“Be always Ready to Help (Ex 23,4-5)”

by John Wijngaards, LAWS FOR LIFE Series in the New Leader, 1 April 1973; in Telugu Bharata Mithram, 27 July 1975

“If you happen to come across an ox or ass that is going astray, even if it belongs to your enemy, you must lead it back to him. If you see an ass fallen under its load, even if it belongs to a man who hates you, instead of keeping out of his way, go to him to help him.” (Exodus 23. 4-5)

According to the legislation of the Ancient Middle East, all members of a community were brothers. Everyone had the duty to protect the property of his neighbour. The finder of some leost property was obliged to restore it to its original owner. If someone found some piece of property and did not restore it to the owner or inform the authorities about the find, he was simply considered a thief (Cf. Hittite Law 45, 60 62,71). This ancient prsotice is also the basis of the law in Scripture: we have the duty of restoring lost property.

However, if we consider the words of Scripture properly, we will notice that they transcend a mere legalistic interpretation. The lawgiver expects from us more than a strictly just attitude. We have to go beyond the letter of the minimum requirement. For, apart from restoring lost property, such as an ox that goes astray, there is also mention of the duty of helping someone who is transporting luggage on the back of his ass and who finds his ass fallen under the lead. The owner of the ass would find himself in somewhat of a predicament if this happened. Because, if he were alone, he would not he able to lift the ass under its load and help it to stand on its feet again. He would need to go through the long process of unloading the ass first, then helping the ass stand and finally loading the baskets on its back again. The lawgiver commands that a passer-by has to assist the owner of the ass so that, between the two of them, the ass and its load can be lifted. Obviously the Iawgiver knows that the owner of the ass would be able to help himself in the course of time with some inconvenience. By this law he commands the passer-by to help the owner of the ass to save him his inconvenience.

As in so many Old Testament laws, the incidents pictured are only examples. It would be entirely wrong to imagine that the law of restitution would only refer to oxen or asses that have been lost. Obviously the law refers to all kinds of property that may be lost by its owner, whether it be gold or silver, a piece of clothing or food, Similarly, the duty of helping a neighbour is not restricted to lifting his fallen ass. The lawgiver intends to impose a general duty extending itself to all spheres of life in which another person may require our help.

Even One’s Enemy

If we scrutinise the law a little more, we will notice another aspect that is stressed. The law spells out that thIs help should be given to our brother “even if he is our enemy”· or “even if he hates us”, Every member of the community has the right to our help, whether he is our particular friend or not. The law does not tolerate particularism, petty friendships or partiality. Our safeguarding another person’s ownership and our readiness to help should be extended irrespective of the particular bonds we have with the other person, In other words, we should show this kind of practical love even towards our enemies,

It is clear that this law has great applications to our own times. Too often we imagine that we have no responsibility concerning the difficulties of other persons. So often we may look on indifferently while we should honestly try to help a distressed person; a stranger who does not know the way, a relative who would need our comfort, a fellow-worker who is weak or tired, a father of a family who is desperately looking for work. Not always are we able to alleviate the needs of our brothers, but at least we can show our sympathy and do the little that is in our power.

Passer-by Priest

When we know this law of the Old Testament, we can also. understand better the parable of the Good Samaritan. The traveller from Jerusalem to Jericho was lying half dead on the roadside. The priest who came that way saw him and passed by. This was a great mistake on his part, as is clear from the Old Testament law itself. If a passer-by had the duty of helping a man to lift his fallen ass, how much more should he help that person if he is lying helplessly by the side ef the road? And remember, the Old Law required that such help should be given even if the other person were one’s enemy. The Samaritan of the parable fulfilled this law by giving assistance to the hostile Jew. That is why the Samaritan really shows us “Who is our neighbour” (Luke 10, 29,36).

A last word. Commentators on this passage of Scripture from the Middle Ages point out that we should apply the law not only to the giving of material assistance, but especially to cases where we can help ether people spiritually. In our own family, our sphere of work, our circle of friends, our parish, or our school, we may know other people who slowly drift away from the right path. By lack of good advice er a word of encouragement, they may slowly be alienated feom God or the Church. Especially in such cases we may not remain indifferent. We may not act as if tbe problems of the other person have no relevance for us. We may not allow such a person to continue the struggle on his own. We must come forward and try to help in any way we can. Often enough, if we show some real interest. we may save another person more than a small inconvenience: we may help him to protect his spiritual integrity which is in fact the highest property he owns.