How to Be Good: Compassion


Good Samaritan by Jacopo Bassano


From 2007

Sermon “How to Be Good: Compassion”. Luke 10:25_37

Year C 15th Sunday of the Year (Proper 10)

I was disappointed when Pope Benedict, in one of his more fallible pronouncements, decided that non-Catholic churches are “defective.” (“Pope: Other denominations not true churches: Benedict issues statement asserting that Jesus established ‘only one news services, July 10, 2007)

Of course he is right. But why stop with non-Catholic Christians? We all have our defects. Benedict doesn’t have the corner on narrowness. One preacher is on local cable every week beating up on other congregations with a program called “What the Bible Says,” as if he had the franchise on truth.

The “true religion” purists differ about the litmus test. Some scrutinize statements of faith for problems, other measure the amount of water in baptism, or inspect pedigrees for those admitted to the communion table. I am not suggesting that theological or liturgical matters are trivial or that the church doesn’t benefit from careful articulations of faith. But it is possible to have all the right answers and still flunk life.

I like old radical Paul, who ends his fiery letter to the church in Galatia in his own handwriting with the bold words. “Circumcision doesn’t matter. Uncircumcision doesn’t matter. Only the new creation.”Ritual and rote are not where the action is. You can have them right and still miss the main point: real life in Jesus.

Well, how do you live fully alive? What is a good life? That seems to be the issue of the lawyer in our reading today.

Some settle for the blessed life as defined in the material terms of the Prayer of Jabez: Bigger spread, greater influence over others. Janis Joplin satirized it: “Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”

I give the scribe in Luke today credit for wanting something more spiritual when he asks Jesus, “What must I do to come into possession of eternal life?” “How can I participate in the life of the age to come?”

“Well, what do you read in the law?” Jesus asks.

And the lawyer quotes two texts traditionally used to sum up all the laws. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

“Well,” Jesus said, “I believe you already know the answer to your own question. Those two cover it all: Love God with all your self and love neighbor as if she were yourself. It is just a matter of practicing those principles. Do this and you will really be alive.”

The lawyer really can’t leave it at that. Is that all I need to know or discuss or argue about? Ought we not to work on the limits and qualifications and the ‘What if’s’?” Isn’t there something more obscure that I need to learn first?

There is an old cartoon of a fork in the road with a sign in one direction “To Heaven.” and another sign in the other direction saying, “To a Discussion about heaven.” We know which one the lawyer is trying to take. If he had been a Baptist he would make a motion to form a study committee.

Who is my neighbor. Or, as the question seems to suggest, “Who isn’t my neighbor? Who can I get by not loving?”

Jesus refuses to get caught in a technical morass that would postpone actually doing something. He makes the point with an unforgettable story.

A man was going down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. You know, the steep and dangerous road. Thugs jumped out from the cover of the rocks, beat him and robbed him, stripped him and left him for dead. By the time they finished you couldn’t tell anything about him– his tribe, profession, social standing, or religion.

Two different travelers come by. Both are professionally religious people. One is a priest the other a Levite who serves in the Temple. Both know the law. They know their job. They know “what the Bible says.” As Clarence Jordan retold it, one is the revival preacher in his Cadillac and the other the song leader singing, “Brighten the Corner where you are.” In today’s terms you might say it was the ethics professor and a social worker. Use whatever ‘caring profession’ you like, these men can’t claim they are ignorant of what one ought to do.

When they see the man, they make every effort not to see what they have seen. They edge farther away. It is easier to pass need by if you are not close enough to look someone in the eye. Both whizz past the man in trouble.

As stories usually go you expect a third person. And in Jesus’s day the third person you would expect in a folk tale of this sort would be a Jewish layperson who would do the right thing. Jesus throws in a twist. “Along comes a Samaritan.”

Jews would use the name “Samaritan” if they really wanted to insult someone. A Samaritan was someone who didn’t believe right, didn’t have pure blood, and couldn’t be trusted. There was bad blood going back 800 years. Just being in contact was a pollution.

