I grew up in a home where compassion for strugglers was a way of life. Both of my parents had grown up dirt poor and knew what it was not to have two nickels to rub together. My mother’s parents, during much of Mom’s growing up life, were sharecroppers on a farm in Kokomo, Indiana. Later, on the best of terms with the Shinn family for whom they had worked, they came back to my grandmother’s place of birth; Gilmer County, Georgia; in search of a better life for themselves and their children--their daughter who would become my mother and their son who would become my Uncle Bob.
Life was still hard there for them so they moved to my grandfather’s place of birth; Anderson County, Tennessee; and eventually settled in Knox County--specifically, the city of Knoxville. My grandfather became a laborer on the project to build the massive Norris Dam, and my grandmother became a nursing assistant and studied to pass her exam and become a Licensed Practical Nurse. They weren’t wealthy by any means, but they were doing substantially better than they were as sharecroppers.
Mom ended up with an essentially inbred compassion for the poor, and she has shared money that she really didn’t have to share across the years with people whom she believed needed the money more than she did. I mentioned at the Christmas Eve Gathering that, recently, Bill O’Reilly said that giving to help the less fortunate is fine, but God didn’t mean for us to give so much that it becomes self destructive to us. I don’t think Mom ever understood that; she still doesn’t. She figures that if she parts with the money she thought she absolutely had to have, she will just tighten her belt in some other area so that things will all smooth out in the end.
My Dad was one of seven children born in a little cabin on Lone Mountain, Tennessee. He was the baby. One brother died in infancy. Another brother took his own life while he was a young adult, and that left four brothers and one sister. My Dad’s father was an alcoholic who sort of came and went from the family home way up in Claiborne County, Tennessee, and was dead by the time Dad was 11 years old. This left my grandmother to raise four sons and a daughter by herself.
They moved into the city of Knoxville for better job opportunities, and my grandmother, with little formal education and little work experience off a farm, got a job as custodian in Knoxville General Hospital. Some of her children would usually walk to the hospital to walk their mother home, and often that meant late when it was her turn to polish the floors, which she did on her hands and knees.
Each of the four boys joined military service as soon as they could; they didn’t wait to be drafted. Economically, being in military service made great sense for them and their family too.
By the time I was on the scene, I realized that Granny Farmer had gotten to the age where she couldn’t do physical labor any longer, and Dad’s oldest brother, Uncle Jim, who had a large family, was out of a job more than he was with one. I finally realized that one of the reasons Dad dropped by to see Granny and Uncle Jim about every week wasn’t just to visit, but to pass along as much money as he could afford to share that particular week.
Dad’s family had been so poor that it tied him up in knots to see people in need--especially children. He was the only one of his siblings to be able to go to high school, and that was only possible because the older ones worked to buy his clothes and pay his fees. He often had no shoes that fit, or they might fit but have holes in them that would let in moisture. In those cases, when it rained my Aunt Irene would walk with my Dad to school and carry him through the puddles of water so that he wouldn’t be at school all day with damp feet.
My Dad was not an extravagant person in any way, but he did invest in several pairs of shoes. We’re not talking Imelda Marcos here, but I’d say eight attractive, serviceable pairs at any given time. On Saturday afternoon while he watched any sport on television, he fanatically polished his shoes--with special attention to the pair he planned to wear to church the next day. I realized one day that plenty of shoes, attractive shoes at that, in some way compensated for the shoes he didn’t have as a little boy.
When my sister got her first teaching job, it was in a school next to a housing project where a number of very poor kids lived and were assigned to the public school where she taught. Dad would hear from Kim about children not having decent socks to wear under their shoes. I can’t even tell you the number of pairs of socks he secretly gave to the kids in need through my Sis. When he heard from Kim about a student with that kind of need, Dad--who hated shopping with a passion--would go to Kmart and buy one of those big bags of socks, and the next day at school the child whose shoes were wearing blisters or her or his heels would have not just one pair of socks to take home, but rather a whole bag of socks. I guess after a while, he just gave Kim the money, and she took care of the shopping and the quiet, private sock ceremony after school when other children weren’t around to see.
