Questions on Compassion (Sunday May 12, 2019)
Matthew 5: 43-47; Luke 7: 36-40, 44a
Questions on Compassion
We are continuing our series on the questions that Jesus asked; what they were, some of them at least, and what they might mean for us. We’re looking at what we can learn from them, both looking at the idea of questions, and the actual specific questions in mind. Today were really looking at a couple of questions here, and we’re gonna focus first on this Matthew passage. Often times in this Matthew passage I think that we lose the question. We don’t focus on that. We focus on the stuff in front of that. Because when Jesus says to love your enemies, that is something concrete, that is an answer. We go to the Bible with questions of what we are to do, Jesus says do this, and that is an answer! And so we focus on that because it’s something we can do, and at least try, or least try to try, to do it.
But I think the point of Jesus‘s statement in this passage, the point that Jesus was trying to make, is not really made in the love your enemies part; it’s made in the questions. He is challenging us. He is calling us to love our enemies, in part, because of what the questions are asking: “what good is it to you, what do you gain from loving those who love you? Even the tax collectors do that. What do you gain, what reward do you get for greeting only those who are in your group? Don’t even the Gentiles do that? What do you gain, what reward do you have for showing compassion, for being kind only to those who are in your denomination, or in your local church? Don’t even the atheists do that?”
The point is in the question. And it really makes us reevaluate what we are trying to do as we do this Christian thing. This is really a question of what qualifies as a good work, and what is not good works. Sometimes good works get a little bit of a bad rap in Protestant churches because we don’t preach that good works save. We don’t preach that you could ever do enough good to counterbalance the bad, as some other denominations and religions preach. But that doesn’t mean that we believe you should never do good works, right? We believe you are called to do good works. And so we have this list of things that we believe are good works, we believe are the things you are supposed to be trying to do as a Christian, and really we are asking if Jesus agrees with our list. That is really the question here. Because the Pharisees had a list of things to do as a good Jew, and oftentimes Jesus was questioning their list. This is definitely one of those moments: the Pharisees would say to love those who love you and hate those who hate you, but he is saying what good is that? You don’t need a religion for that. That’s a given. Why don’t you try to love those who hate you? He’s calling into question their list, and I think he does that to us as well.
Our list of things to do to be a good Christian often includes phrases like “be kind to others” and “love other people.” And I think Jesus is saying “yes, perfect. Be kind, show compassion, and love other people. But I want to define those words. What do you mean by being kind? What do you mean by loving? What do you mean by showing compassion? And what do you mean by other people?” And it’s that last one that Jesus is really getting into here: what is your definition of other people?
What we often wind up with in practice is that we will be kind to each other, we will show compassion to each other, and we will have “tough love” for those outside our group. And we think that that’s following God‘s command because we are loving them by showing them tough love. If anything this passage in Matthew is challenging this idea that we are to be kind and compassionate to those with in our group, and be challenging or pushing toward those outside our group. Jesus is saying here “you are expected to be kind and compassionate to those that you know, within your clique, within your local church, within your inner circle. You are called though to be kind and compassionate in the exact same way to those outside the walls, to those who are not in your local church, those were not in your inner circle. You’re called to be kind and compassionate to every single person in the world.”
And I use different words there, expected and called, because I do think that these are two different ideas; that it’s relatively easy to be kind, compassionate, and loving in that way to those who love us. Jesus basically says you better be able to do that. And then he says “I recognize it’s hard to extend it beyond that, but I’m calling you to do so anyway. I know it’s hard to love your enemies, but I’m calling you to do so anyway.” We are to strive toward what we are called to do, and that includes this idea.
That does kind of bring us around to the question “what is love?” We see in the Good Samaritan story love being defined. Remember in that story that the lawyer comes to Jesus asking “who is my neighbor? Now, I’m called to love my neighbor, but who is my neighbor? Who qualifies for that?” And Jesus answers by telling a story of a person who was stopping by the road, giving immensely out of his own pocket, to care for a person injured on the side of the road who he did not know, and who society had said he should hate, and would hate him if the roles were reversed. And Jesus says “when I call you to love your neighbor, this is what I’m asking you to do, and this is who I’m asking you to do it for.” Love is about showing mercy to others. Love is not about pointing out the faults in others so they know where they can improve. That’s not love. Love is to show mercy. And it is illustrated in the story as caring for the needs of someone you don’t know, someone who doesn’t matter to you, and someone who society has said would hate you if the roles were reversed. That’s what God is calling you to do today.
It is illustrated by the doctors and nurses at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. On the day of the Boston bombing, the doctors and nurses in that medical center were, of course, all called in. All hands on deck. And they spent the whole day treating the victims of the Boston bombing. They spent the whole day dealing with the shrapnel in the bodies, amputating limbs, informing love ones that there was all nothing else they could do. They spent the whole day doing this, and treating these victims. They are exhausted.
