By Rev. Michael Karunas
The backbone of the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is compassion. Three people see a half-dead man lying by the side of the road. Two of them pass by, doing nothing more than laying eyes on him. Only the third stops and does something to improve the victim’s situation. The Samaritan. He not only saw, but he had compassion (v. 33). Compassion is what inspired all of the actions that followed. And without compassion, none of that would have been possible. The word compassion means to “suffer with.” The literal Greek word in the New Testament used here contains the word for “guts” in it – as in, to feel “in the gut” the suffering of another.
The way we experience compassion, therefore, begins by looking within. Before we can comprehend the world “out there,” we must be willing to take a look at the person within our very selves. Compassion is about connecting with the suffering in our own life; thinking of times in our lives when we’ve been on the mat; when we’ve lost (a job, a relationship, a loved one); when it felt like the walls were caving in around us. How did we feel when at those times? Not what did we do, but how did we feel.
Compassion starts here, because there is a something called a “similarity-in-difference” in these lives we lead alongside one another. Though each of our lives is uniquely different, there is a similarity in how we experience them. You never knew my father, who died of a heart-attack 20 years ago. And your lost loved ones didn’t pass away in the exact same way he did. But if I talk about my love for him, and my sadness of losing him, it can connect with you – and the feelings of love you have for your paretns or children, and it can connect with your feelings of grief for the people you’ve lost. We can connect with the hurt and pain of others, even if we don’t know anything about them, when we are aware of our own hurt and pain. That’s compassion.
I was having a conversation on facebook about these thoughts last week and one wise commenter noted that it is easier to find “similarity-in-difference” the less “different” someone is. How true! Generating compassion for those we know comes much more naturally than it does for those we don’t. That’s why one of the most important details of the story of the Good Samaritan is what is not said about the man who fell into the hands of robbers. We don’t know his enthnicity or what he looks like. He’s half-dead, which means he’s likely unconscious and unable to speak. Which further means that we can’t tell if he’s speaking a different language, or our own with an accent. We cannot determine if he’s “from here” or not. He’s described as being “stripped.” Therefore, he does not have any identifying clothing with which we could assign him to a particular societal sub-group. Jesus doesn’t allow us to deny him compasison because of something external; because she “speaks a different language and therefore must be here for disingenuous reasons;” or because “he’s dressed like a gangster and is probably dealing drugs.” It is though Jesus wants us to see past the labels and the external things that characterize us and experience this man exactly as he is. As a man. A human being. Broken, beaten, hurting and in need of compassion.
Having compassion for one another will certainly always be easier the closer we are to them. But compassion has a way of bringing us together – bringing us closer to one another and us closer to God. Because compassion, by definition, emphasizes the “similar” more than the “different” in “similarity-in-difference.” And in our contemporary societal climate of polarity and divisiveness, couldn’t we all stand to be drawn toward one another? Could there be anything wrong with experiencing a little more compassion?