In Father Robert Sirico’s splendid new book, “The Economics of the Parables,” the essence of a more complete meaning of charity is found in Christ’s most well-known tale
The purpose of the Fr. Robert A. Sirico’s new book, The Economics of the Parables, may seem merely to reflect on those instructive Gospel stories, told by Jesus, to tease out their moral lessons—on money, markets, inheritance, wages, ownership, stewardship, and other ideas and principles that are affixed to wealth and poverty—so that they might resonate more profoundly with a contemporary audience sorely in need of sage counsel. And yes, the good parish priest—founder of the beloved Acton Institute, where he is now president emeritus—does accomplish that.
But, as the old line goes, wait, there’s more . . . In Father Sirico’s deeper exploration of what is considered the most famous of the Lord’s parables, The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), he delivers to readers a more complete view of charity and its essence.
“Charity,” a dense and nuanced concept, is a word that makes for a long dictionary definition: It is synonymous with love, embraces genuine compassion, is the motivation and fact of almsgiving, is the heart of a perfecting material generosity. It can involve cash, but it doesn’t have to.
Here though, in this most famous of tales, charity does involve coinage—it is the thing which the sojourner on Jericho’s dangerous road is robbed of, and the thing which the unlikely man—who, per Sirico, transcends “cultural boundaries and expectations in place at the time” in order to provide prompt and unfleeting succor—lays out to bankroll the beaten traveler’s rehabilitation. Follow the money . . . to paradise.
In a worthwhile recent discussion of the book with financial analyst and philanthropist David Bahnsen on his popular “Capital Record” podcast, the host discussed the Samaritan’s compassion and described Sirico’s analysis of the story as unveiling “a more holistic understanding of charity than we are led to believe.” The author, referring to another Christian writer, former World editor Marvin Olasky, described the complex totality of the Samaritan’s action as truly profound: “Compassion is not giving to—it’s suffering with.” He continued
and the Samaritan here suffers with this man. He has the unpleasant task that he takes upon himself of cleaning his wounds, and he does it with his own medical supply—his own wine and oil; he’s cleaning the man. And then he hoists him up on his beast . . . so it’s his physical, intimate contact with this man’s broken body, and putting him on his own means of transportation, taking him to the innkeeper, and then, in effect, putting himself in hock . . . This is all personal. This is intimate. This is holistic. It’s not administrative.
Sirico said the “deeper spiritual message” of the parable is, “You have an obligation to suffer with your suffering brother,” adding that “it is a privilege to serve Christ in these distressing disguises.”
In the book, Sirico masterfully summarizes the central importance of how intimacy empowers and heightens charity, manifested in the continuum of visceral and immediate ways in which the Samaritan’s nearness and fortune were immediately activated. This is the “charity” that is interchangeable with “love.”
The Samaritan was manifestly not an agent of the state. He was a private individual with a moral sensibility. This is the model that Jesus holds up to his disciples. The Samaritan helped of his own volition, which is the basis of virtue. He was not acting as a public servant who was compensated for his service, but instead used his own money. This was a personal sacrifice of his own time and resources. His actions were not only good for the poor suffering soul on the road; they were good for himself as well. The consistent emphasis of the parable is on the Samaritan’s personal engagement with the victim of the robbery, his proximity to the man, his tending personally to the wounds left in the man's body, and the use of his own means of transport—all in complete contradiction of any politicized interpretation of the parable. After all, the main point of the parable is not the needs of the victim. The main point is the compassionate action of the Samaritan, who on that account turns out to be the “neighbor” of the victim—tending to the man with his own clothing (surely he brought no bandages on this business trip) and with his own provisions (the oil and wine) transporting him “on his own beast,” and not only paying the innkeeper (whom he undoubtedly knew from previous trips) with a man’s lodging and care, but even going so far as to obligate himself to pay for any service that exceeded the deposit he put down. No, this is not political activism at work; this is love.
As for his reference to state agents, Sirico spends a goodly amount of his parable reflection on those things which, in our times, are often mistaken for charity—or it is the “charity” as painfully held by the pre-ghosted Scrooge, who is heartened by the assurance that his taxes are still being used for prisons and workhouses, and that “the Treadmill and Poor Law are in full vigour.”
To say that people are morally obliged to help those in need is not the same as to say that government action and public policy should be the first and normative way they are helped. Is voting or a lobbying for political action and government benefits essentially what it means to be a Samaritan? Government welfare payments create dependencies that justify ever-higher spending, vast waste, and the pain and suffering that come with the taxation and control necessary to enable those things. The welfare state is by its very nature connected to vote buying schemes and fraud. Welfare programs foster dishonesty on the part of the office holders who passed them into law, the government employees who implement them, and the program beneficiaries. All of this is on top of the fact that distant impersonal bureaucracies simply do not know what the real human needs are on the ground in local communities, in human hearts, and in homes. The problem becomes exponentially worse as the size and activity of the political sphere grows.
Government action masquerading as charity has a number of terrible consequences, writes Sirico, such as usurping “the role of mediating institutions at the local level,” creating “an expected right,” fostering a “relationship of dependency,” and eroding “a culture of solidarity and reciprocal concern.” He argues that we must accept no imitation:
“Whatsoever thou spendest more,” said the Samaritan, “when I come again, I will repay thee.” This, right here, is authentic generosity. This is charity. It is exercised by someone acting on his own response to moral formation and the need of another person. It is an instance of admirable moral sensitivity at work—authentic compassion of one human being for another. There is, and can be, no substitute for that.
If charity comes in different forms and doses, with varying expressions of commitment and attention, Sirico clarifies a hierarchy: Giving of one’s own means, and directly administering to the person in need, in particular gross need, is the pinnacle.
Nothing is disguised in The Economics of the Parables. Sirico’s points are clear, direct, and thoughtful. Inspiring too. But one unmentioned issue his Samaritan essay raises, or should raise in the minds of those engaged in formal charity work, is the contrast between bona fide charity—and here in the parable we have its Christian exemplar—and its relative, philanthropy. Sirico is the champion of subsidiarity, and he tells of his good company in this cause. Offering material assistance to far-flung needs is not bad, of course, but citing Pope Benedict XVI’s own reflections of the Good Samaritan parable, minus proximity and direct administering, there is a deficiency: “But we always give too little when we give material things.”
One can pay someone else to provide care, as the Samaritan himself does when he nominates the innkeeper as his holy conspirator. But tending to the wounds with one’s own hands—in whatever ways wounds present themselves to the confronted potential agent of aid—is a profound opportunity to assist what Sirico calls the distressed and disguised Christ.
Why must this matter, especially to the believer? As parables go, the story of The Good Samaritan and the lesson of exquisite charity may be one of the most important instructions given by Jesus, who offers it in response to two questions. Who is my neighbor? is the question answered directly by the parable. But that question was prompted by a religious leader trying to trip up Jesus: Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?—the answer being to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
What we have in The Good Samaritan parable is an explanation, keenly made by this decidedly normal pastor, this man of faith, Father Robert A. Sirico—who for a generation has dedicated himself to teaching America and the world the virtues of the free market as a solution to poverty and a force central to human flourishing—of that most vital tenet of Christianity: Salvation is based in love expressed through compassionate charity, through intimate love of neighbor. It hearkens to that hymn of old: “Where charity and love prevail, there God is ever found.”
This is an important book. Short and clearly written, it would do well to be in the homes of any American, and in a nation of sojourning people, The Economics of the Parables makes for a worthwhile companion to anyone traveling on whatever road to Jericho lies before them.