Signs of the global economic downturn still rear their ugly heads in news stories worldwide. Maker of the iconic “Twinkie” declared bankruptcy this week along with the US bookstore chain Borders. The Guardian’s Money Blog led with an editorialist’s personal experience with bankruptcy and his observations about the debt we now find all around us:
“I read the other day that the UK’s total debt, public and private, is close to 500% of its GDP. The figure seemed unbelievable so I Googled it and found an American estimate that said the figure was more like 1000%… Who asked for debt to be a staple of our normal life routines? Not our parents or grandparents. For them, debt was a source of shame. Somehow, we’ve been persuaded that debt is no big deal.”(1)
Stories of the U.S. subprime meltdown, foreclosed homes, and families living on the streets, now in the bitter cold, continue to confront us in headlines, neighborhoods, and Hollywood plots. European financial crisis concerns continue to escalate as well, concerns many feel acutely.
There are many things that the writings of Scripture do not say about the situation we find globally before us: the practice of corporate bailouts or chancy economic loans, to name a few. But the writings of Scripture have much to say about debts and debtors, neighbors and communities, and the economic crisis as it forever sits between the rich and the poor, the last and the first, the powerful and the powerless. As implications of economic decline reach beyond typical boundaries to an increasingly larger populace, opportunities to examine the dynamics of power and wealth loom large before us. Though the sacred/secular divide would have us believe anything articulated in Scripture is irrelevant for such an examination, opportunities to encounter on some small scale the daily concerns of “the least of these” continue to hit a little closer to home. In other words, opportunities duly present themselves to grow further consumed by our own situations or more attentive to communal realities and our neighbors struggling in a common economy.
The writings of Scripture present the invitation to step out of our autonomous economics and into a community of divine and paradoxical abundance, where there is room at the table and bread to pass around. We can cling to the spirit of autonomy that flows freely through our markets and our mindsets; we can remain convinced of our sense of entitlement and personal despair, and assured that our worth (and our neighbor’s worth) is indeed enhanced by the things we collect, consume, and dispose of. Or, we can consider the God who rained bread from heaven in the deadest of wastelands, the Spirit who blessed five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand, and the Son who told stories which proposed that we, too, are to live with such a spirit of generosity and an existence ever-concerned with its neighbors.
In difficult times, it is easy to reason that we only have the energy and the resources to worry about ourselves. We might even reason that the Good Samaritan himself helped the man on the side of the road only because it did not come as a great personal or financial liability. In fact, the one who first asked the question that merited Jesus’s telling of this parable imagined the world quite similarly. His very question, “Who is my neighbor?” betrays his philosophy that the world can be classified in terms of commodities, liabilities, and entitlements—classifications that sound woefully familiar: “There are those I might be responsible to help and there are those I am not responsible to help. There are certain situations in which I might be accountable and there are situations in which I am off the hook.”
Yet Jesus squelches any cry of liability or entitlement with a story which turns these categories into the smoke and mirrors that they are—despite all our graphs, predictions, and fears. Instead of the stance of autonomy that asks about personal risk, far better questions seem to be posed by one who indeed had much to lose: “What will happen to this man if I keep walking?” “What will happen to this man if I fail to respond with compassion?” “Who will take care of my neighbor, if I do not?” Through this Samaritan, Jesus suggests that loving one’s neighbor demands the abrupt dismissal of self-interest, hierarchical concern, and individualistic fear—not just for the sake of the one wounded but for every neighbor, on every road, for the sake of the common good. Such a neighbor even learns to inquire, “Why is it that this man has been denied safe passage in the first place?”
Exactly one year before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said something very similar:
“[W]e are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”(1)
As implications of crisis hit closer and closer to home, might it be our open homes, and not our fears, that get bigger. Jericho Road is in need of good neighbors.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) “Diary of a Debtor,” The Guardian, Money Blog, December 8, 2011.
(2) Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Ed. James Washington (New York: Harper Collins, 1986), 241.