it is true that sympathy for the sufferings of others seems innate, the fact is that such feelings were not always common among mankind. While there is historical evidence of some awareness of the ethics Jesus summed up in “the Golden Rule” among most civilizations and cultures in the world, there was also a heavy counterweight of opinion that “charity starts at home” and ends there. While the pagan Stoics of the Greco-Roman world could preach about human brotherhood and equality, they took few, if any practical steps to turn their preaching into practice. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor who wrote a book full of Stoic philosophy, nevertheless did little or nothing to help the poor and needy. The prevailing pagan attitude was little more than “the devil take the hind-most”.
The Greek philosopher, Plato wrote, “a poor man who was no longer able to work because of sickness should be left to die.” The Roman philosopher, Plautus said, “you do a beggar bad service by giving him food and drink; you lose what you give and prolong his life for misery.” In the 2nd century AD, another Roman writer, Lucien, mockingly spoke against the Christians, saying “The earnestness with which the people of this religion help one another in their needs is incredible. They spare themselves nothing for this end. Their first lawgiver put it into their heads that they were all brethren.” The pagans could not understand how strangers could treat each other as family. The Christian writer, Tertullian, quoted the pagans as saying, “Behold how these Christians love one another”. And what is more, the Christians didn’t just help their own poor and needy. Tertullian says that Christians regularly contributed to a fund to help the poor, widows, orphans, the sick, the disabled, the elderly, prisoners and to release people from slavery, even those who were not of their religion. In fact, the expenditure of funds for the care of the needy formed by far the largest portion of the Church’s expenses. The third Roman Emperor after Constantine, Julian, became known as “the Apostate” because he attempted to reverse the Christianization of the empire that began with that earlier emperor. He became frustrated because the Christians, unlike the pagan polytheists, were full of good works, especially in caring for the poor and marginalized. It was this characteristic of Christianity, in particular, that won the goodwill of the public and propelled the growth of the Church.
Today, faith in the Bible is steadily eroding, especially among young people. Many of them, however, are very passionate about promoting peace and social justice. That is very good. What I wish they understood, however, is that when you reject Biblical faith, you are eroding the very basis of humanitarian concern. The very passion they feel for righting wrongs and caring for the poor is not supported by their worldview, shaped as it is by secularism and materialism. If their worldview were correct then indeed “Why bother?” If human beings are nothing but the product of a mindless, random process and there are no objective moral standards, then why not live for today, live for yourself (or those who contribute to your happiness), and solely for the gain of worldly pleasure? Rationally, what else is there to do if you buy into the anti-Biblical materialistic worldview? But then you need to ask yourself, “Why does it feel like compassion for the suffering, peace-making and helping the needy are right and their opposites are wrong? If your worldview doesn’t fit – take it off! The only worldview that does fit such feelings is the one presented by the Bible. Look at the quotation at the head of this article. Why should we care for the poor? Because God cares for them! And why does God’s care for them obligate us? It is because He is God. He is “the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe.”
The true and living God is not like the gods of the Greeks, Romans or other pagans. Those gods arose out of the primordial chaos, the products of mindless material forces. The God of the Bible created all things, including the time, space, energy and matter of our universe. Morality, rather than being based on our subjective feelings or the will of some people who have power over others, comes instead from the nature of God. God tells us, “Be holy, for I am holy…” (Leviticus 11:44-45) We are to love one another because “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). God is the Supreme Being upon whom all other beings depend. His nature, therefore, determines what is true or false, right or wrong, good or evil. Some intention or act of ours is wrong, first of all, because it is contrary to His nature, His character. Likewise, it is right because it is consistent with His nature and character. His will is always consistent with His nature and character and so it follows that whatever is contrary to His will is wrong, and what conforms to His will is right. Because “He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing”, so should we! In fact, He most often does this through people who are moved by His Spirit to do these and many other good things. That is why we have these feelings and inclinations to help those who are in need, even when they are not likely to help us in return. And that is why we should bother!