On Compassion

On Compassion

A hard-hearted banker had just turned down a young man seeking a loan, but then—in order to amuse himself—he said, “My boy, I’ll tell you what. I have one good eye and one glass eye. If you can tell me which is which, I’ll approve your loan.” The young man looked closely at the banker for a moment, and then confidently announced, “Your left eye is your good eye.” The surprised banker admitted, “That’s right! How did you know?,” and the man explained, “Because I detected a hint of compassion in your right eye” (Steve May, The Story File, p. 64).

Some people aren’t exactly known for being compassionate; Mark Twain, for instance, once said to a rival, “I hear you were ill—I hope it was nothing trivial,” and on another occasion remarked after the death of one of his enemies, “I did not attend his funeral, but I did write a nice letter saying I approved of it” (R. Kent Hughes, 1001 Great Stories & Quotes, p. 70). Thankfully, most people are more compassionate than that—though it sometimes happens that others take advantage of their kind nature. A boy in kindergarten was getting ready for school, and remarked to his father, “I think I’ll be sad today.” “Why, what’s wrong?” asked the dad, and the clever little boy responded, “Nothing’s wrong—but when you look like you’re sad about something, the teachers take turns hugging you and giving you treats” (Michael Hodgin, 1001 Humorous Illustrations, p. 77).

One of the most compassionate Americans who ever lived was Abraham Lincoln. In April 1865, as the Civil War was drawing to a close, the Confederates were forced to abandon their capital of Richmond, Virginia. Soon afterwards President Lincoln entered the city with a military escort, walking the deserted streets until he reached the Confederate White House—the former headquarters and residence of Jefferson Davis, the Southern president. Lincoln sat alone at the great table where Davis had presided over his cabinet and formulated war strategy. As he gazed out the window, his eyes weren’t filled with the gleam of triumph, but with sadness and loss. Thinking of all the soldiers and civilians killed in the war, from both the North and the South, Lincoln began to weep—for his heart was heavy with compassion; as he once declared, “I have never suffered by the South; I have suffered with the South—for their pain has been my pain, and their loss has been my loss” (Msgr. Arthur Tonne, Stories for Sermons, Vol. 4, #207). After Lincoln was assassinated just ten days later, Jefferson Davis himself testified to the kind and noble nature of his opposite number, stating that the loss of Abraham Lincoln was a tragedy not only for the North, but for the South as well.

Our 16th president was a great American, but even more importantly, a great example of Christian love—for he not only understood, but lived by, Our Lord’s teaching in the Gospel of Matthew (22:34-40). If we claim to love God, we must show it not only by praising His Name and obeying His commandments, but especially by treating others with genuine compassion. This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and only those who honestly try to love their neighbor here on earth will be made worthy of eternal life in Heaven.

Our Lord’s enemies wanted to complicate matters in an effort to confuse and trap Him in His speech—but Jesus didn’t allow this to happen. Rather than getting into an abstract theological argument, He summarized the entire Hebrew Scriptures—what we call the Old Testament—by speaking of the need to love God with all our hearts, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The Book of Exodus (22:20-26) describes God’s compassion for foreigners, widows, and orphans, and St. Paul (1 Thes 1:5-10) speaks of how Christians are to “serve the living and true God and to await [the return of] His Son from Heaven.” If we love and serve those around us—especially those who suffer—we will be ready for Christ’s return, and we can look forward to a great and everlasting reward.

A Christian boy from a poor family was forced to beg on the streets of his village, barefoot in the cold weather. The son of a wealthy atheist saw him and treated him with scorn, saying, “If God really loves you, why doesn’t He take better care of you? Why doesn’t He tell someone to give you a pair of shoes?” The boy sadly answered, “I think God does tell people—but they aren’t listening” (Michael Hodgin, 1001 More Humorous Illustrations, p. 79). That’s a question that confronts and challenges each one of us. There are surely people all around us needing our help, and God is asking us to do something for them. Are we listening? Do we take the time to notice those who are suffering? Is there enough compassion in our hearts that we’ll actually do something for them, instead of just feeling sorry about their situation?

We probably aren’t called to establish hospitals and orphanages, to arrange for the donation of millions of dollars to charity, or to go overseas and work at a mission site or at a leper colony or at one of Mother Teresa’s houses for the dying. It’s much more likely God is asking us to help alleviate suffering in our own community, neighborhood, and home. Giving someone our loving attention, spending time with a person we normally take for granted, making others feel welcome, going out of our way to support and assist someone going through a difficult time, being generous with our compliments, doing simple favors whenever the opportunity arises, volunteering at one of the many agencies and charitable organizations needing help, contributing to our favorite charities, and treating everyone we meet the way we would treat Jesus Himself—especially within our own families—are all important ways of living out the Gospel and of proving that we are listening when God speaks to us on behalf of His suffering children.

Having studied in the seminary for almost nine years, and having read many hundreds of books since then, I can tell you that theology and religious studies can be very abstract and complicated. Living out our Christian faith, however, is meant to be very simple and down to earth. As Jesus says, we must love God with all our hearts, and love our neighbor—that is, anyone we encounter who is suffering or in need—as ourselves. If we get this part of our religion right, everything else will fall into its proper place, and we can be sure of one day receiving a joyous and gracious welcome into the Kingdom of Heaven.

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper