Sermon: Compassion


 A sermon preached on July 15, 2007 based upon Luke 10:25 – 37, entitled “Compassion.”

If you’ve been listening to me preach for a while you may know that this Bible story is one of my favorites.  Anybody who reads the Bible and calls themselves a Christian has certain passages with which they interpret the rest of the Scriptures.  This story is my key passage. It tells me that for Jesus, compassion was the key. 

Now I must admit that one of the reasons this story has such appeal to me is that I realized a number of years ago that I could use it to defend myself against assaults from certain sorts of Christians who would, from time, challenge me as to whether I was in fact a “real Christian.”   Coming at me with their own key passage as a club with which to hammer me into submission — “Ye must be born again” — they would want to know exactly when it was I had been “born again,” accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, trusting that he had indeed died to save me from my sins.  I was aware that how I answered would place me in the eyes of my interrogator either in the ranks of the saved or the damned.

It was an uncomfortable place to be, and so it was helpful to discover that this story was one I could for the purpose of defending myself.  “Hey,” I would say, “right here in Luke’s Gospel the lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus’ answer says nothing about being ‘born again’ or believing that he would die for my sins.  Instead Jesus says quite clearly here that compassion is all that matters.”  It was hard to resist a dig of my own:  “It says it right here in the Bible.  You do, believe in the Bible, don’t you?!” 

Over the years I’ve come to realize that this passage can also easily be turned into a club with which to beat people into submission. 

Several years back a couple of sociologists at Princeton came up with an ingenious, and somewhat devious experiment, with seminary students used as the guinea pigs.  About fifty would-be-preachers were gathered in a building on campus on the pretext that they were going to participate in an exercise in extemporary preaching.   They were told that one by one they would be given a Bible passage, at which point they were to go across campus to another building where they would give an impromptu sermon on their assigned passage to a group of people waiting there. 

In actuality they were all given the same passage, which was, in fact, the one I am preaching on this morning, which involved a man beaten up at the side of the road.  The experimenters had hired a drama student to fake distress near the path the preachers would travel.   With the words of this compassion parable fresh in their minds, would they, or wouldn’t they, stop to help the student in distress?   Well, only 40% stopped.  The other  60% “flunked” the test, too concerned about getting to their preaching assignment to stop to help.

Now I think that the reaction of most of us in hearing about this study is to wonder, somewhat anxiously perhaps, whether we would have “passed” or “failed” the test. 

Quick!  Tell me the name of this parable that Jesus told.   Right:  “The Good Samaritan.”  The only problem is, no where in the story does Jesus call the Samaritan “good.”  In fact, in another passage, when a man comes up to Jesus and addresses him as “Good Teacher,” Jesus immediately cuts him off, saying, “Why do you call me ‘good?’  No one is good but God alone,” the point being that all goodness belongs to God, and if we manage to express some of that goodness, it is because we manage to get ourselves out of the way. 

We hear this parable, however, and we quickly fit the characters into the categories into which we divide the human race.  The Samaritan is “good,” the priest and Levite who pass by without helping are “bad.”  We imagine the Samaritan as this great guy who was kind to wife and children and honest in his business dealings.  We conjure up the priest and Levite as hard-hearted hypocrites who secretly kick their dogs when no one is watching. 

But Jesus’ parable doesn’t say that.  All we know is that on a given day a priest and a Levite passed by a man in need, while a Samaritan stopped to help.   As far as we know the Samaritan could have been a liar and a thief, and the priest and the Levite the sort of people you’d love to have as your next door neighbor. 

I am a pretty self-absorbed person.  I don’t know whether I am more or less self-absorbed than other people.  Only God knows.  I suspect that everybody is fairly self-absorbed, that this is simply the human condition, but I don’t know for sure.  As far as I know some of you could be walking pretty much free from yourselves. 

By self-absorption I mean that most of the time I am the center of my thoughts.  The “me” I am referring here to includes all the various obligations I had taken on as a part of the life I have chosen to live:  to my congregation, to my wife and children. 

Here’s what my self-absorbed life often feels like.  I owe time and energy to my congregation because I want to be a good pastor, and to my children because I want to be a good father, and to my wife because I want to be a good husband, and to my parents, because I want to be a good son.  And there is also that obligation I have to that “me” that is separate from all those relationships, to which I owe attention in terms of time spent in prayer, recreation, renewal, self-development, etc.  And all this is important stuff, but often I feel like I’m not giving any of this stuff the time and energy it deserves — that I’m shortchanging everybody.  If I give more time and energy to the church, well, my family may get shortchanged, and if I give more time to my ailing mother, well the family and the church get shortchanged, and on, and on, and on. 

And in the midst of all this some guy shows up at the side of the road half dead (whether literally or metaphorically), and I know if I give him my attention, well someone else is going to get shortchanged as a result, and so my response is, “No, no, no!  Sorry, buddy, I just don’t have the time for you!”  At which point I cast my lot with the priest and the Levite. 

And if I throw the “Good Samaritan” parable into this self-absorbed  mix, it easily becomes a “club” with which to hammer myself, piling on my sense of failure and guilt.  And so maybe in order to lessen the guilt load I give the poor bugger at the side of the road ten bucks, or I give him three minutes of my time, pretending to listen to his woes, when what I’m really doing is biding my time till I feel like I’ve given the bugger enough of my time to allow me to safely deposit myself back in the “good guy” category rather than the “bad guy” category.

