Life Takes Practice: Compassion
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. – Mark 10:17-22
“Jesus looking at him, loved him and said…”
One of the most intriguing things in the Christian story of faith is the notion of a God who loves and longs to connect with humanity so deeply that God becomes the ones whom God loves. God takes on flesh and becomes like us in the form of a man, Jesus. One truth that I believe this faith story has attempted to convey is that God is not some judgmental, all-the-way-“out-there,” oblivious God, but a God who walks with us, talks with us, and deeply sees us—and asks us to do the same with one another. God calls us to deep seeing, or what we’ll today call compassion. And, Jesus shows what compassion looks like.
Our scripture reading for today so beautifully captures this act of compassion— a spiritual practice that is such an essential and foundational part of who we are as people of faith, and a spiritual practice that is a necessary first step to building the authentic beloved community to which God calls us.
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said…”
Perhaps, upon first hearing this we note that Jesus loved the young man who came to him seeking. This man was a perfect stranger, but Jesus loved him and then spoke words that were intended to call forth the young man’s best self… words that had the power to transform a life… words that were hard to hear but that came from a deep place in Jesus and spoke to a deep place in the young man. Love can do that.
Love is actually getting a pretty good rap these days. Everywhere I turn, people of all generations, all kinds of religions and different nations, exalt love as the thing that matters most. Love is what binds families, both chosen and biological. Love is what grants us the strength to not give up on a loved one. Love is perceived as the greatest pursuit in this life. In fact, as it is often said in our faith, God is love.
But, love is a complicated term; one so overused that it frequently loses its meanings. One day a spouse loves you, and the next day they are gone. One day we love ourselves, the next we believe ourselves to be the lowest of the low, unworthy of love. An abuser abuses and cries love. A person sees their favorite cake and shouts their love from the rooftops. Love becomes everything and nothing all at once.
Sometimes in our haste to cover everything in “love, love, love”… we miss some significant essentials. In all the abstraction and idealization around the term “love” we miss what it takes to love and to get to that place where it is an authentic act. Love becomes our easy answer to life’s complex questions and egregious injustices. “Someone does you harm. Love them. Someone commits a crime, love them,” sort of like the loved ones of those murdered at the Emanuel AME church were immediately expected to do. [Some of us bear the burden of love much more than others.] Even if love is our ultimate answer, presenting it as an absolute starting point for all of our moral decision-making can do harm when love is so often presented as an abstraction disconnected from human connectivity.
In our embrace of love as a concept, or as an ideal, we forget that love is process. That love is not a standalone action. Love is stepping stone upon stepping stone, built upon a firm foundation. And one thing that I think our scripture reveals is that some of what makes up this firm foundation is compassion… empathy… the capacity to see and truly see another person in all of their humanity, and then you can love them. It’s a daring first step to take, especially when you don’t know how things might turn out, but it’s a vital foundation for any act of love we might perform.
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said…”
Jesus looked at him, then he loved him, then he said. He looked at him as a preceding step to his love, and he truly saw the young man. As this story speaks to us, it speaks more to our hearts than a physical gaze. It speaks more to our hearts than a mere work of the senses that allows us to perceive an image. This seeing that Jesus does appears much more meaningful. What is this seeing that leads to love?
Well, perhaps it’s the seeing of compassion. Seeing another person deeply, perceiving beyond the physicality, looking into the heart of another being. Seeing their sense of loss and fear… Seeing their complexity and contradictions…Seeing their hope… Seeing their joy… Compassionately connecting because that’s the only way that we can truly love.
This era in which we now find ourselves makes it easy to simply write one another off at the drop of a hat. “Unfriend.” “Delete.” “Unfollow.” “Delete contact” from your smartphone. With the push of a button we can dismiss another life, and probably make our own a bit more pleasant to be honest. But this story from our faith is an example that calls us to more. (That’s what Christian faith always does.) It calls us to seeing. It calls us to care. It calls us to compassion.
Seeing one another deeply—beyond our politics, past the veneer of white supremacy, penetrating those sexist inklings, imagining the woundedness of another soul—can help us take those necessary steps toward change. Before Jesus could speak a life-transforming, life-giving word, even Jesus had to first look and truly look, see and truly see.
I think of my own faith journey, a time when I experienced another’s compassion in a transformative way. Some of you may have heard me say that seminary was one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever endured on purpose. I wasn’t raised in church, but when I came to Christian faith I began to adopt a version of Christianity that could be considered a bit conservative and sort of evangelical. (I know. Things have definitely changed.) Well, seminary was so hard
because it took my strict, literal biblical, others- and self-condemning Christian faith, held it up to the blessed light of questioning, human uncertainty, and rationality, and revealed that it had a lot of harmful flaws. For a personality like mine, this revelation was earth-shattering. I no longer had a clear sense of direction and it hurt. All I knew was God existed, and I really hoped God cared for us. I couldn’t be sure of much more then.
I was no longer an active part of an institutional church, but I often sat and talked with my favorite professor and friend, Dr. Itihari Touré. Those times together where she truly saw me,
and without judgment or seeking to be in control allowed me to feel through the fog have meant more to me than I can say. Instead of insisting I get a grip or instead of belittling my questions and internal conflicts, she saw me… for a while it meant she mostly sat listening between my words, herself in silence. Then, she responded in love in many forms over the years. When it comes to the grand scheme of God things, I still don’t know that much. But I do know the power of creating space for a neighbor’s humanity. I do know the power of letting God speak instead of speaking myself, even when I may be right, because Dr. Touré’s compassionate example taught me. And it’s made all the difference in my ministry, in how I respond to others who wonder and wander, and in my own continually unfolding journey of faith.
Think about what compassion has looked like in your own life. Or, who compassion has looked like. Think about how it might look in our worlds. It doesn’t mean we don’t fight or disagree. It doesn’t mean that anything goes. It doesn’t mean we don’t struggle and protest. But it does mean a realization that we are amazingly and merely human, and allowing space for that reality is essential. It means being humble enough to see first, and then be led by authentic love. Who knows what the rich young man did after meeting Jesus, and going away to grieve the thought of being without his possessions. Maybe 15 years later he did sell everything and became a part of the Jesus movement. Maybe he died with his possessions buried right next to him. We can’t be sure. But, outcomes are not our primary concern as people of faith. No, God calls us to faithful steps and God compassionately walks with us each and through it all. That can mean that absolutely nothing changes. Or, it can mean that instead of hurting another, we heal another or ourselves. Instead of ignoring, we listen without condemnation. Instead of shutting out, with vulnerability and connectivity, we open wide the door. Instead of saying “you’re doing it wrong,” we hear one another out. It may mean seeing ourselves as the sum of our experiences, and allowing ourselves to be ourselves. It may mean filling our hearts with compassion so that we can be people who speak, act, cry, dance, grieve, build, create, write, and serve in love.
John Wesley, the father of our particular expression of Christian faith called Methodism, believed that compassion toward the most vulnerable in our society was essential to Christian life. This compassion led to what he called “acts of mercy” like visiting the sick, visiting those in prison, feeding the hungry, giving generously to the needs of others, seeking justice, and ending oppression and discrimination. Isn’t that where most well-meaning people want to get anyway? To mercy? To love? It begins with compassion.
My prayer today is that each of us might make a greater commitment, especially this week, to start with compassion. When we start with compassion the end will always be love—not the kind that is fleeting, abstract, or conditional, but the kind with the potential to transform a life and transform our worlds. Amen.