We--my sister, brother, and I--grew up with compassion for the poor a central concern in how our parents lived and how they modeled living for us. It took with each of us.
Though born to missionary parents, compassion for the poor was not a trait my now ex-wife picked up on. Once, I bought a supply of light bulbs from a telemarketer who said that the bulbs made by the blind would not only last longer than your average light bulb, but last at least twice as long as any bulb you could buy at any store. Well, I thought I had gotten us a great deal, but when she found out about it she pitched a fit. First of all she asked, how can you be sure blind people made the bulbs? They are just telling you that to get your sympathy. Second, she demanded to know how a blind person could tell if a light bulb burned for a short time or a long time. Of course, they couldn’t know, but they surely had some people working with them who conducted such tests while the blind people manufactured the bulbs, put them together by hand.
Well, she had a point, but I still thought it was a gesture of kindness; and I refused to return my box of light bulbs made by blind people. There are more potential jobs for blind people today than there were in the early 80’s when we first married. Back then, there were very few jobs for the blind--no technology at all that I know of that helped them function in a professional position. I have no idea why we divorced!
I have learned across the years that compassion for those who exercise it at all often isn’t generalized compassion. For example, a racist might care that white kids need socks or shoes, but if black children need the same items of clothing, too bad. There are those who have compassion for learning disabled children, and others who say, “I will not have my child’s learning processes slowed down as a result of having THAT slow learner in this class.” There are those who have compassion for immigrants and others who say, “If you’re gonna steal my job, the least you can do is learn the official language of my country.” Very often, compassion isn’t universal by any means.
Yes, I was raised in a home where compassion was practiced as a way of life, and it rubbed off on me; yet, my compassion--as was the case with my parents whom I admire greatly--had limits. Limited compassion, obviously, is a long way from full or complete compassion as a way of life. Jesus was an extraordinarily compassionate individual, but early in his ministry he too placed limits on whom he thought should benefit from his efforts to alleviate suffering.
There’s a Buddhist commentary on meditation called “Stages of Meditation in the Middle Way School” from which we get the following pointed teaching:
Generally, everyone feels compassion, but the compassion is flawed. In what way? We measure it out. For instance, some feel compassion for human beings but not for animals and other types of sentient beings. Others feel compassion for animals and some other types of sentient beings but not for humans. Others, who feel compassion for human beings, feel compassion for the human beings of their own country but not for the human beings of other countries. Then, some feel compassion for their friends but not for anyone else. Thus, it seems that we draw a line somewhere. We feel compassion for those on one side of the line but not for those on the other side of the line. We feel compassion for one group but not for another. That is where our compassion is flawed. What did the Buddha say about that? It is not necessary to draw that line. Nor is it suitable. Everyone wants compassion, and we can extend our compassion to everyone.
The Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Henry Ward Beecher, the great Congregational preacher who was popular in the mid to late 1800’s said, “Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation.” Progressive Christianity certainly lives by that notion. Have you ever noticed that the only people Jesus condemned were holier-than-thou religious people who thought God could be bought by their superficial piety? People caught up in morally compromising situations received from Jesus not criticism, but compassion.
It’s not a bad thing for those think themselves spiritually superior to the rest of us, modern-day Pharisees I mean, to keep a DVD of the film, “Dead Man Walking,” around. They should, we should, watch it from time to time and internalize the compassion Sister Helen Prejean played so compellingly by Susan Sarandon had for the Sean Penn character who is condemned to die.
The Charter for Compassion is celebrating its one-year anniversary. We have talked about this Charter in a few eblasts and in at least one issue of our newsletter, “Inside Silverside.” If the sound of it is new to you or you know you’ve heard about it, but you can’t remember exactly why, let me explain a little bit. An interfaith panel made up of some really smart people like Karen Armstrong said, with great insight, “If we keep trying to find points of theology on which we all agree, we’re going to get no where because there are fundamental differences between the great religions of the world. It is certainly possible to agree to take on some joint tasks together despite our differences, but our differences theologically will continue to exist. Since this continues to hamper what we could do if there were more bases for agreement, is there a non-theological principle around which we could all gather without reservation, without worrying about stepping on someone’s toes?” What they came up with was the Charter for Compassion. Regardless of theological bias, all the great religions of the world promote compassion so the Charter was born.
