Sermons : Living The Faith: Old Virtues for a New Age – Compassion
July 15th, 2012
Psalm 103: 6-14, Matthew 25: 31-46
Sermon by Kate Wells
Well that's that. In the gospel of Matthew that is the last formal teaching of Jesus. Not his last words, but his last discourse with his disciples. It could seem in a sense that the whole Gospel of Matthew has been moving toward this final teaching of Jesus. Not long after this text today Jesus holds the passover with his disciples, he is arrested, and crucified. But here, before we get to all of that, we have the final teaching of Jesus.
And I have to be honest, I don't really like our text today. First there is the separating of people, like animals. Then there is some of the language: accursed, eternal fire, the devil, punishment. It's hard to see how we're going to get to compassion from here. The theology seems a bit strange to me as well; where is the mention of grace and forgiveness? It's all about works, all about what we do, which causes me to worry about motivation. Knowing what we now know from this story why would we actually do these good works?
Mostly, I just don't like the way this passage makes me feel. It makes me feel guilty. Causes me to wonder how I'm supposed to respond. It makes me think about the men and women that I pass on Franklin Street on my way to get something to eat, many of you know them by name. Makes me think of people standing beside my car at a stoplight, with signs asking for some kind of help. This text makes me think of a man I encountered in downtown Raleigh one night by myself, he was asking for money for a greyhound ticket to go see his family, and I drove away in fear, not compassion.
What is compassion anyway? Karen Armstrong attempts to define it in her book, "Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life." You may have heard of it, it's on the bulletin boards around church as a summer reading suggestion. She also started the Charter for Compassion, a movement to spread compassion around the world. In her book she lists the following as a few of her steps to a compassionate life: compassion for self, empathy, mindfulness, action, and concern for everybody. Armstrong also has a chapter entitled, "How should we speak to one another?" Perhaps that chapter should be a required reading before some church or political meetings. She has also started a website: charterforcompassion.org. It is a wonderful resource for more information on compassion, ideas to share, and a glimpse of what is being carried out in the world around us. Armstrong's book and the website come from the perspective of many different faith traditions, working together towards a more compassionate world.
As Christians gathered together this morning, the Bible is our guide to compassion. We look to Scripture for the meaning of compassion, and it does not disappoint us. Our reading from the Psalms today compares God to a father who has compassion on his children. In Isaiah God says that "as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you." And there is certainly something of nurture and care in compassion.
In the Gospels as well Jesus gives us snapshot after snapshot of compassion. Before the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus saw a great crowd and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. On the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, Jesus was moved with compassion and healed two blind men. The theologian William Barclay captures the spirit of the compassion of Jesus well when he says, "Jesus teaches that human need must always be helped; that there is no greater task than to relieve someone's pain and distress and that the Christian's compassion must be like God's- unceasing. Other work may be laid aside but the work of compassion never." The Gospels portray a Jesus who was always about the work of compassion, even when it interrupted his other work.
Just as compassion marked the life of Jesus, he taught about compassion as well. Jesus instructed his followers to love their enemies, and in everything to do to others as you would have them do to you. Jesus used a variety of stories to make his point. A Samaritan stops to take great care of a wounded man whom he had no business even being near. A father sees his long lost son while he is still far off, and being filled with compassion; the father runs to the son, puts his arms around him, and kisses him. Now that's a feel good story of compassion that I can get behind.
But the difference with our text today from the end of Matthew's Gospel, is that Jesus is not so much displaying compassion, or illustrating compassion in a story. Here in our text today, Jesus is calling his disciples actually to be compassionate. Here the call is clear and strong to do works of compassion.
The acts listed here in our text today are very simple. Very basic. Food, drink, welcome, clothing, care, visiting. Sounds simple enough. We do many of those things during the day without even thinking. We greet and welcome each other in the name of Christ, we take care of the sick in our families, we visit with those we love. Many of us have donated our time in a food bank or given clothes to Goodwill. It's not a hard list. Jesus here is highlighting the ultimate importance of ordinary this-wordly deeds. We don't have to do great acts, but simple acts with great compassion. Mother Teresa expressed this when she said, "Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering, and the lonely right there where you are - in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and in your schools. You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see."
Compassion is the simple, often unremembered acts we show to those the world often overlooks. Sometimes we might feel we have very little compassion to offer. Tracy Hansen was a survivor of sexual abuse, and she often felt like there was very little she could do. She was the one always asking others for help. But she found that she could pray for others who were still repressing the memory of their abuse. She said, "It was only a little thing; but it was something I could manage, and it was a small movement out of the self-centeredness the trauma had pushed me into." She found that praying over time gave her more compassion for those others who had also experienced abuse, and in turn more compassion, and healing, and peace for herself. A small move, a simple action of compassion.
