The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Before I sat down to write this sermon, I called a member of our congregation, Marilu Theodore, who is in hospital in Portugal with a fractured pelvis (and she hopes to have medivac transportation home this week). One of the things that she remarked on was how very compassionate she has found people who are caring for her. Even the family of the woman she is sharing a room with are visiting with her and checking in on her as well. If you don’t know Marilu, observing the compassion of caregivers is very much in character, and she asked me if Marcus Borg hadn’t said something about compassion when he was here seven years ago. I told her that I’d be writing a sermon about the Parable of the Good Samaritan and relying on Marcus’s work for that…at which time she suggested a title for this sermon: “The View from the Other Side of the Bedpan.”
The Erma Bombeck-esque nature of Marilu’s suggestion is a good one. When we attempt to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes, especially in a moment of distress, how can we help but offer a compassionate response? Perhaps the problem is that most of us don’t really want to identify with the person on the other side of the bedpan, because we are subconsciously afraid that if we imagine it too well, we might imagine that it could be us. We don’t want to “go there,” and if we can avert our eyes and our imagining, perhaps we can deny that the problem exists at all.
If we don’t see children in detention centers on our border, being kept in squalid conditions without their parents, we don’t have to suffer. If we don’t see immigrants being rounded up in American cities as if a new holocaust is about to begin, then we don’t have to suffer. If we don’t see the more than 1,000 people who have contracted Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo this year, then we don’t have to suffer. If we don’t ourselves experience being sexually harassed or open our eyes, ears, and hearts to those who have, we don’t have to suffer. If we can just keep our eyes closed … we won’t have to suffer. Or so we think.
The English word compassion has two Latin roots: cum – “with” – and patior – “to suffer.” So, the English word compassion literally means to suffer with. And the New Testament Greek word for compassion is a doozy: splagknidzomai, which is the feeling of being so affected that you feel it in your splagknon, your guts.
Nobody wants to suffer, but to be the helper of those who suffer does not necessarily mean that we will suffer to the same extent. We can stand on the bank of a swift-moving river, hold onto a tree branch, and extend a hand to the person who would otherwise be swept downstream. We can offer to be in solidarity and relationship with someone who has an incurable disease, and though we may not cure the ailment, we may bring a sense of peace and healing. We can show up when a shooting happens and be part of an ongoing solutions to end gun violence, even though we cannot bring victims back to life. But we cannot do any of those things – we cannot be the hands and feet and eyes and ears of Christ – if we cover our eyes or try to look the other way.
Our faith gives us courage to face things that scare us or intimidate us. I was in divinity school before I had seen a dead body (outside of a college anatomy lab), because my family never had open casket funerals or visiting hours when someone died. I was scared to death of death. So, I took a whole course on death and dying in divinity school, and as a lay caring minister, I went to a family visitation and saw the lifeless body of Roy Bramall, the wonderful elderly man I had been privileged to do ministry with as a member of First Congregational UCC in Boulder. If we move toward our fears, rather than hiding from them, we can dispel the intimidation that boxes us in and keeps us from helping, even if that would be our inclination.
We may think of the priest and the Levite who passed the wounded man on the Jericho Road as being heartless or fearful. But there was something else at play…and that is what Jesus was driving at with this most famous of parables. The 21st chapter of Leviticus details the purity codes for priests: “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: No one shall defile himself for a dead person among his relatives, except for his nearest kin.” And according to the book of Numbers, “This is the law when someone dies in a tent: everyone who comes into the tent, and everyone who is in the tent, shall be unclean for seven days.” (Num. 19.14)
We learn from these passages that, especially for priests and their Levites who served God in the Temple, ritual purity was absolutely paramount, so that they could perform the religious rites that were their holy duty. And Luke’s gospel tells us that the victim of the robbers was stripped, beaten, and left for dead. The priest and the Levite were doing what they should have been doing according to Torah. One of the key values in the Temple Judaism of that day was ritual purity, which included all persons, but especially the clergy.
And you may not realize it, but for the audience Jesus was addressing, the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan. They were a religious minority group who believed that Mount Gerazim and not Jerusalem was the holy city, and they used only the Pentateuch and saw Moses as the only prophet. Samaritans were personae non gratae for Jews in ancient Israel. So, when Jesus begins to tell a parable that flips our assumptions on their heads, of course he chooses the Samaritan as the good guy in the story.
The Samaritan takes three initial actions in the parable: saw (he saw the man alongside the road), came near (approached the wounded, perhaps dead, man), and experienced compassion (splagknidzomai is used in the NT Greek). Then he does four more actions: bandages the man’s wounds, put him on the Samaritan’s animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And finally, he assures payment to the innkeeper for whatever is spent on the wounded man. Three steps of compassion: seeing and having compassion, acting, and putting your money where your mouth is.
But wait…it is the Samaritan who is acting justly. And if we are taking a religious minority and holding him up as the hero, over and against the religious authorities of Jesus’ day, then we have a problem…a big problem. Jesus in his parables often gets what white men call “uppity” with the authorities. Jesus doesn’t know his place. He is subverting the dominant paradigm with an alternative. He is holding up the holy value of compassion and saying that it is more important than ritual purity, which was absolutely central to Temple Judaism in the first century.
Whether it is the father who welcomes home with open arms the Prodigal Son (he was a pigherd and ritually unclean) or eating with sinners and tax collectors or saying “Blessed are the pure in heart” (as opposed to those who are pure in hands), Jesus was deliberately replacing the central value of what it means to be faithful: it’s all about compassion, not about purity.
Back to what Marilu Theodore remembered about Marcus Borg, he adds a further and really important point about what Jesus was doing with this parable and with other subversive sayings and actions: “For Jesus, compassion was not simply an individual virtue, but a sociopolitical paradigm expressing his alternative vision of human life in community, a vision of the life embodied in the movement that came into existence around him.” [Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), p. 47.]
The transformative power of compassion is limitless. If it became the dominant political ethos of this nation, think what a different world it would be. Imagine a State Department whose primary diplomatic mission was compassion. Imagine a Department of Homeland Security whose key objectives involved dealing compassionately with refugees and immigrants. Imagine a Congress who, instead of gridlock and partisanship, operated together with compassion for one another and for God’s world. When Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, which you pray for every time you offer the Lord’s Prayer, that’s what he envisioned. The compassion that Jesus places at the center of our faith has the power to change the world, yet it requires that we open our eyes.
Compassion is about more than doing a good deed…it’s about a costly commitment to changing God’s world.
May it be so. Amen.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.