For Whom Should One Feel Compassion?

How far should one’s generosity extend? Jesus was asked this very question by a lawyer: “Who is my neighbour?” (Lk. 10:29-37). He wanted to know who was and who was not a member of God’s Chosen People in order to be clear on who required his neighborly attention. Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan makes it clear that the Christian should have compassion for all after the pattern of God’s compassion for the creation and all humanity.

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a notoriously dangerous road on which, if one were sensible, one would travel in a group for safety (Jeremias, 1969, p. 52). So is Jesus implying that this lonely traveler was foolish and had only himself to blame for his misfortune? Perhaps he had no friends or was ignorant of the road’s reputation. Whatever his circumstances, he was robbed and left for dead. But he was in luck: others were on the same journey. A priest and a Levite came across him but did not touch him for fear of defilement; their responsibilities would be fulfilled if they complied with the law. The Samaritan was a pariah; however, when he saw the injured man, he did what he could on the spot, placed him on his animal, brought him to a hostelry where he left money for attendants to care for him, and promised when he returned to make good any further expense that had accrued.

So who is the neighbor? The lawyer, it seems, could not even bring himself to name the Samaritan and simply said, “the one who showed mercy.” “Go and do likewise,” said Jesus. The point is that one does not classify people as those who deserve compassion and those who do not, since all are included within the purview of the compassion of God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all things and all people. The focus of human compassion is the needy person in whose presence one stands; compliance is no substitute for compassionate moral concern. I believe this applies to professional practice: each client is a person to be treated with compassion.

Nussbaum, in her general account of compassion quoted previously, uses the word “misfortune”; I understand why she would do so. When, for example, a candidate fails his or her final examination to become a doctor despite his or her best efforts, one naturally feels compassionate toward the candidate. This would be even more true if the candidate were involved in an accident and were precluded from continuing with the medical course by his or her injuries. The student would be disappointed in either case, for he or she would have to take his or her career in a new direction. The student needs compassion if he or she is to pick up the pieces and move on.

However, the term “misfortune” suggests that compassion begins with a consideration of criteria. Should I be compassionate in this case? This process from the Christian position is in principle irrelevant. As distinct from Aristotle, who might have pity, the Christian sees all fellow human beings as persons to be treated with compassion. St. Paul is clear about this: he holds all humanity together as one when he declares, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:22-23). To fall short of the glory of God is to fail to see the world as characterized by the presence of God and to treat it as being within one’s own control. In principle, one denies one’s true humanity and closes one’s eyes to the opportunities that flow from realizing one’s freedom in God’s creation to live a life open to all. To be human is to be compassionate, to be actively focused on the needs of others for their sake and for God’s sake. It is to follow Christ, who embodies God’s presence in creation.

To discriminate between those who deserve to be treated compassionately and those who do not is to act sinfully because it denies God’s gracious presence. Moreover, it is an error of theological understanding to associate the condition of being a sinner only with past misbehavior; it is also a consequent inability to appreciate what the future offers and get on with living it. Gratitude for God’s forgiveness liberates us into the freedom of God’s gracious presence, where we can become aware of the open possibilities of the future that we inherit. Of course, one’s past behavior may again and again prejudice one’s capacity to discern the creative opportunities with which one is blessed, which is why it is necessary to celebrate regularly the sacrament of penance. All stand equal before God in their need of the assurance of his forgiveness. We are all sinners because we are inclined to stand around wringing our hands instead of getting on with the job of being human for Christ’s sake. Such equality is not simply a metaphysical recognition of equality before God but an integral part of our humanity.

 
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