Being moved with Compassion
The year of Mercy came to an end on 20th of November 2016. My hope is that, at the end of this year, a renewed spirit will be within us to help us to continue to be merciful in our lives both within our community and in our day-to-day lives.
At the heart of this hope is that we will increase our ability to recognise and respond with compassion to those in need.
As a parish community we have a shared Vision which states clearly that we are committed to welcoming all people and caring for them with compassionate minds and hearts.
We can all agree that there are many challenges that we face up to each day. For example, we often say that we need stronger family life – our young families in Pittwater are very fragile these days and we know that many people become alienated or even homeless through family breakdown or alcohol and drug dependency. We also see a lack of feeling secure and loved amongst those who are vulnerable, especially children and youth. Young people are telling us that mental health is one of the top three concerns facing the nation.
Many of those people who have been affected through such circumstances will never come to church for assistance and help, and accept the Catholic world view for many different reasons – some which we may be able to understand, and some which we will not. But that does not mean that we can’t still meet them on their life’s journey with compassion.
To help build up our vision and capacity to respond, I have chosen to reflect on the Parable of the Good Samaritan in this year’s message.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most well-known parts of the Christian tradition. The risk in knowing a story so well, is that we might miss things in it’s interpretation – sometimes it can be helpful to revisit such a story with fresh eyes to ensure that we’re seeing things fully.
The scene is set for Jesus to tell this parable to a lawyer, likely one with a nasty streak, wanting to test Jesus. He first asks him about the commandments, and then prompts him with the following question: “who is my neighbour”. Jesus responds with the parable, and then a question in return: “which of these acted as a neighbour to the one in need”.
In so doing, he turns the question around – what is important for Jesus is not who is my neighbour, but how should I be a neighbour? The parable itself gives us answers to the second question, it totally avoids the first.
In answer to the question of how I should be a neighbour we see the great example of the Samaritan. In Jesus’ own time and religious context, the Samaritan was an unlikely choice for such an example – Jews did not normally associate with Samaritans (see John 4). Indeed, Samaritans were held in very low esteem, the underdogs of the world – today we could think of them as any group of people who we hold a prejudice against.
That Jesus chose the Samaritan as the example of how I should be a neighbour over and above the two symbols of his religion – the priest and the Levite – is enormously significant. This is because it tells us something of what kind of identity Jesus sought out for his followers and eventually his Church. This identity was not conceived by religious titles, but rather by the way in which the Samaritan responded to someone in need.
And so, in this year’s theme I would like us to reflect deeply on how the Samaritan responded to the person in need. In exploring this, I want to emphasise how I think we can best interpret the parable: the Samaritan is Jesus’ model for our Church – a Church which, as Pope Francis reminds us, exists for others, especially those who are most vulnerable, a Church which should be like a field hospital – ready to respond at a moment’s notice in the midst of the messiness of life.
In looking closely at the parable we can notice two things about its primary characters.
Firstly, with regards to the man who was beaten by robbers and left at the side of the road, we know nothing of him other than that he is in desperate need. Was he an innocent traveller? Was he a corrupt trader? Was he a good husband? Was he an honest and virtuous person? Was he callous and cruel? None of these things categorise him – the only category Jesus gives us for him is that he is in need. Is this how we as a Church make ourselves present in the world? Do we reach out to people on the basis only of their need? Or do we add other
criteria – worthiness, cleanliness, virtuousness?
Secondly, in relation to the Samaritan, we notice that he responds with compassion. The root words for
compassion mean literally to ‘suffer with’. Compassion is not a vague form of concern – it is that sick feeling you get in your stomach when your loved one feels sick, or that pain you feel when you notice another in pain. The Greek word used in the New Testament to describe the Samaritan’s experience when he encounters the man beaten on the side of the road means just this – a sickly feeling at the sight of someone in need.
Such compassion calls us out of ourselves.
As a society, we are addicted to serving ourselves. Sometimes when we serve others we actually seem to be serving our own interests – making ourselves feel better, and so on. But true compassion requires humility – the humility to set ourselves aside and allow the other person to enter into our hearts in a way that might make us deeply uncomfortable, and might even prompt us to change the way we are living. If this is the kind of Church we are called to be through this parable, do we measure up?
Another feature of the Samaritan’s compassion is that it asks for no reward. In some ways, the Samaritan is rather cold in his response to the man on the side of the road. He does what is needed, and he makes sure he is looked after, but he doesn’t hang around to chat, and as such does not ask the man for anything of himself. He allows him to be.
This forces us to ask challenging questions about our compassion: do we reach out to others for them or for us? One way of measuring this is by asking what we expect in return. If the answer is that we as a Church expect people to join us on a Sunday, live different kinds of lives, or thank us, then perhaps we are reaching out to them for us. But if we are willing to allow people to be, and to do what they wish with the gifts we provide them, then perhaps we are truly reaching out for them.
As we look forward to 2017 with hope, may we care for and respond with compassion to those we meet on the road. As Pope Francis recently said “the unconditional love of our Father for everyone has been and is a true demand of conversion for our shameful hearts that tend to judge, divide, oppose, and condemn.” As we journey through our lives into next year may we embody what the Samaritan did, and respond to the challenge that the Pope has set for us!
Fr George Kolodziej SDS, Parish Priest