Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

The luminous eye of compassion

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The key word in today’s Gospel reading is “see” – When did we see you…? is the question repeated by both sets of people!

Compassion is all about seeing. That’s the message today. Notice in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite saw the wounded man and passed on the other side, away from the place of compassion:

a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side

But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion – It is much more concise in the original Greek: καὶ ἰδὼν ἐσπλαγχνίσθη – and seeing had compassion.

The demand of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that we develop the ability to SEE. To help us in this, Jesus tells us to look for him among the poor, the homeless, the suffering, the victims of injustice. We are too comfortable in our neighborhoods and churches and respectable civic involvement. And because it all begins with seeing, is it any wonder that cities around the nation and around the world regularly pass laws to make the homeless and the poor invisible?

I’m not naive. I know that there are people who pretend to be poor or homeless or unemployed, who can very well provide for themselves. I know that there are people who use and abuse the system. I’m not naive. But I’m also not blind. And I know that there is genuine need. The Europeans who were so comfortable with their social democracies were suddenly confronted by the suffering of millions. After an initial compassionate reaction, the doors started closing.

Even in Greece, which has been at the forefront of the crisis and which has done the most to help even though it is of all European countries least able to help – even in Greece one hears stories. Residents of the village Αθυρά dug up the earth with tractors where tents to house 3,000 migrants were to be set up, so as to prevent those tents from being set up in their neighborhood. And then there is this:

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No, this is not something that happened recently. Three Sundays ago Lou Ureneck spoke to us about the tragedy of Smyrna in 1922. The incident above was written by the great Greek poet George Seferis, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature – and yes, it was an incident that happened in 1922, with Greek refugees. The doors close, fences are built along borders, even 50-foot walls! In the second world war, nations closed their doors to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.

I’m not naive. I know the problem is huge, beyond any single country to deal. I’m ashamed for what those Greek villagers who dug up the earth to prevent refugee tents being set up, yet I can’t totally blame them nor can I judge them. And neither do I believe that Jesus will finally condemn any of us for failure to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, taken in the homeless. So what is the point of this parable? The parable is meant to challenge us and to open our eyes. When Jesus told us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned – he knew that such acts on our part would take us to the heart of the all the suffering, brokenness and injustice in our society. He knew that such acts would cause us to ask questions about ourselves and our society. He knew that such acts would help us become more fully human – like he became human, like he placed himself in the place of the poor and suffering. This is the full impact of the incarnation: He entered the hurt of the world and embodied it in himself – he became hurt, not only on the cross, but everyday.

He’s telling us, Look closely, I’m not far, I’m right there, wherever you avert your gaze. See me, touch me – he told his apostles when they had trouble believing that he had risen from the dead. He is not dead, he is alive and he identifies himself with the same people that he preferred to associate 2,000 years ago – the poor, the sick, the lonely, the outcasts, the sinners – yes, perhaps even those fakes out there at street corners holding signs.

The Christian gospel is unique because it preaches a God who is very different from every other god in every religion. Not that God is more “powerful” than the other gods – but rather God chooses to be poor and powerless in order to draw us to unity with each other and with God. The sermons of John Chrysostom and other great fathers of the church make constant reference to this parable we read today. But I will conclude today with a quote from a lesser known ancient preacher, Jacob of Sarug, preaching in a dusty Syrian village near ancient Edessa, around the year 520 AD. Note especially the magnificent phrases I have highlighted in red. They encapsulate everything I’ve tried to say here, and they do it much more deeply and eloquently.

For your sake he was made a beggar in the streets, in hunger and need along with the poor in this world… The Creator, to whom the entire creation belongs, has abased himself so as to borrow from you in (the person of) the poor… ‘Give to the needy, and I will be as a debtor to you…Although he is God, he has equated himself with the poor… He is hidden and exalted high above all ranks of heavenly beings, but when a poor person stands at your door, you see him!… He whom the cherubim convey on their backs lies smitten on the bed of sickness, along with the sick. Wherever you want to see him, you will find him by means of the luminous eye of faith that does not doubt: with the sick, with those in distress, with those who mourn, with the needy, with the hungry and afflicted… The poor person who has stood at your door is God himself… In a lowly and despised guise he has come to visit you, so that when you fill his belly, you will find the Bread of Life. (As quoted in Susan R. Holman, God Knows There’s Need, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 49-50)

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