Here was a person of a defective religion, who didn’t know the truth about scripture. A heretic.(Phillip Yancey somewhere confessed that one day he looked at his life and realized that there were still people he couldn’t stand. They were just different than they used to be. “I used to look down on blacks. Now I looked down on racists. I used to avoid the rich. Now I avoid the poor. So much of history careens along polarity poor vs rich, white vs black, Catholic vs Protestant, Muslim vs Hindi, Israeli vs Arab– with religion one more barrier.”) The Samaritan represents the people toward whom we feel the least neighborly.

And yet. And yet. The suspect Samaritan is the one who stopped. He looked over a saw a man in need and had compassion on him. His “heart melted inside him” Literally translated, “It grabbed him in his guts.”

He looked over and saw the man and rather than easing away, he drew nearer. A neighbor is someone who comes nearer. The Samaritan did not let any disgust overcome his concern for the victim. Dorothy Day snapped at a worker who complained “the poor are difficult.” “What give you the right to think that the poor ought to be nice.” (Gomez, Good Life, 324.)

The Samaritan was just the person whom the lawyer would least want to be his neighbor. Yet the Samaritan was being neighbor without asking about race, religion, or social status. The poor victim had no documents to prove who he was. No Blue Cross/ Blue Shield card to present to the hospital. No proof he wasn’t an illegal alien.

And here the story provokes us to wonder. If he had been wearing signs to show he was a scribe or a priest would those first two have stopped? Does a person have to be “one of us” before we feel responsible to help them? Before we take their need personally?

Is it enough to say that someone is hurting, or do we require some other qualification to prove they are our neighbor and “one of us” one of our kind, our people, before we feel anything.

What if they are illegal alien or Muslim? What if we have reason to think the victim “brought it on themselves.” “If he had taken better precautions he would not be in the fix.” Are there excuses for passing by.

Every major religion has some version of the Golden Rule as basic. (

Buddhist: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Udana_Varga 5:18

Confucius: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you” Analects 15:23

Hinduism:This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you. Mahabharata 5:1517

Islam: “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” Number 13 of Imam “Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths.”

Shinto: “Be charitable to all beings, love is the representative of God.” Ko_ji_ki Hachiman Kasuga

Yoruba: (Nigeria): “One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.”

God has shown you, O human what he expects.”

“Some years ago a famous experiment was conducted with seminary students. Researchers gathered a group of ministry students in a classroom and told them that each of them had an assignment. Their assignment was to record a talk about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The thing was, the recordings were going to be done in a building on the other side of the campus, and because of a tight schedule, they needed to hurry to that building. Unbeknownst to the students, on the path to the other building the researchers had planted an actor to play the part of a man in distress, slumped in an alley, coughing and suffering. The students were going to make a presentation about the Good Samaritan. But what would happen, the researchers wondered, when they actually encountered a man in need? Would they be Good Samaritans? Well, no, as a matter of fact, they were not. Almost all of them rushed past the hurting man. One student even stepped over the man’s body as he hurried to teach about the Parable of the Good Samaritan!” (Thomas Long in “Meeting the Good Samaritan” Day 1, July 15, 2007. The experiment is reported in Darley, J. M., and Batson, C.D., “From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1973, 27, 100-108,.)

In May of 2006 British climber David Sharp died while attempting to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Reports indicate dozens of climbers acknowledged seeing Sharp in distress at the side of the trail, but walked on by, as they continued their attempt to scale the mountain. Some may have been concerned about endangering themselves, others were unwilling to lose their investment in the chance of reaching the summit.

A few days after Sharp’s death another climber, Lincoln Hall got in trouble climbing. Altitude sickness left him unconscious and the guides concluded he was dead. But the next day climber Dan Mazur and the team he was leading caught sight of Hall sitting up with his parka unzipped. His chest was bare and he was holding out frost bitten hands.

Mazur radioed for help, but it would be hours before it arrived. As they were deciding what to do, two other climbers passed by. One said he didn’t speak English, the other just said “Hi.” But Dan Mazur and his team did what had to be done. They gave up their plans for the summit and saved Hall’s life.

“ I know that trying to sleep at night knowing that I summited Everest and left a guy to die isn’t something I ever want to do. The summit’s always there after all. ” ( AP “U.S. climber gives up Everest for rescue”6/8/06 | BINAJ GURUBACHARYA [])

Good Lord, give us eyes to see the needs in front of us, and the will to stop and help.


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