I think you know what I’m talking about. 

I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind when he told this story.  He wasn’t looking to create yet another law — one more club by which to pound people into submission.  “Do this and you will live,” he said.  Maybe Jesus was simply pointing out that we are truly alive only when our capacity for compassion isn’t blocked.  That we really are — all of us — in this thing called life together. 

How does this story become for us the good news I believe Jesus intended it to be?  Maybe it begins with getting a hold of the notion that the object here is to have compassion upon all people (indeed, all living things, but that’s another sermon.)  And that includes compassion for the priest and the Levite.  Can I imagine what it feels like to be so consumed by their duties that they can’t allow themselves to feel for the man at the side of the road?  Can I imagine this kind of walking death?  (Probably it isn’t so hard, since I suspect we all walk that walk at least some of the time.) 

If the object is to have compassion on all people, then I myself an included in those for whom I am to have compassion.  When the “Good Samaritan” parable becomes a club with which to hammer ourselves, it can be our own soul moaning from the side of the road, to whom we say,  “Sorry, buddy, I’ve got important business to attend to.  No time for you.” 

I think there is good news as well when we think of our own lives as stories that haven’t been finished writing yet.  Jesus tells a story begins all too familiarly.  A man, beaten up, lies half dead at the side of the road.  People pass by without helping.  The world is full of violence and heartlessness.  If this is where the story ends, there is certainly reason to despair. 

But wait, someone else is coming down the road.   Oh no, it’s a  Samaritan, the last person you would expect to help this man suffering at the side of the road, and yet that’s exactly what he does.  The story is redeemed with surprising mercy. 

Our stories hold that possibility as well.  At any given moment, the story line may look pretty bleak.  But the story isn’t finished being written.  In partnership with God we write our stories.  At any given moment an opportunity may present itself for us to participate in a moment of pure grace — to be a sign that God still does walks this way with us.

A story.

Joe was having a bad day.  Or maybe it would be more accurate to say a bad week, or month, or year, or life.  This morning, just before leaving for work he had yelled at his daughter for the endless mess she created.  He’d said things he probably shouldn’t have said, but hey, she had it coming to her.  And Joe was having one of those frozen fights with his wife that they often seemed to get stuck inside, unsure exactly how it began, or what they needed to do to get out of it.

And work wasn’t going so good either.  Joe was a salesman, and that morning he had made a couple of calls on clients, and he had heard himself making promises that he knew he had no intention of following through on, but hey, sometimes you got to do that to have a chance to make a sale in this cutthroat world. 

Joe was supposed to be on diet, but at lunch, feeling tired and irritable, he had stuffed himself on all the wrong kinds of food.  And now, in the middle of the afternoon, feeling fairly disgusted with himself, he found himself feeling irresistibly drowsy.  He pulled off the highway onto the side of the road and took out the pillow he kept in the car for times like this.  Glancing in the mirror, the eyes that stared back at him struck him as distinctly pathetic.   He fell asleep quickly. 

He was awoken by the sound of a soft tapping on the window.  Startled, Joe couldn’t remember at first where he was, and then remembering, his first thought was that the tapping must be a policeman come to see what he was up to. 

When he looked up, he was surprised to find a young Hispanic man standing there looking at him, his eyes, watering.  Joe rolled down the window.  “Yes?”  Pointing behind Joe’s car, it was clear the man was asking for some kind of help.  Turning around, Joe saw an old junker of a car parked behind him.  Inside the car was a young woman Joe took to be the man’s wife.  She held a crying baby.  “Help, senor?”

Getting out of the car, it soon became clear that the man’s car had run out of gas.  Joe offered to take the man to a gas station so he could buy some gas.  He figured he would just take the man, but the woman seemed so clearly distressed at the prospect of being left alone there at the side of the road with the baby, that Joe invited her to get into his car as well.  The vibrations of the car soothed the baby; soon she had stopped her crying.   

It took some time to locate a gas station, and when they did, it became clear that the man had no money to pay for the gas, so Joe paid the bill.  Through the man’s broken English, Joe picked up that the man had the possibility of a job he was trying to get to, and a relative who was willing to give them space on the floor to sleep. 

When they got back to the man’s car, Joe helped the man empty the gas can in his car.  Joe took out his wallet and gave the man all his remaining cash.   On an impulse, Joe took out a scrap of paper and wrote down his name and address and phone number and told the man to feel free to give him a call if he needed help.   The man smiled, the woman smiled; everybody’s eyes watered.  The baby was sleeping quietly as Joe drove off. 

Joe decided to call it a day.  As he drove home, he felt like something had slowed down inside him; like he was alive again for the first time in a long time.  Coming into the kitchen he gave his wife a kiss and a hug, which surprised and pleased her.   Taking off his tie, he went into his daughter’s room where Joe found her drawing.  She looked up cautiously.  “Hey, sweetie,” he said, kissing her forehead.  There was a book his daughter loved to have read to her over and over and over.  Recently Joe hadn’t been able to bear another reading.   But now there seemed nothing he’d rather do.   “Sweetie, how’d you like me to read to you?”

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