Parable of Good Works

  a parable to help paint a picture of distinction between justice ministries and mercy (charity) ministries

Once upon a time there was a small village on the edge of a river. The people there were good and the life in the village was good. One day a villager noticed a baby floating down the river. The villager quickly jumped into the river and swam out to save the baby from drowning.

The next day this same villager was walking along the river bank and noticed two babies in the river. He called for help, and both babies were rescued from the swift waters. And the following day four babies were seen caught in the turbulent current. And then eight, then more and still more. The villagers organized themselves quickly, setting up watch towers and training teams of swimmers who could resist the swift waters and rescue babies. Rescue squads were soon working twenty-four hours a day. And each day the number of helpless babies floating down the river increased.

The villagers organized themselves efficiently. The rescue squads were now snatching many children each day. Groups were trained to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Others prepared formula and provided clothing for the chilled babies. Many were involved in making clothing and knitting blankets. Still others provided foster homes and placement. While not all the babies, now very numerous, could be saved, the villagers felt they were doing well to save as many as they could each day. Indeed, the village priest blessed them in their good work. And life in the village continued on that basis.

One day, however, someone raised the question, “But where are all these babies coming from? Who is throwing them into the river? Why? Let’s organize a team to go up-stream and see who’s doing it?” The logic of the elders countered: “And if we go upstream, who will operate the rescue operations? We need every concerned person here.”
“But don’t you see,” cried the one lone voice, “if we find out who is throwing them in, we can stop the problem and no babies will drown. By going upstream we can eliminate the cause of the problem.” “It is too risky.” And so the numbers of babies in the river increased daily. Those saved increased, but those who drowned increased even more.

(There are many versions of this modern day parable but this one is called The Parable of Good Works, Gilbert, Richard. The Prophetic Imperative: Social Gospel in Theory and Practice. Skinner House Books, 2000).