In our text today, it is a simple list. But it comes with some scary implications. Sickness in Biblical times was often associated with sin, the idea of nakedness brought with it a sense of powerlessness. Strangers and convicts, these are not the kinds of people we would often choose to be involved with. We're talking about the fringe of society here. Or as Jesus called them, the least of these. Do we really want to be implicated with these types of people? Guilty by association with them?
And that is perhaps what makes this passage and this call to compassion difficult. And don't get me wrong, it is wonderful to care for family, friends, and neighbors. A recent example of compassion from within my own family came just a few weeks ago. My dad was visiting with his father on what would turn out to be the last afternoon of my grandfather's earthly life. My grandfather was trying to sleep and was having a difficult time getting comfortable. So my dad stayed for a few extra hours, massaging his father's legs and feeding him ice chips until my grandfather finally drifted off to sleep. That is compassion. Being with people in their time of need.
But our passage today doesn't let us just stay there, with familiar, comfortable people. The compassion of Christ calls us to do even more. In the 4 small words, "the least of these." Who are the least in our society today? Who are the untouchables? The people on the fringe? This is where Jesus would push us to go, it is to these too that Jesus would have us bestow acts of compassion.
Of course this parable today used by Jesus is not simple or straightforward. It isn't just that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished, but the twist in this story is that neither group had any idea. No one recognized Christ. It brings to mind the show, Undercover Boss. Where the CEO of some huge company spends the day with the lowest level of workers, only to surprise them at the end by revealing his or her true identity. Among the righteous described in the parable there seems to be a lack of self-consciousness. They weren't even aware they were doing anything special; helping others is simply a part of being a disciple. As it should be the same for us, we aren't motivated to do acts of compassion because it will save us in the end. We are compassionate because it is simply part of being a follower of Christ.
This association with the least might be frightening, or overwhelming, maybe uncomfortable. But that is where Christ is. Christ is already there. Jesus is present, already present, with the outcast and the lowly. And it is Jesus who will be met in the encounter with the least of these. The Presbyterian pastor and seminary professor Tom Long says, "If you want to find Jesus, look among those who are harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. The church that is faithful will be found in precisely the same place."
Earlier I mentioned that our passage today was the last teaching of Jesus. Of course this isn't entirely accurate. As Jesus entered Jerusalem to be crucified, he had one great lesson left. In our passage today Jesus is pictured as being enthroned in glory, as the judge of the nations. But Jesus is the judge who has been judged himself. This is God made flesh who has experienced real hunger and thirst. Jesus who was not even welcomed in his own town, who was stripped bare for all to see. Jesus who was deserted by his friends in his greatest time of need.
Why are we moved to acts of compassion? I think the answer is two fold. We are moved to acts of compassion because of the great compassion of Christ himself, the final lesson in compassion from Christ. That Jesus gave all to the least of these, even his very life. But also we are moved to acts of compassion because Jesus himself experienced suffering with the least of these. This isn't a God who is far removed from suffering; but a God who suffered in Jesus. How much more are we able to immerse ourselves in the sufferings of others because of a God who knows suffering, because of Christ who suffered for us, and because of the Spirit who intercedes for us even now in our own suffering. It is with the compassion of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit that we are moved to have compassion for others.
May we have eyes to see Jesus, among all, but especially among the least of these, may we be ready with acts of compassion and never have to ask "Lord, when was it that we saw you?". May we see Christ in all, and in doing so have compassion on all we see. Amen.
Armstrong, Karen. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
Boring, Eugene M. The New Interpreter's Bible. Vol. 8. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994. p.455-459
Brueggemann, Walter, Beverly R. Gaventa, Charles B. Cousar, and James D. Newsome. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary, Based on the NRSV, Year A. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1995.
"Inspirational Quote." Stay Where You Are. Find Your Own Ca... Mother Teresa, Founder of the Missionaries of Charity. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2012. <http://www.values.com/inspirational-quotes/4121-Stay-Where- You-Are-Find-Y->.
Long, Thomas G. Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997. p.283-286
Manser, Martin H. The Westminster Collection of Christian Quotations. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001. p.46
Ward, Hannah, and Jennifer Wild. The Westminster Collection of Christian Meditation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000. p.300-301
 The New Interpreter's Bible, p.455
 Long, p.283-284
 The New Interpreter's Bible, p.455
 Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
 Manser, p.46
 "Inspirational Quote" Mother Teresa
 Ward and Wild, p.300-301
 Texts for Preaching, p.576
 Long, p.284
 Texts for Preaching, p.577
 The New Interpreter's Bible, p.458
 Long, p.286
 Texts for Preaching, p.576