And then another ambulance pulls in and it’s the bomber. And he is fighting for his life. He has gunshot wounds. But, you see the doctors and nurses took a pledge at the very beginning of their time working as a doctor or a nurse, they said “do no harm, treat anyone who comes in the door.” You can imagine what was going through their minds after all of this day, and yet they treated and healed the bomber, who had caused all they had seen that day and who society had told them would kill them if the roles were reversed. But they did it because they had pledged to do no harm.
Many United Methodists cite Wesley‘s three simple rules as kind of basic rules for what being a United Methodist means. Do you know what those rules are? If you do, you can say them with me; if you don’t, don’t feel bad. They are “do no harm, do good, stay in love with God.” Did you get that first one? Like the doctors and nurses who are called to treat a bomber, we are called to love those who hate us. It’s not easy. Jesus never said it would be easy. But we are called to do so.
That brings us to a question of how to do that? That was why I picked the other story that was read today. In the story Jesus has been invited to eat at the house of a Pharisee. And while he is eating there, a prostitute comes in the door. She is unwelcome in the house of a Pharisee, but she barges in anyway. She’s unwelcome to touch a rabbi, but she does anyway. She cries over Jesus’s feet in order to wet them, and then she uses her hair to wash Jesus‘s feet. If you remember the story, the Pharisee, a guy named Simon, thinks to himself “if Jesus were really a prophet, he would know who this woman was, and he would have nothing to do with her.” The implication being, “just as I have had nothing to do with her either, being a good, upstanding, righteous Pharisee.”
And Jesus turns to look at Simon and asks “do you see this woman?” And of course he saw her. The light photons are reflecting off of her physical body and reflecting into his eyeballs, and that created a vision. Yes he saw her. But Jesus is asking “Do you really see her? See her as a person, with a soul? Do you see her hurts, and her desires, her wants, her wishes, the ways in which she has been crushed by life?”
Jesus’s question really brings us to a very powerful thread of thought. What if we extend it to ourselves? Do you see the people around you? Do you really see them? Do you see the person on the street holding a sign on the corner? Do you see the person sleeping in the laundromat or on the church steps? Do you see the child, or grandchild, or spouse, or grandpa, or parent that you live with? Yes, you see them, but do you see them? Do you know their hurts, their wants? Do you have compassion for them?
Do you see the one who looks back at you in the mirror?
The woman is a sinner. And for most of the people in that room, that was enough. She was a sinner, so I can lump her into the sinner group, and I can be done with it. She’s made her choice, that’s on her, it doesn’t concern me. What Jesus asks in “do you see her,” means that they would have to dig in deeper than that. That might require them to look past her sin and look at why she did it, and why is she doing this; why is she here. It might make them see her as a person. It might make them walk a mile in her shoes. It might challenge their preconceived notions and stereotypes of what a sinner, or a prostitute, was. And if they do that to her, they might then have to extend that to other people they had put in the same category as her. It might throw off their entire worldview if they truly see her.
There is a heavy incentive for us to not see the people around us. It is costly to see people. And yet in order to show compassion upon others, in order to love our enemies the way that Jesus actually calls us to do, we must see one another. If we’re trying to love in this way, we must see one another. We must especially see our enemies. For if we only see those in our group, what good is that to us? Don’t even the atheists do that?
In many places throughout the Gospels, Jesus emphasizes that he calls us to compassion for people that society often thinks are not worthy of compassion. In his day, that may have been the Samaritans and Romans. Today it’s not. Today it’s illegal immigrants, it’s people who don’t believe in the same God as you; people who do believe in the in the same God as you, but not in the same way as you; people who maybe don’t believe in any god at all; people who are of a different generation; people who are of a different political persuasion.
If you remember way back to the very first sermon series I did here, I preached on Jonah, and I talked about how Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh; not because he didn’t believe they could be saved, but precisely because he did believe that they could be saved, and he didn’t want them to be saved. He didn’t want them to be in his group; and so he didn’t go. And I challenged you to think of some of the Ninevehs in your life; the places where if God were to send you there to preach the good news, you wouldn’t want to go because you don’t want them included when you get to heaven. That is still a major part of what I preach to you. When I say not to allow anyone to dehumanize another group of people, I am asking you not to allow someone to create a Nineveh in you. Today, as I ask you to see those around you, I am really calling you, alongside Jesus, to see those who are in your Nineveh. Because Jesus calls you to love them, to have compassion for them. Just as he called the disciples and the Pharisees to show compassion to the Samaritans and the Roman, so he calls you to your Ninevehs today. Go and see them this week, Amen.