In summary, “The Charter for Compassion is a document that transcends religious, ideological, and national difference. Supported by leading thinkers from many traditions, the Charter inspires worldwide community-based acts of compassion.” Without a doubt, this is the right way to go. Some of you may have gone to the website and signed on as supporters of the Charter. I did, and I hope there are other Silverside folks on the list. They are celebrating that in a year’s time they have almost 61,000 sign-on-the-dotted-line supporters. When I look at how quickly other movements sprout and grow on line, that seems like a measly number of people in the English-speaking world willing to say, “I’m all for compassion, and I’m going to live out my commitment to compassion.”
I believe that all promotion is by word of mouth except for the original letter that was mailed around to various probable supporters. This means that any funds that come into the hands of the organization keeping this thing going support acts of compassion. I’d like to see a million supporters, and when I say supporters, I mean supporters in principle. I don’t believe they have asked for dues or membership fees.
Why wouldn’t everyone including those who are anti-religion and who do not believe in God sign on for this? We’ve already mentioned the answer to this important question, and it is that many of us who are compassionate people practice selective compassion. “Anybody who really wants a job can get one.” “She was out at night wearing that skimpy clothing; she was asking to be raped.” “AIDS is God’s punishment on homosexuals.” “Why was he driving through that part of town at all, especially at night? He asked for it. He asked to be shot.”
In a book titled, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, by Donald McNeill, Douglas Morrison, Henri Nouwen, we are stunned at first sight by an analysis of people in general in the modern world, people of faith included: “When we take a critical look at ourselves, we have to recognize that competition, not compassion, is our main motivation in life.” We modern US Americans reply to that charge by saying that our society has forced us to be competitive, or else we lose. Compassion is nice if we can work it into our lives somewhere, but competition gets the bills paid. The authors then come back at us with their unrelenting position: “This all-pervasive competition, which reaches into the smallest corners of our relationships, prevents us from entering into full solidarity with each other, and stands in the way of our being compassionate.”
Another reason not everyone shows compassion or wants it shown to others is that corruption is a painful, persistent reality in our world--at many levels--and compassion offends corruption. Many of the corrupt politicians and their handlers resist showing compassion and shy away from those who are compassionate. I think Jimmy Carter might well have won a second term in the White House had he been more able to deal with political corruption and if he had been a much less compassionate person than he was, than he is. I’m not saying someone in political office has to be corrupt to survive, but she or he has to be able to tango with those who are corrupt--many of whom are well entrenched--in order to keep a seat.
It wasn’t unusual for Jesus to visit a synagogue; in fact, he probably went to synagogue worship on a weekly basis. Generally, he would have gone on the sabbath--probably to a Friday evening service even though the Jewish sabbath ran from after sundown on Friday until after sundown on Saturday. On the occasion that we heard about in our reading taken from the Gospel of Mark, there was a man at the synagogue who had a withered hand. He was obviously in need of healing, and he had come to a place where prayers for healing were known to be offered.
We don’t know if this man was a Jew or not. It probably didn’t matter to him from where his healing came as long as he could be rid of his infirmity. Most jobs were manuel labor of some sort so a withered hand, in all likelihood, limited his ability to work and provide for himself and his family. He wasn’t just trying to be well again; he was trying to be fully functional again.
There have been physicians who have read this story and suggested that the man’s malady could have been stroke related paralysis that caused the afflicted hand to wither or shrink over time. Others have suggested that the man suffered from Poland’s Syndrome, a birth defect causing babies to be born without a chest muscle--usually on the right side of the body--and on the same side of the body the close webbing of fingers and thumb. Lack of use over the years causes hand muscles to shrink.
For the purposes of our story, we need to note that whether the problem was stroke-related paralysis or Poland Syndrome, the birth defect, healing wasn’t urgent. His life wasn’t in danger. Keep that in mind.
