The following is an excerpt from Tim Keller’s book, Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road (3rd edition). Here Dr. Keller surveys the Old Testament and shows how the ministry of mercy began long before the Good Samaritan. (To show the progression of mercy ministry, bracketed headings provide an outline of Keller’s thought.)
MERCY IS NOT NEW
[Mercy in the Garden]
The Bible’s teaching on the ministry of mercy does not begin with the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Man’s first “mission” was to subdue and have dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:28). Genesis 2:15 restates this commission in terms of “tending and keeping” the garden of God. The concept of man as a gardener is highly suggestive: a gardener does not destroy nature, nor leave it as it is. He cultivates and develops it, enhancing its beauty, usefulness, and fruitfulness. So God expects his servants to bring all creation under his lordship. Science, engineering, art, education, government are all part of this responsibility. We are to bring every dimension of life, both spiritual and material, under the rule and law of God.
Obviously, there was no “ministry of mercy” per se before the fall of man, since there was no human suffering or need. But it is clear that God’s servants at that time were as concerned with the material-physical world as with the spiritual.
After the fall, the effects of sin immediately caused the fragmentation of man’s relationships. Man becomes alienated from God (Gen. 3:10). As a result his relationship with other human beings is shattered (vv. 12–13), and so is his relationship with nature itself (vv. 17–18). Now sickness, hunger, natural disaster, social injustice, and death dominate
The first act of mercy ministry immediately follows the fall: God clothes Adam and Eve with animal skins (Gen. 3:21). Many have pointed out that this action represents the covering of our sins by the work of Christ, but that is surely not the only reason for God’s action. Man now needs protection from a hostile environment. By God’s action, Derek Kidner says, “Social action could not have had an earlier or more exalted inauguration.”
[Mercy before the Law]
Even before the giving of the law to Moses, God made his will known concerning the ministry of mercy. Job, who lived in an early pre-Mosaic age, knew that the righteousness God requires includes providing food, shelter, and clothing to the needy (Job 24:1–21; 31:16–23). In fact, Job tells us that he did more than simple social service. “I was a father to the needy; I took up the cause of the stranger. I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth” (29:16–17).
[Mercy after the Law]
When God gave the law to Moses, he was constructing a believing community in which social righteousness was as required as personal righteousness and morality. Individual Israelites were forbidden to harvest all their produce, so the poor could glean from the fields for free (Ex. 23:10–11). Israelites were told to give to the poor until his need was gone (Deut. 15:8, 10), especially if the poor man was a kinsman or a neighbor (Lev. 25:25, 35–38). The priests gave to the poor out of the tithes to God (Deut. 14:28–29).
God’s law required that the poor be given more than just a “handout.” When a slave was freed from debt and servitude, he was not to leave empty-handed, but had to be given grain or livestock so that he could become economically self-sufficient (Deut. 15:12–15).
[Mercy in the Prophets]
These laws given to Moses were the basis for the thundering of the later prophets, who denounced Israel’s insensitivity to the poor as breaking covenant with God. They taught that materialism and the ignoring of the poor’s plight are sins as repugnant as idolatry and adultery (Amos 2:6–7). Mercy to the poor is an evidence of true heart commitment to God (Isa. 1:10–17; 58:6–7; Amos 4:1–6; 5:21–24). Finally, the prophets predicted that the Messiah, when he came, would be characterized by mercy to the poor (Isa. 11:1–4; 61:1–2).
Tim Keller, Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015), 41–42.