As Hurricane Florence begins to pound the east coast today with 100+ mph winds, I am writing in the comfort of my office, 3000 miles away, with nothing but the sound of traffic whizzing by my window. Should I care? We Californians have yet to feel the destructive power of a hurricane, so it can be hard to relate to it. When the World Trade Center was attacked 17 years ago, I was horrified like everyone else at the images on my TV screen…but it was not until I traveled to the site of the devastation on a Youth Mission Trip and saw the massive memorial site that I was able to grasp the scope of the destruction and suffering. Sure, it is “only human” to think of ourselves and those closest to us, but it is a sign of our true humanity when we can concern ourselves with those whose lives do not directly impact our own… whether it be a homeless encampment under the Venice/Sepulveda bridge, a family that fled their home in North Carolina this week, or a person of a different race or background.
Last week, a guy at my gym shared that some black members of his congregation were upset that their pastor never spoke about racial prejudice in his sermons. He had little ability to empathize with their concern: "What they want is the same material things that white people have; and they shouldn’t want that if they are following Christ,” he said, arguing that Jesus never talked about racism or prejudice. I was taken aback. “What about the time that Jesus commanded his fellow Jews to show mercy toward the hated Samaritans in the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan?” “That parable is not about showing mercy toward people of another race or background,” he said, correcting me. “It’s about Jesus’ sacrificial love for us. He's the Good Samaritan.” I raised an eyebrow. While it is certainly true that Jesus is the supremely Good Samaritan, this man was spiritualizing away the Parable’s plain meaning in order to maintain his lack of concern. “Read the end of the Parable,” I said. “Jesus says, ‘Go and do likewise’ (Luke 10:37).” He was confident these words were not there as he looked it up on his phone. But when he found the passage he defended himself again: “Our salvation is the result of what God has done for us, not what we have to do for God,” again justifying his lack of compassion with a thin theological argument. I smiled as compassionately as I could and said, “My friend, just because we’re saved by grace doesn’t mean there’s nothing for us to do.” I was talking to him, but I was also talking to myself.
I don’t know about you, but I know my capacity for selfishness is still considerable. I know that empathy is something I need to receive as a gift of the Spirit and something I must cultivate by a conscious meditation on the love of his Son “who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2: 7). Compassion and concern for others, says Paul, is a gift of the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:7). It is also the expected result of God’s compassion for us: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we are ourselves are consoled by God” (2 Cor. 1: 3-4). Compassion for the afflicted and those unfairly treated is not just a feeling we must wait for, but a decision we must make: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” says Paul (Phil. 2: 4).
A simple prayer that you might consider is one that I’ve prayed as recently as this week: “Lord Jesus, forgive me for my lack of concern for others. Give me your heart of compassion. I now joyfully choose, by your grace, to care – to treat those around me as you would if you were me.” That’s a prayer God will answer, and will keep on answering, as we bring the people and situations that we encounter – right here in our church, in this community, or 3000 miles away – before his throne.