A couple weeks ago on the CBC radio show Tapestry, Mary Hynes talked with a man about the shift in his ethics that occurred based on his spiritual understanding of responsibility. One of the key moments in the journey came when he listened to a sermon from Martin Luther King. Refering to a parable Jesus told, King said that the religious leader asked himself "What will happen to me if I help that man?" The Samaritan, seen as an outcast in Jesus' community, asked "What will happen to him if I do not help?"
The shift to compassion is fairly obvious to see but not easy to live. It requires a change in the questions we ask ourselves. We have to see differently.
To explore this, I'd like to look at a story where the suffering of a blind man is pointed out to Jesus. (In this discussion, I am paraphrasing the gospel of John, chapter nine.)
According to the stories about Jesus, when he wandered the streets of Jerusalem he tended to get into conflict with the authorities. After escaping an encounter in which people threatened to stone him, Jesus' disciples point out a man born blind and bring up the age-old question of the origin of suffering. They wanted to know whose fault it was that the man was blind.
"Wrong question," Jesus says. "The issue is how to bring God's light to the pain we see." He gets down in front of the man. He makes a small amount of mud, places it on the man's eyes, and sends him to wash.
Jesus took a risk when he did this. He drew attention to himself. Remember the authorities are ready to stone him to death. And it is the Sabbath day of rest, and healing is work. Making clay is work. Jesus broke the rules by restoring the man's sight.
It would have been more acceptable to walk past the man, to come back and heal him another day. It would have been proper to use the moment as a teaching moment. But the disciples had seen the man's suffering. Jesus could see his pain.
"Suffering calls us to compassion and action," Jesus says. And because it matters to him that he live the words he speaks, he cannot walk past.
The man is healed, but this is not the end of the story. Healing a man born blind is amazing. When people see him seeing, they are astounded. "Is it him?" they ask. "No, just someone who looks like him." "It is me," he insists.
When he's asked how it happened, he tells the story. "Where is this Jesus?" others ask. He shrugs. "How am I supposed to know? I never saw him." And he didn't. He felt the touch, experienced the power, but he never saw him.
People see the act of compassion, but can't make sense of it. It is too far beyond their experience. Some are angry because Jesus broke holy rules to accomplish the healing. The man becomes a lightning rod for anger about change, and he is cast out of the community. When Jesus hears this, he seeks him out again to draw him into the family of his disciples. A second experience of suffering draws a second act of compassion.
After this controversy, there is a long conversation about compassion. "You have to look after the sheep," Jesus says. Again, obvious, but not easy.
Many times, when arriving home late from a meeting in town, tired and ready for bed, I hear a lamb plaintively calling out in the barn. I am tempted to say to myself, "It'll be fine until morning." Going to check on the crying creature means going up to the house, changing clothes, finding a flashlight, and going out to check. Lambs are fragile, and I know what I need to do, but to do it I have to overcome tiredness, a desire to rest. I have to accept the need to work.
Hearing a call of pain calls us to compassion. Seeing suffering calls us to action. This is not hard to understand. But it is not easy to live. It takes work. It takes a real shift in perspective. We have to ask ourselves a different set of questions.
Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister, and writer living near Walters Falls.