The Weight of Compassion
July 20, 2003
Rabbi Israel of Risbah tells the story of a wealthy and corrupt man who lived most of his life thinking only of himself and not of others. On one particular night, however, when he was returning home in a cold and wet rain, he looked outside of his carriage and saw a local farmer who was stuck with his horses and his wagon in the mud by the side of the road. The rich man thought to himself, “This is no night for anyone to be stuck outside.” So he uncharacteristicly told his driver to stop, and the two of them got out and hitched their carriage to the wagon of the farmer and pulled him from out of the mud. Then they accompanied him home to his hut. And when the rich man saw the poverty in which the man lived, he gave him a considerable amount of money that helped him save his farm and educate his children.
Many years later the rich man died and came before the eternal tribunal. God said to him, “Now we must weigh your good deeds against your bad to see whether you might enter into eternal life.” But when all the sins and crimes of that man were placed on the scales of justice, they were so overwhelming that it seemed that there would be no way for his salvation. Then the Angel of Mercy spoke up and said, “Lord God Almighty, remember that one night when this man helped the poor farmer who was stuck at the side of the road. That should be placed on the scales.” God agreed. It was placed on the scales, but it was certainly not enough to offset all this man’s wickedness. So the Angel of Mercy thought a bit more and said, “I think it would be fair to also place in this man’s favor all the good that came from that deed: the money that he gave that saved the man’s farm and educated his children, and all the good that has been able to happen because of that.” God agreed. So that, too, was placed upon the scales. But again, it was not nearly enough to budge them. The Angel of Mercy thought a bit more and said, “It was not only this man that was saved from the side of the road, but also the horses and the wagon. Perhaps we should put those on the scale as well.’ God nodded favorably. When they were placed on the scale, it budged just a bit, but still not enough. So one last time the Angel of Mercy said, “It’s only fair to count in our calculations what this man was saved from. So I suggest that we put all the waste and the mud out of which he was pulled on the scales as well.” “Absolutely,” God said. When it was done, the scales moved, and the astonished rich man entered into his eternal reward.
Nothing is more important to God than compassion. Compassion is at the very heart of the Gospel. Jesus shows this clearly today in our gospel selection. For though he is tired and wants to get away from everyone, when he sees the vast crowd, he has compassion on them. In his full humanity he knows their need, their poverty, their confusion. So he puts his agenda aside and ministers to them.
Compassion is at the heart of the Gospel. Compassion is not simply a feeling. It is a way of looking at life, and it factors into the choices that we make each day. For on each day we face a number of choices in which we need to decide between judgment and compassion. We look at the people that we live with, the people that we love. We know their faults and neuroses. We know what is wrong with them. So we need to choose whether we are going to judge them because they are not the people we would like them to be or have compassion on them because we, too, have shortcomings and failures.
We get behind an elderly person on the freeway, driving ten miles below the speed limit, and again we have a choice of whether to lean on the horn and yell something out as we pass or have compassion. Compassion allows us to understand that here is a person struggling to stay active and independent, and that we are likely to face that same struggle sometime in our future. When we hear of somebody who is stricken by AIDS, we have the choice of judgment against that person because of their carelessness or lifestyle or compassion because we know our own fragility. We know that one way or another we will have to deal with disease and sickness in our own life. As we watch the evening news and see Iraqis protesting against American troops in their country, we have the choice of judging them because they’re not thankful for having us remove Saddam Hussein who was oppressing them or having compassion because we understand their decades of oppression and poverty and their desire to self-determine their future.
Compassion is at the heart of the Gospel. Each day we have a number of choices between judgment and compassion. Both, of course, are necessary. There are times when we must make judgments and live by them. But the call of the Gospel asks us to include compassion in our choices. Our scriptures reveal to us a God who is a God of compassion. One way or another our God finds a way to have mercy prevail. God knows that our judgments, even good judgments, have the tendency to pull people apart, whereas compassion has the power of pulling us together. God knows that the more people in this world who act with compassion, the more likely it is that we will have a world that understands each other, a world in which healing and peace become real and possible.
