Good Samaritan Health Care?

The story of the Good Samaritan is a well-known parable in the New Testament that Jesus tells after an exchange with a lawyer, who asks: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Rather than answering, Jesus responds with a question: “What does scripture say?” The lawyer quotes two verses, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” “Do this,” Jesus says, “and you will live.” 

Unsatisfied by this answer, the lawyer asks: “But who is my neighbor?” His question might well be our question, as Jesus has not explained how to distinguish neighbors from those who are not our neighbors, or specifically what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Jesus answers this question with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

This parable tells of a man who is robbed, beaten and left “half dead” beside the road. A Jewish priest and then a Levite (a Jewish layman active in religious affairs) come upon the man, but each continues on his way. A Samaritan, however, stops and helps the injured man, who we may assume is a Jew, as Jesus was a Jew and the lawyer who knew Jewish scripture was clearly also a Jew. As Samaritans and Jews had been enemies for five hundred years, making a Samaritan the good neighbor in a parable told to Jews adds to its impact.

The Samaritan interrupted his journey to help the injured Jew, took him to an inn, stayed with him, and when he left the inn gave the innkeeper enough money to provide for the health care of the injured man. “Which of these three,” Jesus asks the lawyer, “do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” “The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer says. “Go,” Jesus replies, “and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37) 

For centuries Christians have responded to this parable by providing health care for those in need, which is why we have so many Good Samaritan hospitals in the world. This is Christian faith at its best. So why aren’t Christians in the United States actively supporting health care reform that would extend insurance coverage to all those who need it? 

Many of those opposing legislation that would provide health care insurance to those unable to afford it, claim to be resisting increased government control of health care. Yet, many seniors making this claim also demand no change in “their” Medicare coverage, and politicians opposing health care reform fan this fear. “Hypocrites,” Jesus would say, of those who enjoy the benefits of a government health care plan but oppose providing these benefits to others in need.

The same is true of those who believe we can’t afford to help people without health insurance, for they also believe we can afford the insurance benefits they have. To be sure, costs must be carefully managed, but this is true for our entire health care system. It is hypocritical for those who benefit from present health care spending to resist health care reform that would extend insurance coverage to those lacking it.  

A recent study of health care systems around the world by veteran journalist T. R. Reid, entitled The Healing of America, concludes that costs can be contained while universal health care is provided when a society believes that providing health care is a moral responsibility. This is true whether the health care system is directly managed by the government, as in the United Kingdom, or is primarily private, as in Japan and France. When there is a commitment to health care as a human right, the politicians, hospitals, physicians, insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and voters figure out how to provide coverage and contain costs.

In the United States we do not have a moral commitment to health care as a human right. This is, I suggest, largely because Christians in the United States are more concerned with other moral issues than with health care for those who need it.  

The Catholic Church supports all the human rights affirmed by international law, including the right to health care, as “the social conditions necessary for human dignity.” As the Catholic Church is the largest religious organization in the United States, one would expect substantial support among Catholics for health care reform that would extend insurance coverage to the millions who in our present system cannot afford it. But vocal Catholics bishops are mainly concerned with opposing the use of health care insurance for abortions.

Holding the line against abortion is also an issue for evangelical Protestants, but their main talking point is the threat that public health care expenditures pose for a free society (except for the programs that already benefit many of them, such as Medicare or veterans’ benefits). These Christians do not share the moral conviction affirmed by Catholic teaching that health care is a human right, a social condition necessary for human dignity. Therefore, they do not support the idea that our government has a proper role to play in ensuring access to health care for everyone. 

Those who claim the United States is a Christian nation are wrong not only because they misrepresent the human right to religious freedom, as it has evolved in American history and law to protect secular society as well as religious convictions. They are also wrong because our nation is hardly “Christian” when it comes to health care. We may have more "Good Samaritan" hospitals than any other nation, but the US health care system does not embody the moral conviction of a good neighbor. © Robert Traer 2016