Relativistic morality: Would you be a Good Samaritan, or are you too poor or busy?

by Nathan Bailey

We all live with relativistic morals. We make subjective decisions about what is right and wrong, based on the time, place and opportunity. "No I don't!" you say boldly, "I try hard to follow the Bible in everything that I do. Sure, I make mistakes but most of the time I am committed to doing what's right." And I don't doubt your sincerity, or your fervency - just your accuracy :-)

We like to think we're doing all the important things (Luke 18:11-12,21), but actually, we're often on our own mission, just like the Levite or the priest in Luke 10:25-37. How wrong they were, avoiding the injured man! So busy in their day-to-day life, they were clearly selfish and sinful people... weren't they?

What did Jesus do?

The Gospels regularly mentioned that Jesus healed all who came to him. But that doesn't mean every sick person Jesus walked past was healed. At the pool of Bethesda (John 5) there were almost certainly more ill people waiting, but there's no mention of Jesus healing them. Or what about the crippled man at the temple gate called Beautiful (Acts 3)? Surely Jesus would have passed him on one of his trips in to the temple? But he was still waiting for his healing when Peter and John walked by.

We make similar choices. We choose to live subjectively, ignoring many needs that stare us in the face. We buy a $4 cup of coffee every day when the same amount of money could feed a family for a week. One less coffee a week = feed a family! Aren't we a little like the Levite and the priest, focused on our own desires instead of the needs of others?

But there must be a balance. We can't give every cent we have to the poor, can we? We need money to live! (Mark 12:44)

I don't believe in a prosperity gospel, but nor do I believe in living an ascetic life free of all pleasure. I think the Bible is clear that God wants us to enjoy life (John 10:10, 3 John 1:2) but he also wants us to care for those who can't speak for themselves (James 1:27). So which is right? How do we know what to choose?

... we all live with relativistic morals :-)

What should we do?

Interestingly, Jesus had an answer to this quandary, in the same passage as his healing of the crippled man at Bethesda. Some people had been offended. Not because Jesus didn't heal the other people, but because he chose to heal on a day of rest! How dare he interrupt their restful day with a scandalous healing! It should only be interrupted for watering animals (Luke 13:15-18) and helping your children if injured (Luke 14:5), not setting people free from injuries they've had for years! So Jesus helped them by explaining that he wasn't living from his own agenda. All those early mornings (Mark 1:35, 16:9) and late evenings (Matthew 14:23, Mark 6:46), were him getting connected to God the Father, and seeing his plan for the day - and then Jesus just lived it out (John 5:19).

I do think the Levite and the priest were sinful. Not because they didn't stop, but because they clearly made an effort to distance themselves from the problem, "passing by on the other side" (Luke 10:31-32). Many of Jesus' miracles are preceded by statements like, 'and Jesus was moved with compassion'. If we avoid or ignore the problem, we're failing to mirror his lifestyle and values. But if we chase after every need, we're being equally imprudent with our time and resources. We need to engage with the problem and seek God's direction about how to respond to it. Sometimes he will say this is our problem to resolve. Sometimes he may say we should bring it to someone else's attention. And sometimes he will tell us to keep moving, as he has other plans for addressing this problem.

Further reading

Read other essays on Christianity - about hell, sex, drinking, gambling, smoking and tithing!

© Copyright 1997-2012, Nathan Bailey, All Rights Reserved. Permission is granted to print these articles for personal use, in whole or in part, provided the extract references the original URL,, so that people can find the latest version.
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