A Fairly Simple Lesson in Compassion: A Reflection for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

This week’s readings are rich in material worthy of reflection.  Here’s the part that strikes me:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, . . . [who] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. (Phil. 2:1-5, 6a)

It seems to me we in the United States have badly lost sight of this vision, if indeed we ever had it, of what it is to lead, to serve one another.  It is not a solely American failure.  It is just basically human failure.  The antidote is also just basically human.  It is compassion. 

I’ve learned something this week that makes we wonder if something that stands in the way of compassion might be that we make it a bigger deal than it necessarily is.  I learned that thanks to my brother bishop, Ebenezer Ntlali of Grahamstown, South Africa, where I am at the moment.  Bishop Ebenezer told me a story about a visit he made to Germany for a conference on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. 

Bishop Ebenezer, it seems, was lost one day and could not find his way back to his hotel.  A man stopped to help him.  Unfortunately, the man spoke only German.  Bishop Ebenezer speaks several languages, but German is not one of them.  They tried to communicate with each other with little success.

            The situation changed when another man, who spoke both German and English, stopped to join in the conversation.     Bishop Ebenezer explained that he had lost his way on the way back to his hotel.  Translation occurred.  The first man responded that he knew where the hotel was.  More translation.  Bishop Ebenezer asked for directions.  Translation again.  You get the picture.  Eventually the man who spoke only German offered this.  “I have an appointment,” he said, “but I would be happy to take you to the hotel.  I will just be late for my appointment.”  And that’s what happened.

            I don’t know what the appointment was that the man was late for.  Bishop Ebenezer didn’t say.  I don’t think he knows, either.  Perhaps it was nothing.  Perhaps it was not.  Maybe it was a matter of being late for having coffee with an old friend.  Maybe it was being late for a job interview.  Maybe it was a matter of being late for dialysis.  We will never know.

Here’s the point.  It doesn’t matter.  It may have been sharing someone else’s need that only cost a little.  It may have been sharing in someone else’s need that cost quite a lot.  The point is not that Bishop Ebenezer’s need for directions was met.  The real point, the redemptive point, is that the man shared in Bishop Ebenezer’s need even though he didn’t have to.  What matters is that the man showed compassion, and compassion, according to Paul, is what saves us from making less of our humanity than we can.  I think that is true in whatever form compassion takes, in whatever size it manifests itself.  It saves us from the parts of our humanity—our ambition, our conceit that we are better others—that threaten to make us less than we are.  Instead, it is what makes us what we actually are, or are intended to be, just human but fully human.  All the rest is just a vain attempt to avoid that very thing. 

It can be a fairly simple lesson.


                                                                                    Bishop Stacy Sauls