Showing compassion that goes beyond empathy

Published 9:00 am Friday, June 4, 2010

“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion/or her and said to her, ‘Do not weep,) Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you rise!” — Luke 7:13-14.

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines compassion as “sorrow for the sufferings or troubles of another, with the urge to help.” Americans are known as a compassionate people. Individual response to the devastation left by the earthquake in Haiti is laudable. When a member within the community becomes seriously ill, a benefit dinner is served to assist in paying medical bills. Neighbors bring hot dishes to a home where death has visited and left a grieving family.

On the other hand, there are times when compassion is in short supply. Sometimes we suffer from “compassion fatigue.” The continent of Africa appears hopelessly bogged down in tribal warfare, famine, and an epidemic of AIDS. We feel overwhelmed by it all. Sometimes we label people as “undeserving.” The poor are lumped together as “shiftless” or “addicted” …as people who merely need to get their act together. And, sometimes we look the other way because “they are not like us!” We rationalize, “We take care of our own and they can take care of their own.”

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Most of us are driven to be compassionate when we feel a relationship with the one(s) in need. We either know the individual(s) personally or we have suffered a similar experience. Jesus’ compassion goes beyond having empathy for a widow who lost her sole means of support and is left to live in isolation and poverty.

Jesus does something forbidden by the rules of the day. He touches a dead body! He makes himself ritually “unclean.” His touch reaches beyond the boundaries at to what is “clean” and “unclean” …as to what is socially acceptable and which is taboo. In so doing, Jesus brings the young man back to life.

Are there people in our communities whom we see as “untouchables?” Are there those whom we fear because we have been misinformed? The story from Luke is a story about compassion, not about societal, political, or religious purity. It leaves us to question: Are there limits to our compassion ? Or, dare we reach out to touch others in such a way that they may come to know the inclusive love of God?