So the challenge that comes to us today from the Gospel is to let compassion be a part of the choices we make every day. In doing so we will not only be following the example of Jesus; we will also be making a choice that is the best choice for our own good. Because compassion spreads its benefits on all and calls us together. To be people without compassion is like being like two men sitting in a lifeboat, doing nothing. They are watching as people at the other end of the lifeboat are frantically bailing to keep the boat afloat. The one man says to the other, “Thank God that the hole is not at our end of the boat.”
The Power of Compassion
July 19, 2009
Mark 6: 30 – 34
I’d like to say a few words today about compassion. Compassion comes from a Latin word that means to feel with or to suffer with. And upon first glance, compassion might not seem to be that significant or important an activity. After all we can feel with someone but how is that a good thing? How does that help the person or ourselves? It is easy to come to a quick summation of compassion as a kind of sloppy sentimentality towards the weak.
But if we were to assume that dismissive attitude towards compassion we would find ourselves in disagreement with some of the greatest minds of western civilization. Dietrich Von Bonhoeffer, who marshaled opposition against the Nazi’s during the Second World War said, “We need to learn to regard people less in light of what they do or fail to do and more in light of what they suffer.” And Arthur Schopenhauer the great German Philosopher has said, “Compassion is the foundation of all morality.” The foundation of all morality—that is pretty strong stuff for feeling with another. So how can we explain this exalted estimation of compassion on behalf of so many people who analyze human nature?
I think the answer can be found in today’s gospel. Jesus gets out of the boat and sees a vast crowd and “he has compassion on them because they are like sheep without a shepherd.” In his full humanity Jesus senses the lack of insight, the fear, the confusion of so many in the crowd. He feels those things with them. But that compassion leads Jesus to act. Having felt with the other, now Jesus acts to teach them, to give them guidance and direction, to lead them out of their confusion. This is the real importance of compassion – it leads to action. When we feel with another, we are led to service. And compassion is important even when it is not yet clear to us how we can help. Because by feeling with the other person we open ourselves to the possibility of helping, we open ourselves to wait and to expect whatever opportunity is offered to us to help someone else in need. And those opportunities are hard to predict.
An elderly man was lying in the intensive care ward of a hospital close to death. And in his fear and delirium he kept calling out for his son. The overworked nurse was frustrated because she had called the man’s son many times and he had not yet arrived. Finally a somewhat disheveled and confused young man stumbled into the waiting room and the nurse went out immediately. “Follow me,” she said. She led him to the bedside of the elderly man. She bent over and whispered into the man’s ear, “Your son is here.” The old man opened his eyes and could see a shadowy form by the side of the bed. He smiled and extended his hand. The young man grasped it and held it tight. The nurse brought a chair over to the bedside and the young man sat and remained with the elderly man all night long, giving him comfort and hope. As morning dawned the old man died. The young man put his lifeless hand back down onto the bed and stood up to inform the nurse. When she heard the news, she began to offer her sympathies to the young man. But he stopped her. “It is not necessary to offer sympathy to me,” he said, “I don’t know who that man was.” “What!” said the nurse, “I thought he was your father.” “No,” said the young man, “I came into the waiting room and you said to follow you. So I did.” “Why didn’t you say something when I brought you to the bedside?” the nurse said. “Well, when I came to the bedside I saw that the man really needed a son, and his son was not there. And when it became clear to me that he could not tell whether I was his son or not, then I knew he needed me.”
A strange and beautiful story but a story that could not have happened had not that young man felt compassion for the other man. Who is it in your life who is in need? Who is it in your life that is suffering? Will you allow yourself to feel compassion? Don’t hold back from feeling compassion because you are not sure how you can help. Feel first and action will follow. And as you wait for a way or an opportunity to help, know that in your very compassion you are already supporting the other person. Because whenever we understand or share in someone else’s pain we are saying to that person I value you, you have a dignity and a worth which your suffering cannot erase.
