Not long ago, I thought that I was dying, that perhaps I had aggressive cancer coursing through my body. Painful, swollen lymph nodes were everywhere, including my stomach. For three to four weeks prior, I had horrible acid reflux and a sour stomach. I could barely eat. Never before did I have this combination of symptoms. So I hurried to an urgent care center late one Friday afternoon after work. I was concerned about the relentless acid reflux. However, the physician assistant was noticeably concerned about the lymph nodes. She immediately ordered me to the hospital: “You need to get blood tests ASAP.” The facility receptionist swiftly asked my new primary care physician to make an exception and open up an appointment for me the following Monday morning at 8:40 a.m.
“You need to get blood tests ASAP.”
After calling my husband, I talked to my mentor, Lisa, on the phone. “How are you feeling about it all?” she asked. My knee-jerk response, though humorous in tone, was dead serious: “Oh, I prefer not to die right now, but what am I to do?” She laughed. I laughed too, given the possibilities. But really, what could I do about it in that moment? I had very little I could control. The weekend passed and then, that Monday morning at my appointment, much to my relief, I learned that I did not have cancer. Still, the whole ordeal had reminded me of the fragility of life and how much is beyond our power.
Within a day of receiving the all clear, I accompanied our senior pastor and a small team of church members to meet with refugees. I do the translating while others offer food, a blanket, a jacket, a smile, use of a cell phone, or information about their next bus stop. The refugees can barely speak, much less speak of what happened to them. Each Monday night we meet them, and every time, I am acutely aware that I am part of the world’s upper echelon. There’s been cushion to my suffering that refugees and others do not have.
Why is that? They did nothing to deserve their suffering. They’re fleeing violence, drug cartels, and poverty related to destabilized governments in their home countries. Nearly every week, we meet Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus fleeing. They are so obviously traumatized, tired, cold, and hungry. They’ve experienced what can be described only as hell on earth. Why such innocents are in that situation while I happen not to be is a mystery. It has nothing to do with me being holier than they are. Many are devout Christians.
In Matthew 9:13, Jesus echoes Hosea 6:6 when He tells the Pharisees to “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice.’” The Pharisees were the ones “sold out” to God. They could quote Scripture best and were in synagogue whenever the doors were open. For all intents and purposes, they were the model Jews, or what we’d consider model Christians today. Except they weren’t. Over and over Jesus outraged them and the crowds by denying their status as religious and societal exemplars. From His vantage point—that is, God’s vantage point—Pharisees had much humility and compassion to learn from the likes of humble tax collectors who were ashamed of their own sins. Pharisees had much to learn from the Samaritans—among the most repugnant theological and social pariahs in the eyes of Jewish culture at the time. It was the despised Samaritan, not the pious Pharisee, who showed love to an enemy neighbor left for the dead on the road to Jericho.
Throughout the Gospels, and prominently in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus makes it clear that memorizing Scripture, never missing church, and routine tithing mean little if we are loveless and unmerciful—if we fail to offer loving compassion. Paul said such pious lives devoid of love are clanging cymbals (1 Corinthians 13:1). Annoying. Frustrating. Repulsive.
When we are self-righteous, we’re less likely to receive or extend mercy, because we are blind to our own need—whatever form it takes. A stingy disposition when it comes to mercy and compassion reveals we are prodigals in a far country, separated from both God and our neighbor. Isn’t that a form of hell? But humility and a tenderized heart allow us to extend grace and mercy to others—to comfort others with the same comfort we have received (2 Corinthians 1:4). At least, it should.
Jesus makes it clear that memorizing Scripture, never missing church, and routine tithing mean little if we are loveless and unmerciful—if we fail to offer loving compassion.
I don’t mean to suggest that God orchestrates suffering merely to teach us compassion. It is the devil who steals, kills, and destroys—not the Lord. God is the one who gives us life in all its forms (John 10:10). But suffering tends to engender compassion, when in the past we might have been oblivious or indifferent.
The humble embody the spirit of the good Samaritan with inviting lives, checkbooks, and gentle dispositions rather than a consuming self-centeredness, smug self-righteousness, or callousness towards others’ suffering. Jesus was perfect, sinless, completely devoted to the Father and the Father’s will. And yet He knew what it was like to suffer. He knew what it was like to be broken, targeted, hunted, and marginalized. Is it any wonder that He lavished loving attention upon the invisible and heard the anguished cries of the silenced?
Scripture testifies that our God is chock-full of compassion (Psalm 145:8-9). People who have suffered and become merciful know weakness and vulnerability and, consequently, the sheer gift of having kindness extended to them. Broken, they are often inclined to do the same. In their disposition to show mercy, they resemble God. They, like Him, are attentive to needs. And as Simone Weil has said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
Illustrations by Jonathan Bartlett