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Moral Proximity = Moral Obligation

The closer the moral proximity of the poor the greater the moral obligation to help. Moral proximity does not refer to geography, though that can be part of the equation. Moral
proximity refers to how connected we are to someone or group through relationship. Therefore, in terms of moral proximity I am closer to my brothers and sisters at Evergreen just
down the road from us in than I am to First Baptist in San Diego, California. But physical distance is not the only consideration. In terms of moral proximity, I am closer to a close
friend who lives in Africa than to a stranger I haven’t met who lives on the other side of Marietta.

You can see where this is going. The closer the moral proximity the greater the moral obligation. That is, if a church in Marietta gets struck by lightning and burns down (don’t worry,
I’m not a prophet), our church could help them out, but the obligation is much less than if a church half a mile from ours goes up in smoke. Likewise, if a man in Marietta loses his job
I could send him a check, but if my friend on the other side of the world is out of work I have more of an obligation to help. This doesn’t mean I can be totally uncaring to everyone
but my friends, close relatives, and people next door, but it means that what I ought to do in one situation is what I simply could do in another.

I believe the principle of moral proximity can be found in the Bible. In the Old Testament for example, as many scholars have pointed out, the greatest responsibility was to one’s own
family, then to the tribe, then to fellow Israelites, and finally to other nations. From jubilee laws to kinsmen redeemers, the ideal was for the family to help out first. They had the
greatest obligation to help. After all, as Paul says, if you don’t provide for your family (and you can) you are worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8). If family isn’t a possibility, the
circle expanded. Those closest to the person or situation should respond before outside persons or organization do. Their moral obligation to do so is stronger.

1 John 3:16-18 vs. 2 Corinthians

1 John 3:16-18

“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet
closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

This is a powerful challenge. I’ve preached from this text before and referenced it in sermons many times. We need to take this warning seriously. If we close our hear to our brother in
need, God’s love does not abide in us and we are not born again. We must help our brother in need. That is the Christian thing to do.

But then in 2 Corinthians where he encourages the church there to excel in the grace of giving, Paul makes clear:

I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love is genuine…So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange
in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction…Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under
compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver (8:8; 9:5, 7; emphasis mine).

Clearly, Paul wants the Corinthians to be generous. He wants them to support the famine-stricken church in Jerusalem like the Macedonians have. But he lays no “ought” on them. 1
John 3 sure sounds like an ought, but not 2 Corinthians 8-9. The difference is moral proximity. I think the best way to understand 1 John 3 is as a reference to fellow Christians in their
midst who are destitute and need relief, not just to any brother anywhere. So if a family in your church loses everything in a flood, and insurance won’t replace most of it, you have an
obligation to do something. If you let them starve or live out on the street you do not have the love of God in you. But if the same thing happens to a whole bunch of families in a
church three states over, it would be generous of you to help, but the obligation is not the same. This is the difference between 1 John 3 and 2 Corinthians 8-9.

The reason the rich man was so despicable in Luke 16 is the same reason the priest and the Levite in Luke 10 are such an embarrassment: they had a need right in front of them, with
the power to help, and they did nothing.

Obviously, this principle of moral proximity gets tricky very quickly. With modern communication and travel we have millions of needs right in front of us. So are we under an
obligation to help in every instance? No. The principle gets harder to navigate in our age, but it still is helpful. The intensity of our moral obligations depends on how well we know the
people, how connected they are to us, and whether those closer to the situation can and should assist first. It's all about RELATIONSHIP!

There are no easy answers even with the principle of moral proximity, but without it God’s call to compassion seems like a cruel joke. We can’t possibly respond to everyone who asks
for money. We can’t give to every organization helping the poor. As result, many of us give up on every doing anything because the demands are so many. We just put “helping the
poor” in the disobedience column and start thinking about football.

We must distinguish between a call to generosity to go above and beyond duty and help those in need, and the call to obligation whereby we must do something or we are sinning. This
is where many of the well-meaning “pro-social justice” voices can actually do harm by trying to do get us to do so much good. If we are obligated to help the poor and needy
everywhere, then we will feel little obligation to help the poor and needy anywhere. Thus, 1 John 3 is robbed of its power. Supporting AIDS relief in Africa is a wonderful thing to do,
but a failure to do so probably does not make a church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa a gospel-less, selfish church. But if that same church did nothing to help their people and their community
when the river flooded in 2008, then they do not understand the love of Christ.