by Jason Overman
I live in a rural and fairly homogenous Midwest community, but recently I learned that a close-knit community book club was close to folding over the cultural and political strife gripping the nation. Increasingly among friends and neighbors, cracks of disagreement are yawning into canyons of division. Without resorting to all the outrage posts all over social media or the open hostility of cable news programming, a deep and widespread breakdown of community trust and civility is evident. What is the Christian response in navigating such an antagonistic environment?
One morning during my daily Bible reading, I ran into an unusual passage from the law of Moses I hadn’t noticed before. It’s one of those verses rarely read, much less taken to heart, but it’s been on my mind ever since. It’s a piece of legislation regarding personal injuries. I think it speaks to our times:
“If men have a quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but remains in bed, if he gets up and walks around outside on his staff, then he who struck him shall go unpunished; he shall only pay for his loss of time, and shall take care of him until he is completely healed” (Exodus 21:18, 19, NASB throughout).
In this ancient law we detect a hint of modern jurisprudence — compensation for injury caused by wrongful conduct, in particular. But the personal, almost intimate, framing of this law makes it peculiar. What caught my eye is the ending clause: The one who caused the injury not only pays restitution but also, remarkably, must “take care of him until he is completely healed.”
Take care! How odd and yet, creatively humane. Our own consciences, and God’s Word, motivate us to take care of the most vulnerable among us — the elderly, the youngest. But my adversary? Yes! And what a difference it might make. It made me think of Cain and Abel. What if Abel had survived Cain’s blow. What if he had nursed his brother back to health? What then?
The biblical principle is simple but goes well beyond today’s impersonal, detached legal system that mediates between competing and mounting grievances. Humans are prone to quarrel, and harm comes in all shapes and sizes. But God commands here more than blind balanced justice; He calls for radical, unexpected personal care provided by the wounding party. Not just restitution but reconciliation.
More than physical injury is healed when the one who harmed must take care of his opponent until full wellness. And what must the wounded party make of a caretaker who got the best of him in the fight? It’s strange, if not wholly impractical, in human terms. But, of course, this unique law has Divine origins.
This obscure statute is grounded in what Jesus called the great commandment of the law: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39; Leviticus 19:18). To love is to care for others as we care for ourselves. Most importantly, this generous care reflects God’s own nature, witnessed throughout the Bible: “God will surely take care of you . . . because He cares for you” (Genesis 50:24; 1 Peter 5:7).
This command is more than making right by those we have hurt, as Exodus 21 illustrates, but that is a good place to start taking care. More positively, the love command expresses a compassionate heart that helps all in need while eschewing harmful behavior in the first place. In the parable of the goats and the sheep (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus focuses on this special breed who, while taking care of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner, took care of Jesus in the process (vv. 44, 45). This is Christian care that only makes sense, and is brought to life, by the love of Jesus, who views all as neighbor.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ most famous story of sacrificial care (Luke 10:25-37). Conspicuously, Jesus shared this tale in response to a self-justifying legal expert who, knowing Exodus 21:19 and Leviticus 19:18 better than we, still wondered to Jesus who his neighbor really was. How it must have stung him that a despised Samaritan (Samaritans were longtime nemeses of Israel) risked much and invested more to take care of a stranger, beaten by thieves and left for dead in a ditch, after a pious priest and Levite skirted the brutal scene by one justification or another.
“But a Samaritan . . . when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him” (Luke 10:33, 34).
Even this hardened lawyer, when asked, recognized who the neighbor was in this parable: “the one who showed mercy . . . ,” he admitted. “Go and do the same,” Jesus commanded him (v. 37).
That command echoes down to us in our troubling times. It still stings a little too. Our compassion reaches out naturally to care for the sick and vulnerable in our own circle, the widow and orphan — and often in costly, sacrificial ways. But Jesus stretches us further still: to consider strangers and even enemies.
Who’s my neighbor? Who should I take care of? My family, most certainly. My church. But like the independent lawyer, too often I ask these questions to narrow the field of possibilities, to limit my responsibilities, and preserve my time, fears, resources and prejudices. But then the Spirit of God whispers from Holy Scripture and lifts me up out of that self-justification: I must take care of those given me; those put in my path and those off that beaten path; those I have hurt and also those hurt by others; those I count as friends and those who are adversaries — those like me and those unlike me.
We live in anxious, divisive times. It’s tempting to define neighbors in a way that justifies only taking care of our own, while excluding the other we find suspect. But Jesus instructs — like the Samaritan to the innkeeper, having given all means necessary: “Take care of him.”
Let’s think creatively, Christianly, how we can be caring neighbors in a calloused world.