Surprised by Compassion

[getty src="1154168275" width="718" height="240" tld="com"]... A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  –Luke 10:30Perhaps you read the story about Louis Sojo, a lieutenant in the New York City Police Department.[1]Lieutenant Sojo and two fellow officers had stopped at a grocery for a quick lunch when they observed security guards who had stopped a woman at the door for skipping the checkout line.  The officers intervened, and what they found was something like the Jean Valjean story in Les Miserables. The woman had been caught stealing food. Lieutenant Sojo has years of experience interacting with the public, and he could tell this was not a ploy, that the woman truly was in financial distress and needed a meal.Police officers don’t get as much positive press as they should, and so I am happy to relay to you that the officers didn’t arrest the woman, and take her off to jail, as they might have done. Instead, they talked to her a while. They paid for her food. Then they sent her off to someplace safe.Lieutenant Sojo didn’t seek out a reporter, but when one caught up with him, he said, “This is not the first time I paid for someone’s food …. when you look at someone’s face and you know that they need you and that they’re actually hungry it’s pretty difficult as a human being to walk away from something like that, you know? We weren’t raised like that.”His partner Officer Cuevas said it’s not uncommon for cops to get a coffee or sandwich for a person in need. They don’t do it all the time, they don’t do it for the attention, he said. But sometimes, “… we just have to do the right thing. We do the right thing for each other at work, why not do it for somebody outside? … Throughout the city, throughout the state, throughout the country, that’s what cops do. We enforce the law, but we also help people. Unfortunately, the helping part doesn’t get recognized.”This happy ending for hungry young woman was possible only because of the team of officers, who others have described as a modern-day “Good Samaritans.”The phrase “Good Samaritan” stems, of course, from one of Jesus’ best-known parables, as recorded in the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel.  The occasion for the story’s telling is Jesus’ encounter with a lawyer. The lawyer comes to test Jesus.  As part of that test, he asks for a precise definition of the ‘neighbor’ whom the Law calls him to love.Frederick Buechner says that presumably the lawyer was looking for a particular kind of answer, one that fit comfortably with the view of life to which he was accustomed.  He imagines a modern-day counterpart writing, “A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.”[2]Jesus often meets people where they are.  But he rarely leaves them comfortably where they want to be. Jesus wants to expand the lawyer’s horizon, and to that end he tells a story. He says that a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was literally “going down,” for in the thirteen miles from Jerusalem to Jericho one descends nearly four-thousand feet in elevation. If you’ve visited Arizona, it’s a little bit like going down from Flagstaff to Phoenix.  That comparison works well in another sense, because Jericho was like Phoenix in being a winter resort.  The desolate road to Jericho opportunities for the work of robbers.As the story unfolds, the traveler is robbed and beaten. Subsequently and in succession, a priest and then a Levite pass by without stopping to help. Today, this would be like saying that a Presbyterian pastor and a session elder, who might be expected to bear a special responsibility, did nothing.  Finally, a Samaritan, who is a foreigner and enemy to the Jew, stops to apply medicine and bandages, takes the wounded traveler to shelter, cares for him, and pays for his expenses.The Samaritan’s virtuous course of action was personally costly.  He may have worried that the body on the lonely road was a trap set by robbers. He may have griped to God about the inconvenience. He may have thought about the people who were waiting for him at the end of his trip, and the apologies he would have to offer for being late and having less profit in his pouch than anticipated. But he helped anyway.When you reflect upon this story for a while, you begin to realize how outrageous it must have seemed to the Jewish lawyer that a despised Samaritan is the hero of Jesus’ tale.  Today, this would be like saying that a member of Al Qaeda stopped to help a wounded American.  It was an morally shocking thing for Jesus to say.  Jesus probably was trying to shock the lawyer in such a way that he would move out of the comfort zone in which he was trapped.  He saw that the lawyer was grasping so tightly to the letter of the Law that he had squeezed out its spirit.  He wanted the lawyer to remember that honoring God is not just a matter of the head, but also the heart.The spiritual movement Jesus was try to initiate is a little bit like the movement you might feel when hearing the story of Mino Gonzalez, a high-school student interviewed by Jonathan Blitzer of the New Yorker magazine.[3]To the casual observer, Mino might have seemed just another troublemaker, barely escaping catastrophe in another neighborhood brawl. On closer examination, Blitzer discovered a deeper truth. Underneath Mino’s physical aggression and emotional anxiety was a deep concern for his mother. “I miss my mother every second,” Mino said, in a soft voice coming from a tall and gangly teen body. “I think about her at school and at home. It distracts me. I know she’s trying hard to get out.”The place Mino’s mother was trying hard to get out of was not an official prison, but rather an ICE detention center. Without regard for the merits of the case for or against her deportation, the pros and cons of which I do not know, Mino’s fuller story opens up a deeper dimension for understanding, and challenges us to be less quick to condemn.  When we ask, “Doesn’t that kid have anything better to do than get into a fight?” the answer may be he doesn’t know of one. When we ask, “Where are his parents?” the answer is that one is dead, and the other in detention. When we ask, “Why is he even in this country?” the answer is, partly, “To escape the threat of crime and a life of poverty, which isn’t your fault or mine, but isn’t his fault, either.”There are many similar stories, some as close as next door. On the surface of things, our feelings of justice are aroused: something about this situation is wrong,and someone should fix it.  Then, upon deeper examination, our world widens. The situation doesn't change, but the way we perceive it changes. And with the perception change comes the possibility to be surprised by compassion, and to do something to help.Jesus, in his conversation with lawyer, was aiming at a similar growth in compassion.  He was saying that a “neighbor,” spiritually speaking, is not someone living within a certain geographical proximity to us, somewhere “out there.”  Rather, a “neighbor” is someone you and I can become “in here,” someone like the despised Samaritan whose appearance shatters our sense of self-righteousness, and provides an example of how it’s done, someone whom God fills with compassion, and moves to acts of service. As Jesus says to the lawyer, “Go, and do likewise.”NOTES [1][2]Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1973, pp. 65-66.[3]Jonathan Blitzer, “The Uncounted Families Torn Apart By the Trump Administration,” The New Yorker, 18 Jan. 2019.