The Only Kind That Matters
“I am compassionate,” says the God of Israel in the first reading from the book of Exodus. ‘Compassion’ pertains to ‘the sharing of suffering, or the bearing of hardship with another.’ So the God of Israel declares himself to be one who ‘shares suffering, or bears hardship along with’ his people Israel. It is very different from simply being sympathetic. The word ‘sympathy’ pertains to ‘a feeling shared with another.’ So when friends or neighbors visit us after we have suffered some form of grief or loss, be it the loss of employment or property or physical health, the end of a relationship, the death of a spouse or parent or child, and they extend their sympathies, they are reaching out at that instant in time to summon a feeling of grief or loss similar to ours. But they are not able to relieve our grief in any way, nor for a moment to shoulder our loss. Rather, they merely rouse within themselves a feeling like ours, just like remembering a painful experience of their own. “I know exactly how you feel,” they might tell us. “I lost my job, home, marriage, spouse, parent or child recently.” We know it is not exactly the same. We know they are just being polite. And they can walk away, and that shared sentiment will fade away as well. They can shake off the feeling, turn their minds to other concerns, and enjoy a pleasant evening as they had previously planned. Sympathy does not make them bad people, not at all. It is merely a socially acceptable way of acknowledging a neighbor’s misfortune or distress, much like consoling a child who has fallen off his bike by sharing how you had once fallen off your bike in the past.
In declaring himself to be compassionate, the God of Israel attempts to influence the behavior of his people toward their neighbor. “You were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” You know what it was like to be oppressed and treated unjustly. I came to your defense when you called out to me. I shared your grief and loss. I bore your hardship as if it were my own. So when you find your neighbor suffering as you had suffered, you could do for them as I have done for you, if only in gratitude for the kindness I extended to you. You have received from my hands something to share with others. I shouldered your loss and grief, I made your suffering my own. You should do the same for them. And you may not inflict on another what you yourself consider an injustice or hardship. “You shall not molest or oppress an alien … You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. … If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him by demanding interest from him. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body.” Clearly, the God of Israel had a soft spot for those whom society regarded as insignificant and inconsequential. Jesus himself took time and effort to surround himself with the poor and the lowly, children and sinners, the sick, the blind, the lame, the broken. So when the church teaches that we nurture a preferential option for the poor, she follows in the footsteps of her master. In God’s eyes, it is the poor who are blessed. Yet do Christians truly believe that?
Paul recalls for the Thessalonians that they received the word of God “in great affliction, and with joy from the Holy Spirit.” This word of God, which he proclaimed and preached, stood in stark contrast with the values of the world. It is not difficult to imagine the issues they faced to be much different from those we face today: poverty and injustice, immorality and the protection of human dignity, the preservation of family life and the freedom to worship. Yet Paul and his companions must have preached more convincingly with the witness of his own living, that his listeners did not run in the face of injustice, fear and discouragement. Rather, their witness of faith would be held up for others to imitate not only in Macedonia and Achaia, “but in every place your faith in God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything.” This is the manner of witness to which we are called as followers of Jesus Christ, a witness so powerful and convincing, that no one need say a single thing more. But are there any among us who with the witness of our lives preach faith in God most powerfully and convincingly?
This witness of faith is exactly what Jesus was speaking of when he was asked by a scholar of the law, “Which commandment is the greatest?” Scripture is clear that the intent behind the question was to test him, to trip him, to discredit him. The one who asked the question, as well as many others among his audience, did not approach Jesus in search of true wisdom. So they were not looking to discover the treasure within his answer. “Love God first and above all else, with every fiber of your being, with your every thought, word and action.” His listeners were familiar with the answer, if they knew their scriptures. But he did not stop there. “The second is like the first: Love your neighbor as yourself.” And linking the two parts together, Jesus is telling us how the first is not complete unless it comes with the second, and the second is the fulfillment of the first. The apostle John in his first letter says much the same thing when he writes, “whoever does not love a brother [or sister] whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” [1 Jn 4:20] If we do not love our neighbor, what gives any of us the right to claim we love God?
The difference lies in compassion and sympathy. Following in Jesus’ footsteps, we need to go beyond sharing a feeling with those who carry their heavy burden, be it poverty or guilt, fear or discouragement, injustice or oppression. Jesus showed us by his example of taking on our human nature, that we must immerse ourselves in the experience of our sisters and brothers in need, not just a big toe, an arm or a leg, but our whole selves, jumping right into the pool to know firsthand their darkness, their pain, their loss, their sorrow. That is what the God of Israel had done for his people. That is what the Son of Man has done for us. That is what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves, not simply that we share a feeling, but that we help shoulder the burden they carry. I have tried my best to avoid talking politics, but I know some among you have already made the connection. The gospel does not subscribe to any political ideology. “Jesus made a connection between our love for God and our love of neighbor. He renewed the mandate for compassion found in Exodus. Our compassion for the most vulnerable among us must be expressed and acted upon. To be a disciple of Jesus means that we must connect our faith to how we live.” [The Priest, September 2011. OSV: Huntington IN. p.31] Instead of walking away, I sincerely hope we talk about it further.