As he came over the brow of the small hill he saw the beaten and bloodied man lying at the edge of the road. The Samaritan hurried to him and tended the man’s injuries as well as he could before carefully helping him onto the back of his mule and setting off for the nearby inn (see Luke 10:25-37).
Fast forward 2,000 years. Today, the Good Samaritan would probably call emergency services and help the injured man as much as possible until police and ambulance personnel arrived. Thankfully such things are rare occurrences in most people’s lives, but what about the more frequent times when many of us are confronted by lesser situations where someone might be in need?
You know those situations. As you walk out of a shopping center you are approached by someone who asks: "Could you spare a few dollars? – I need help.” We have seen the signs many people carry - pulling at heart strings from every possible direction - “Homeless,” “Veteran,” “Injured,” “Hungry,” “Please help – God bless.” Some may reflect genuine need, but police officers and social welfare agents know that this is just a business for a good number of people, and that they are not destitute at all. You know this, too, but how are we to judge a given case? What is the Christian's right response when asked for help in such circumstances?
Caring and Caution
Dozens of scriptures throughout the Bible show our responsibility to those in need. Certainly Jesus cared for those in need (John 13:29B) and commanded that we care also (Luke 11:41). No scripture is perhaps clearer on this aspect of love than 1 John 3:17: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”
But God’s word is not divorced from reality. It shows that people sometimes do feign appearances for their own purposes (Joshua 9) and confirms the possibility that some who ask for help may be doing so because they do not want to work. The Apostle Paul stresses the unworthiness of such a cause and that “… one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
The wise Samaritan acknowledges both these perspectives, being caring yet careful not to waste the ability to help those truly in need. This approach is actually implicit in 1 John 3:17, if we look closely. Notice first that John’s reference to “…a brother or sister in need” puts his statement in the context of helping fellow believers (see also Romans 15:26, etc.), though the principle can, of course, be extended to any human brother or sister needing help.
But the two key words in this verse are “sees” and “needs”. The word “sees” clearly indicates that we have evidence of the need – we are not somehow bound to accept someone’s statement of need without “seeing” its reality. Even more importantly, the word “need” which John uses (chreian) clearly means real needs (such as food and clothing) of a serious and not a frivolous or contrived nature. The two concepts actually go hand in hand as real need is usually clearly visible – just as the need of the ancient traveler was clear to the Good Samaritan.
Wise Samaritans and Careful Stewards
When we are asked for help and the situation seems genuine, a primary response might be to call appropriate assistance. Police and other services are trained and prepared to help individuals in immediately difficult circumstances. But if the situation does not appear to warrant professional help, we might ask ourselves: Is this person really in need? Will any help we give be used for any real need? Sadly, when offered food or items of clothing, many asking for help will decline the offer as cash is really wanted for other things such as alcohol or drugs. We should certainly consider the moral responsibility of not enabling an addiction whenever cash is requested. We also owe it to those in need to be good stewards of the resources that are available to us – employing them wisely where real need is found.
Today, the wise Samaritan can often do more good by contributing even small amounts to worthwhile charities that carefully administer their help. The most desperate needs are often far from where we may be. But even then we can apply wisdom by choosing charities that we know have been carefully screened or developed by groups we trust such as our churches. Before donating to other charities, the internet-savvy Samaritan may want to look at their ratings and use of funds by checking some of the online sites run by monitoring organizations (for example, Give.org or Charity Navigator). It is clear that many “good causes” spend a great deal of their donations on overheads, and some may use funds for purposes that address no urgent need. We can magnify the good we can do by choosing charities wisely, perhaps volunteering time with good ones, and by praying for the success of those that do serve and help those in genuine need. We should also realize that sometimes the best help we can give those in need is not physical (Matthew 11:5B, Acts 3:1-6).
None of this is to say that we should pull back from physically helping others when genuine need is present before us. Belief devoid of willingness to help those in real need is a poor excuse for true religion, as the apostle James so clearly shows: “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:16 and see Isaiah 58:7). Some people choose to err on the side of kindness when asked for help - even if they feel they are perhaps being taken advantage of. Some carry a few easily accessed dollar bills separate from billfold or purse for cases which might be genuine. But we need not feel swayed by words of “need” written on cardboard signs or by unsubstantiated requests for cash. Nothing in God's word urges us to give to those who are making a living simply by saying they are in need. Everything in God's word shows that we should not hesitate to help where help is truly needed.
There is much that we can do to help those in genuine need in this world, but we need to be wise Samaritans and careful stewards of our available resources if we are to help them effectively.