As usual, some of Jesus’ detractors were in the crowd watching to see what he might do that would be offensive to Jewish religious law so that they could report him to religious authorities and make some contribution toward making Jesus’ life miserable. On that particular sabbath evening, these spies were just dying to see if Jesus, the compassionate faith healer, could keep himself from trying to heal someone on the sabbath of a need that wasn’t a critical need. The reason that mattered was that the law specified except in cases of the threat of death, there was to be no healing performed on a sabbath day.
Evidently, he couldn’t turn away from the man seeking healing even though the man’s life was clearly not in danger. Jesus’ compassion caused him to be aware of all the suffering the man had endured getting to that place in time. Yes, he would live physically until the sabbath was over, but maybe he had died a thousand emotional deaths because of his ailment--especially if he were Jewish because he would have been taught to believe that his deformity was a punishment from God. He wouldn’t have been the only one to have looked at it that way; so would most of his family members, most people in the community where he lived, and most tragically most of the people with whom he worshiped at synagogue.
In our culture, most of us have compassion for most people suffering most illnesses, but the majority of us do not have compassion for all people suffering from any and every illness. Many of us believe that if someone has brought suffering on her- or himself by wrong choices, wrong as determined by the critic and not the person suffering the illness, then our compassion quickly withers into uselessness as the man’s hand had done. Addicts get very little compassion overall even though addictions clearly are illnesses. The general public believes that addiction is a euphemism for weakness. The alcoholic could be rid of her or his problem in a snap if only she or he would drink in moderation. Same thing for the drug addict; the simple solution to drug addiction is to stay off drugs. Well, duh. Addiction means the substance feels more powerful to me than my strength to avoid it. People who are seriously obese get the least sympathy of all even though addiction to food is as much a reality and as much an illness as addiction to any substance. In some of the health care proposals that have floated around, people who are overweight are slated for limited coverages in problem areas brought on by their excessive weight. Weight ranges are already causes for health policy limitation or rejection of coverage altogether unless one is a part of a group where coverage is provided with no questions asked.
In any case, Jesus couldn’t help himself. How very predictable. Jesus being Jesus. Someone in need right there in his face. Could he walk away, ignore the person in need? Not likely. The spies had him.
He asked the man with the withered hand to come and stand with him. Jesus knew who the spies were in the crowd so he turns to them with the suffering man at his side and asks a question as if to the whole crowd, but really to the spies the small number of Jews who hated him kept on their payrolls. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” Nobody said a thing.
The writer of Mark’s Gospel lets us see a side of Jesus that generally was kept out of public view. The writer tells us that Jesus was seriously angry with these people who not only made trouble for him but were trying to interfere with what he thought he could do to make this man’s life better after all these years. The anger Jesus felt was in competition for the grief that he felt for the same people because he knew that in order for them to be doing what they were doing, they were spiritually dead and needed to be grieved over for that reason.
In the midst of that sea of emotions, Jesus looked back to the man who hoped for healing, and Jesus asked him to do what he hadn’t been able to do for years at least and maybe not for his whole life. “Stretch open your hand.” The man complied and found himself healed.
The ending of the story should have been celebration with heels kicked up in joy. Yet, that is not how the story ended. Instead of celebrating the cessation of the man’s suffering, which any compassionate person would have done, the Pharisaic spies, professional tattle tales, ran to those who paid them with charges against Jesus for healing on the sabbath. The Pharisees, the Pat Robertsons of Jesus’ day, immediately, Mark says, began to conspire with the Herodians, the party that believed the Jews should always be ruled by descendants of Herod the Great as they were during the time of Jesus, about how to destroy Jesus. The reason Jesus was worth taking issue with was that he talked about an empire of God in which there was no place for Herod’s family in any leadership capacity.
These were crazy-serious people, my sisters and brothers--just like the man who walked into church and shot the doctor and killed him on the spot because he, the doctor, had conducted his medical career with compassion toward women who believed they needed to have abortions. Compassion still offends corruption.