You may have noticed how, from time to time, an emotion or psychological attribute makes the news, and becomes a sort of pop-culture flavor of the week: remember when self-esteem was all the rage? Having what was called “low self-esteem” was held responsible for everything from failure to live up to expectations, to unhealthy relationships, to bad decisions or even criminal behavior.
Now, compassion is in the news. Stanford University has a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education — with the clever acronym C-CARE — which, among other things, regularly holds classes in Compassion Cultivation Training. Closer to home, just a month ago, The Atlantic published an interview with Kristin Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, in which she proposes shifting the focus from self-esteem to self-compassion. Treat yourself like you would your best friend, she advises.
The move from focusing on self-esteem to compassion (even self-compassion) is a positive one. The words themselves explain why: self-esteem is inwardly directed, while compassion is primarily outwardly directed. Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have esteem or even compassion for ourselves — Jesus himself instructed us to love ourselves and to mirror that love in love for our neighbor. But esteem shouldn’t stop with one’s self, and the richness of compassion springs from relationship.
So let us consider this encounter from Luke’s Gospel, in which we see the compassion of Jesus in action. The widow in the story most likely felt that her very life was hanging by a thread, and that thread was her son. His death put her own tenuous well-being in jeopardy. In ancient Israel’s patriarchal culture, the loss of a husband was not only a social and economic tragedy, it was a type of cultural death as well. Women had minimal inheritance rights, so when she lost her husband, she lost everything — but for her son. Her fate was grim — but for her son.
I wonder what was was in her mind in those awful hours after her son’s death as she prepared his body for burial, and undoubtedly ruminated on what might become of her. Was she praying from the psalm we heard this morning, with its plaintive mixture of despair and hope,
“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning…”
Many of us, most of us, in a desperate situation like hers might be asking, “Why me, God?” We humans like to have not just answers but explanations for the changes and chances of our lives. But more often than not, pursuing this line of inquiry is not productive.
Rather, we might ask, “How are you going to redeem this, God?” Because isn’t that what God does — take the seemingly tragic or unfair or painful or even just plain incomprehensible things that happen to us (or because of us) and transform them? Doesn’t the arc of God’s love always bend toward salvation?
* * *
Her son’s body is being carried outside the village for burial when Jesus sees the widow and, says Luke, has compassion. He uses a Greek word that has connotations of a visceral, gut reaction. Of being moved to the very core of one’s being.
The act of compassion can be described as an entering into the suffering of another, with the hope of alleviating that suffering. Compassion is a result not of will but of love. Not of logic but of mystery. Compassion is to be practiced as much as to be had. Compassion calls for not simply feeling, but for doing. The roots of compassion lie not in strength and wholeness but in vulnerability and brokenness. Here’s a story to explain what I mean by that.
* * *
In 1989, the lawyer Bryan Stevenson founded Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and those trapped in the furthest reaches of America’s criminal justice system. The work transformed his understanding of mercy and justice, and inspired him to preach a gospel of compassion through legal proceedings; through print, broadcast, and social media; through the lecture circuit. When I heard him speak at Stanford, I was struck by his description of how, amidst the anger and frustration of taking on a deeply flawed legal system, he came to understand the source, the roots of compassion. Here he has just finished a telephone conversation with Jimmy Dill, a 49-year-old African American who is about to be executed after 30 years on Alabama’s death row, despite Stevenson’s efforts to have the prisoner’s sentence commuted. He writes:
“When I hung up the phone I had a wet face and a broken heart. The lack of compassion I witnessed every day had exhausted me. I looked around my crowded office, at the stacks of records and papers, each pile filled with tragic stories, and I suddenly didn’t want to be surrounded by all this anguish and misery. …I thought myself a fool for having tried to fix situations that were so fatally broken. It’s time to stop. I can’t do this any more.
“…I realized that my life was full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger….I thought of…the dozens of broken children I worked with, struggling to survive in prison. I thought of people broken by war, by poverty, by disability. In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice.
“…Before I knew it, I was asking myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’
“It took me a while to sort out, but I realized something while Jimmy Dill was being killed at Holman Prison….I understood that I don’t do what I do because it’s required or necessary or important. I don’t do it because I have no choice.
“I do what I do because I’m broken, too.”
* * *
Jesus knows what it is to be broken. Again and again he hears the cry of the destitute, the desperate, the disenfranchised, the diseased and responds with compassion. Even in his final, broken hours he offers a word of hope to the man crucified next to him: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus crosses boundaries to enter into places most desperately in need of God’s mercy and love and justice. Jesus shows compassion not because it’s nice to do so, but because it’s life-giving.
He becomes ritually unclean when touches the bier of the widow’s son — but that doesn’t stop him. He crosses a cultural boundary when he heals the slave of a Roman occupier — but that doesn’t stop him. He confuses and frustrates his disciples when he instructs them to feed a hungry crowd of thousands of people— but that doesn’t stop him. He ignores the norms of acceptable behavior when he talks to a Samaritan woman and offers her living water. Nothing stops him.
So, two questions for us, today. First, can you accept, or embrace, your own brokenness enough to release the stream of compassion that flows through you? And second, can you follow Jesus to venture outside the place where you are comfortable and secure for the sake of offering this compassion to those who need it most?
For most of us, I believe the answer is Yes. Yes, I can, with God’s help. The help of a body broken for us, blood spilled for us, love given to us, life given for us.
And so we pray:
Jesus, thou art all compassion….
pure, unbounded love thou art;
visit us with thy salvation;
enter every trembling heart.