Compassion then is not a marginal or incidental feeling. It is the first step towards action and it is the affirmation of another’s dignity. It is a reflection of the mercy of God.
Judging With Compassion
July 22, 2012
Mark 6: 30 – 34
Today’s gospel affirms something we know to be true about Jesus. He had compassion for those in need. When he disembarks from boat in today’s gospel, he sees a huge crowd. The text tells us that his heart was moved with pity because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Then, he begins to teach them. Jesus sees their spiritual hunger and he instructs them. In the very next passage of Mark’s gospel, Jesus learns that the same crowd has no food. He then feeds them by multiplying the loaves and fishes. So, Jesus teaches those who are spiritually hungry and feeds those who are physically hungry. He does both because he has compassion on those he encounters.
Now, we always try to follow Jesus’ example, and there is nothing more Christian than helping those in need. But helping those in need is not as simple as it might first seem. In the real world we must always decide whether giving people what they want or what they need will help them or will hurt them. When we encounter someone who is poor, unemployed, uneducated, or wounded, we must decide whether our generosity to them will improve their life or make them dependent on further generosity from us or from others. Whether our generosity is personal or comes through governmental programs that address social ills, we must always decide whether the giving or the grant will lift the people from their need or relegate them to a life of dependency.
We cannot avoid making that choice. Here is where the example of Jesus is so important. Before Jesus decides whether he is going to give or not, before he decides whether he is going to help or not, he first has compassion on those who are in need. We must do the same. Let me be clear, having compassion for those in need does not necessarily mean we will help them. Sometimes our help is only an enablement of a problem. But unless we begin with compassion, we will not recognize that we have a choice to help or not.
We must begin with compassion rather than judgment, because when we begin with judgment we absolve ourselves from deciding whether it is proper to intervene or not. Imagine what would have happened in the gospel if Jesus began with judgment. If he stepped off the boat and said, “Look at all these spiritually dead people. Why don’t they take responsibility for their lives? Why don’t they spend more time in the temple or studying God’s law? Look at these foolish people coming out to a deserted place without food. How do they expect to eat if they do not even have the sense to carry a lunch with them?”
Jesus could have begun with judgment, but he began with compassion. We must do the same. But, how do we do that? How do we make our first step one of compassion? There is a saying that has been around in the Christian tradition for a long time. It is not in the bible, but all of you have heard it. It is used when we face someone in need. It says, “There for the grace of God go I.” If we could approach every person in need with that saying in mind, we would always be people of compassion. We would be people who realize that our lives could be different. What if we had different parents? What if we were born in another country? What if we were not as talented? What if we had genetic or health issues? We could easily find ourselves among the poor, the unemployed, the uneducated, and the wounded. When we understand that any person in need could be us, we would approach that person with compassion.
Again, let me emphasize that approaching people with compassion does not necessarily determine if or how we will help them. It is, however, the necessary foundation on which any decision to help must be made. If we are to follow Jesus’ example, we begin with compassion. And, compassion begins when we realize that there for the grace of God go I.
Giving Away, Giving Thanks
July 19, 2015
Mark 6: 30-34
When the apostles return from their missionary journey in today’s gospel, Jesus asks them to pause from their work. He says to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place, and rest for a while.” Now Jesus clearly wants the apostles to work, to spread the gospel, to help those in need. But he also wants them to stop and rest. Why is it so important for Jesus that we as his disciples pause to rest? He knows that if we do so, we will become better servants and better people. When we stop and become still, we are able to do two things: we can give away and give thanks.
When we quiet ourselves in the Lord’s presence, we are able to give away to the Lord those things that trouble us and over which we have no control. It might be a worry that we have about a family member who is in trouble. It might be a hurt that we cannot heal or a fear that we cannot overcome. Whenever we realize that there is nothing more that we can do, it is time for us to give away our worry and fear to the Lord. It is by quieting ourselves that we are able to hand over these burdens to him.
