Proper 10 (July 10-16)
Texts: Luke 10:25-37;
TRANSFORMED BY COMPASSION — PERSONALLY AND CULTURALLY
A couple weeks earlier during Art Camp, we featured this passage at the Bible time on the last day. The kids had fun doing a simple, impromptu miming of the story, which we will reprise here. We used four characters: the beat up man, a pastor, a Sunday school teacher, and a person who doesn’t go to church.
The message: God uses anyone who will show love to others. It doesn’t have to be someone who goes to church. In fact, Jesus is saying, I think, that going to church is not the most important thing. Showing love to people who need our help is the most important thing. Coming to church, then, is about helping each other love those in need.
In this wide world of awesome wonders, is there anything more wondrous than to smile into the face of a newborn baby and to have her smile back? And it doesn’t take very long, I don’t think, before it’s not just imitating your smile, but it’s also catching your feeling of joy. This process of learning by imitation always goes much deeper than mimicking each other’s actions. We also catch our feelings and desires. It’s more like living in a gravitational field where our complex abilities for imitation are the main power that move us as God’s creatures.
That field of imitation is where compassion comes from, too. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus shows us a situation that normally evokes compassion: a man nearly dead on the side of the road. In fact, I would say that compassion is the natural response. Some scientists today are looking for a so-called ‘compassion gene’ — that some of us inherit compassion genetically. But I think it’s a simpler explanation (1) to say that we catch compassion like babies catch our joy when we smile at them. As we mature from infancy, we become increasingly able to recognize someone who is suffering and our natural learned response is compassion.
But that raises the question: if compassion is a natural response, how is that we sometimes are aware of suffering and don’t respond with compassion? The priest and the levite in the parable, for example. I know that I’m often guilty of this, too. An infomercial comes on television with children who are starving in another part of the world. I start to watch and then — I’m not sure how else to say it — I find a way to shutdown compassion and turn the channel. Or a homeless vet stands with a sign at the freeway off-ramp. I find a way to shutdown my natural response of compassion. How and why do we do that?
Well, part of the answer is self-preservation. There’s an awful lot of suffering in the world. Sometimes the suffering hits us smack in the face — intruding suffering in our lives, too. We can bear only so much. So there’s times when it is a mechanism of self-protection to not become overwhelmed by the suffering of others we meet.
But I also think there’s more going on, something deeper. I think we have help with those mechanisms of self-protection, that kick in more often than we know, I venture to say. We have justifications that often go along with those shutdown mechanisms — justifications that come from the most deeply held values in our cultures, values that tell us the world is ordered in a certain way that exempts us from having to respond with compassion all the time. I don’t think it was a coincidence that Jesus picked two religious figures who shutdown their compassion and walked on by. It was representatives of his culture’s most deeply held values that felt justified in shutting down their compassion.
Two weeks ago, we talked about our culture and institutions as the container for our lives, that our entire lives are nurtured within these cultures. And we talked about the container being cracked — that they are formed with a fatal flaw that helps us structure everything in Us-Them terms. In short, the crack is this: The most deeply held values of our institutions tell us that we can justly divide the world along lines of Us vs. Them. Well, do you see how this helps us to shutdown compassion? When we encounter a suffering person, there is the option of considering that person to be a Them, to be one of those other people for whom we don’t have to feel compassion. We’re justified by our cultural values in making our world smaller so that we can have compassion for Us, but not for Them.
Don’t you suppose that’s the sort of thing going on for the priest and the levite? They have religious justifications for not touching an unclean, almost-dead person, so their cultural values tell them they can shutdown their compassion. And isn’t that what the religious scholar is trying to do when Luke says he was seeking to justify himself by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” He wanted his neighbors, those he is commanded to love, to be a smaller, manageable group of people. He wanted to be able to have a definition of neighbor that helped justify him showing compassion to some but not all.
Notice what Jesus does, though. He still doesn’t give him a definition. He tells him a story of a man in need of compassion. Two religious folks walk by and observe their religious and cultural boundaries for shutting down compassion. An outsider, a Samaritan, walks by and acts with compassion. Jesus doesn’t give a definition. He gives his tester a model to imitate. He shows him an outsider who crosses boundaries and responds with compassion.
And Jesus himself will do likewise on the cross. He will let himself be declared an outsider, a criminal, and he will respond with compassion, even to those who kill him. He crosses the boundaries of Us and Them and begins to lead us into a new way of being human that begins to open up more and more our ability to show compassion, not just to those who are clearly our neighbors, but also to those strangers in need who are also are neighbors. His Spirit is unleashed on Pentecost so that we might be transformed into people of greater compassion for all we meet. That’s Good News!
But, again, the Good News is even better than that. Because he came to die for those who killed him — the religious and political leaders who shut down their compassion in order to execute him — because Jesus died for them, too, Jesus was also unleashing his Spirit on the cultural institutions they represent. He was coming to heal the crack in the container. He was coming so that the cultures which nurture us in our most deeply held values might also become more compassionate, too. In his parable, it was a priest and a levite. If Jesus told this parable today, he might use a CEO or banker and a senator or County Commissioner. Because Jesus died for all, he was also dying to help make our broken institutions more compassionate to all — not just to some, but to all.
The passage in its entirety begins with the religious scholar’s question: “what must I do to enter life in God’s kingdom?” This religious leader is aware of Jesus’ message of God’s Kingdom coming into the world and wants to know how he can be part of it. Jesus’ answer? Follow the example of the Samaritan who crossed religious and cultural boundaries to show compassion, to live compassion. If this religious scholar encounters the grace in Jesus to able to do so, then he will also be part of healing the crack in the container — of helping to make our nurturing institutions more compassionate. That’s really Good News!
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, July 13-14, 2013
1. It’s also a less discriminatory explanation, since some of these scientists want to show why some people seem to lack compassion. The mimetic explanation also puts us all on an equal footing genetically, with the difference coming in our nurture, not nature.