Do you remember the first time, probably when you were a child, that you saw a little
bird that had fallen from the nest? Do you remember that feeling you had? You immediately felt compassion. And if the bird was still alive, you wanted to carefully pick it up and put it back in the nest (maybe that was when Mom or Dad told you that the scent of your touch would make the mother bird reject it, so it wouldn’t help to put it back. Some problems cannot be fixed). Nevertheless, you felt compassion for the bird’s suffering.
Compassion, empathy: these are God-given; gifts from our Creator; a way we are bonded to each other emotionally. We identify with suffering, and so we want it to stop.
We can be cynical about a politician who claims to “feel our pain,” but “feeling each other’s pain” makes us human. In fact it is deeply human to look at another person and imagine that I would feel the same pain as he does; I would suffer as she does if it were happening to me.
Imagination is at the heart of our empathy and compassion. We see suffering and imagine that we are the victim. We imagine ourselves as the Haitian person buried alive in a dark air-pocket of a collapsed building. We see our family trying to get by and pay bills after Dad’s company collapses and he has no job, or when mom gets sick, cannot work, and the medical bill start to mushroom. We see ourselves hungry, or out of gas, or abandoned; we imagine, and we feel compassion. It is a Gif of God.
Compassion joins us together in a community. We care for each other and know that when we need caring, there will be others around to care for us. We were meant to live in community with each other. We are people who were created to live together in a fruitful Garden. It was “not good for man to be alone,” so God gave Eve to Adam; the original community was born.
The corrupted community
But humans, created to be free, freely chose to do wrong, and the consequences followed
immediately. Adam blamed Eve for the temptation – and community was corrupted. Ever after that moment of disruption we have all longed to live in that garden of perfect harmony with each other, but we have known nothing that even comes close, save for brief episodes here and there.
Quickly in the story, we read that Cain killed his brother Abel. Human community devolved from harmony to horror within a generation. God intended the Garden, we made it a Golgotha – the place of the victim’s skull.
The mystery that I am unable to understand is the mystery of mercy: why God would still care about us, after what we had become is beyond me. But it must be “a family thing” – or something like “a family thing.” Parents visit prisons to see their sons or daughters behind bars – no matter what they have done, they don’t stop being family. Maybe that is something like the reason our heavenly Father keeps after us, longing for the day when we will return to him and live as we were created to live, fully human, fully alive to him and to each other.
We feel compassion when we see suffering because we were made that way. It is an inherited family trait. We get it from God our Father. He heard the cries of his children who were suffering in slavery under Pharaoh, and it moved him with compassion. He called Moses, and through him God delivered the children of Israel out of the house of bondage to the Empire.
Moses then taught the people how God, their Father, their Creator intended them to
live. He gave him a vision of a community, bonded by covenant, who would worship the One true God and care, compassionately for each other – after all they were all on level ground, all doubly equal: equal because all of them had been slaves; equal because all of them had been made in God’s image. Therefore they were all equally deserving of compassion and care from each other.
Here is what Moses taught:
If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. 8 You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. 9 Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt. 10 Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” Deut. 15:7-11
That was the vision of Moses for the community. They were a covenant community of compassion.
Of course free people are free to be bad as well as good, and so the people frequently,
conveniently forgot the Torah of Moses. Still, the mystery of God’s mercy was such that he did not abandon us. He sent prophets to call the people back to obedience. Here is Amos speaking at a time when the instructions of Moses were being ignored:
Thus says the LORD:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
7 they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way; – Amos 2:6-7
What should God do when the people he made in his image to live in covenanted community with each other instead use each other, abuse each other, take advantage of each other and profit from the misery of each other?
Well, certainly he cannot, and will not accept worship in that situation! How could a person pretend to love God the Father while causing the Father’s children to suffer? What should God do when, at the same time, they fast and sacrifice?
5 Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke, …
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? – Isaiah 58:5-7
The New Testament takes Moses and the Prophets and sums it up in one sentence:
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? – 1 John 3:17
What would it take for us to be convinced? Just like the rich man, we have Moses who taught us how to live as a covenant-community of caring and compassion. We also have the prophets warning us of dire consequences if we don’t practice communal compassion. Today, we even have what the rich man didn’t: someone who came back from the dead; Jesus.
What did Jesus add to Moses and the prophets? He told us a parable: there was a rich man who lived behind a gate, dressed like a king and eating sumptuously every day. He filled his belly to his heart’s content, but that heart was tiny, hard, and totally empty of the one thing essential: imaginative compassion. He must have seen – must have had to step over Lazarus daily; must have had to shoo away the sore-licking dogs as he came and went.
He had no imagination that enabled him to feel Lazarus’ hunger as his hunger. He could not imagine that the pain of Lazarus’ sores felt like pain he had ever known. He could not imagine Lazarus and himself as equals: equally created in God’s image, equally rescued, equally objects of God’s mercy. He could not imagine that they were both members of a covenant community. He had no compassion on Lazarus.
Everybody has imagination: perhaps the rich man imagined that Lazarus did something to deserve his fate. Perhaps he imagined Lazarus the drunk, Lazarus the sloth, Lazarus the con-man. Perhaps he imagined that Lazarus was just a problem you couldn’t fix. Who knows?
What he did not imagine was God, the Fatherly Creator of all, as God, the judge of all, the knower of all, the notice-er of all. He did not imagine God, whose eye is on the sparrow, who feels compassion for every little bird like Lazarus who falls out of the nest.
He did not imagine that God notices the little birds that get born to addicted, single
mothers through no choice or fault of their own. He did not imagine that God looks with compassion on the little birds that grow up without anyone turning off the TV and saying “time to get your homework done.” He could not imagine that God was watching as he stepped over Lazarus, resenting the inconvenience, without a fleeting thought about how God might have put Lazarus there as a means to his own redemption. He missed it all.
He missed it all during his life on earth. After death, the parable pictures the fanciful scene of a conversation the rich man has from his place of torment with Abraham; a place from which his perspective has changed. He understands that it is too late for himself – his choices have been made – but he has relatives he wants to save. Perhaps Abraham would be willing to treat Lazarus as a lower-class delivery boy to run and deliver a warning from beyond the grave to his similarly compassionless family. Abraham gets the last word in the parable:
29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Well, someone has risen from the dead. Are we convinced?