When we quiet ourselves we are also able to give thanks. In the silence of our hearts we are able to thank God for the people in our lives who love us, support us, and give us joy. We are able to lift up in thankfulness the blessings of our health, our abilities, and our freedom. When we give thanks for the blessings of our lives, our lives deepen and we live more fully.
As followers of Jesus, then, it is important to carve out of our schedules a few moments of stillness and quiet, a few minutes in which we can give away and give thanks. You might choose to do this the first thing in the morning, when you wake up, or in the last few moments before you go to sleep. You could take ten minutes in the morning with your first cup of coffee or as you brush your teeth. Sometimes going to a specific place helps to quiet us: an extra room, the basement, the bathroom. Whatever it takes we should find a way to become still and say to the Lord: “Take this fear, this worry, this hurt. I no longer want to carry it. Lord, make me thankful for my wife, for my son, for my coworker. Let me give thanks for the opportunities I have today to work, to help, to love.”
It is important to find a few moments in our schedule to be still each day. Doing so, however, is no guarantee of success. In today’s gospel when Jesus and the disciples arrive at the deserted place where they hope to rest, there is a vast crowd. The needs of the crowd required them to begin working and preaching and healing again. The same is true for us. On any given day, our quiet time can be bumped by needs that arise. Last minute homework, an unexpected phone call, a broken hot water tank can shift us back into necessary activity. But the important thing is to try, the important thing is to set aside a few minutes in which we hope to be still to give away and give thanks. Because if we try, there will be some days on which we will succeed. And the days on which we do not will be the days when God will recognize our intention and find a way to bless us just the same.
“And Also With You”
July 22, 2018
Most of us remember before the implementation of New Roman Missal that our responses at mass followed a different translation. So, for example, at the beginning of the mass the Priest greets the people, “The Lord be with you,” and now we say, “And with your spirit.” Does anyone remember the old response? Yes, it was, “And, also with you.” So in the old translation the Priest would say, “The Lord be with you,” and everyone would say, “And, also with you.” And, of course, just like today, this response became automatic. A Priest I know told me of an incident that occurred in his parish with the old translation. They had just put a new sound system in the church. At the beginning of mass the Priest was fumbling with his remote mike which was not responding. Finally in frustration he said, “There’s something wrong with this mike.” And everyone responded, “And also with you.”
It’s a silly story, but it points to a truth. There is something wrong with all of us. None of us are perfect people. That truth can be helpful to us today as we face the challenge of today’s second reading. Today The Letter to the Ephesians describes the mission of Jesus in clear and powerful terms. It tells us that Jesus has come to tear down the wall of hostility that divides us from one another, to make us one by his cross. So the mission of Jesus is a mission of unity, a mission that calls us to tear down the walls that divide us from one another. But this mission is great challenge because our world is filled with walls that divide us: walls that divide one country from another, one race from another, walls that divide Democrats and Republicans, citizens and immigrants, those who are gay and those who are straight. We cannot walk too far in our world without confronting a wall, and the walls are strong. They have been built up over the years out of fear, misunderstanding, and self-interest.
So, how can we even begin to follow Jesus’ command that we tear the walls down? We can begin by remembering the truth that comes from the silly story with which I began my homily. There is something wrong with all of us. None of us are perfect. When we look over a wall and say, “There’s something wrong with that person there,” it is crucial to remember that something is wrong also with us. The thing we share with every person and every group of people is imperfection. Therefore, our shortcomings, our failures, our blind spots can provide common ground for us to understand others. If we approach people believing we are perfect and superior, we will never understand what others think or feel. But, if we can approach others humbly, aware of our mistakes, we become more open and more willing to communicate.
Jesus calls us to work against those things that divide us from one another. That begins by realizing that whenever we decide a person’s idea or attitude is wrong, it is also with us. It is only when we mutually share our weakness that we begin to understand why we need one another and how we can work together to tear down the walls that endanger understanding and peace in our world.