Saturday, September 7, 2013

God Helps Those Who Help Themselves?

God Helps Those Who Help Others
 [On Sunday, August 25, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich (R) concluded his opinion piece reminding the reader that he was always taught, "God helps those who help themselves". Below is my response to the Baltimore Sun, which was printed with the bracketed sections left out for reasons of space, etc.]

                With all due respect to the former governor’s parents (“HUD latest vehicle for White House power grab,” Robert L. Ehrlich, Sunday, August 25), there is no evidence in the Judeo-Christian Bible that “God helps those who help themselves.” Yes, this is a longstanding bromide of American folklore built on similar concepts such as we all need to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. And although it tops polls as the most widely known “Bible verse,” it appears nowhere in the Bible. In fact, it appears to fly in the face of the Bible’s central message of Grace, which Good News Jesus came to reassert in the first century of the modern era.
The God of Judaism and Christianity provides a much different worldview from the Garden onward: God values those who love God and love others, and God routinely sends messengers and prophets to chastise us when we focus solely on helping ourselves. As early as Leviticus chapter 19 we are urged to love our neighbor as ourselves.
 [The Hebrew word for “love” means something more like doing something helpful for one’s neighbor. You need not even “like” your neighbor, but there is an imperative to help those neighbors who are in need. Indeed, when asked to define “neighbor” Jesus told a story about a Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37). The Samaritans were social and religious enemies, outcasts, folks who lived on “the other side of the tracks,” quite possibly in substandard housing! A man is beaten by robbers on the road and left to die. Two respectable men walk by, see that this is a Samaritan, and someone who as a result of the beating is “unclean,” and they walk by, leaving him to help himself. The most unlikely of characters, a Samaritan, comes by, helps the man, takes him to an Inn, pays for food and lodging, and promises to pay all expenses  associated with his healthcare. “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” asks Jesus.
Or listen to Amos, one of the Hebrew Prophets of the Axial Age, those years from around 800-200 BCE that the philosopher Karl Jaspers asserts, “"the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece. And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today." In Amos 2:6-8 the prophet decries the sins of society :
They buy and sell upstanding people.
    People for them are only things—ways of making money.
They’d sell a poor man for a pair of shoes.
    They’d sell their own grandmother!
They grind the penniless into the dirt,
    shove the luckless into the ditch.
Everyone and his brother sleeps with the ‘sacred whore’—
    a sacrilege against my Holy Name.
Stuff they’ve extorted from the poor
    is piled up at the shrine of their god,
While they sit around drinking wine
    they’ve conned from their victims.]
No sense among the Hebrew prophets of telling people that God only helps those who help themselves. Quite the contrary, those who help themselves at the expense of those of lesser means are the ones judged as sinful. Not unlike when King David has not  only helped himself Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, but arranged for her husband to be killed on the field of battle, the prophet Nathan cleverly gets David to judge himself, proclaiming, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12)
It is universally understood that the arrival of Jesus in the midst of a Roman Civilization characterized by helping themselves to the goods, people and resources of every possible nation they could conquer was God’s proclamation that life had spun out of control and that the myriad ways in which we are called to assist and help (i.e. “love”) our neighbors, all neighbors clean or unclean, neighbors nearby and far away, had been replaced by an emphasis on ownership of personal property. In all four gospels, Jesus spends most of his time helping others. Never does he tell them to help themselves.
 [“God helps those who help themselves” is great advice for a narcissistic, consumer driven culture such as ours has become. But do not be fooled: this does not represent in the least God’s message as handed down through the Bible. God’s message of grace and love of neighbor rests on an ethic of personal sacrifice for the the good of others, and that when we address the good of others we are securing the common good – something that used to be a bedrock American value long before helping ourselves replaced it.]
The Reverend Kirk A Kubicek
Chaplain, Saint Timothy’s School for Girls, Stevenson, MD           

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