by Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens
As we conclude our sermon series called “The Character of a Christian” today we look at compassion. And I begin with a quote from American author and Unitarian pastor Edward Everett Hale:
“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”
As I was doing some reading in preparation for this sermon about compassion, I asked God for a message about what we needed to hear at this time, in this place. And after some stewing and thinking and prayer, I did not hear a message from God that we are not compassionate or that we need to be more compassionate… but maybe we are experiencing “Compassion Fatigue.” That maybe we are tired, sad and unsure of what good our compassion does in this world?
To illustrate this, here is a cartoon depicting my ideal image of Christian life. Just me and Jesus, tackling the world together.
Now we all have priorities that need our attention: things that we really care about; things we need to be compassionate about. When these things are balanced, they look like this. These are my main priorities: Family, Health and Wellbeing, Work/Mission.
But there are other things I care about: national politics, international politics, education, needy children, preserving our Earthly home, equal rights… you can fill in your own topics. We all have things, people, situations we care about, people and places that deserve and need our compassion.
In a healthy world, we’d be able to keep everything in its proper place, with our highest priorities receiving our best attention, and then the other priorities receiving a bit of our attention…. No one thing taking over.
But what happens when you have a health crisis?
What happens when you have when your family is in crisis?
What happens when you lose a job?
Add to those crises, the crises of the world, of needy children or crises of the environment… because we don’t experience one at a time. All things we care about need our compassion and attention all at once.
With all the things we care about, where do we start? How do we manage our compassion so that we don’t get exhausted by the needs around us? How do we prevent compassion fatigue?
Let us begin with the parable from Luke 16, verses 19-31.
Who are the main characters? Lazarus and the Rich Man
Names are significant in our biblical texts and this is the only parable where a character is given a name – and it is the poor man who is named. The name “Lazarus” means “Helped by God” and his example is used as a model for the audience of the parable. If Lazarus is “helped by God” he should also be helped by us.
Who is the other character? The rich man. Consequently, some of you may know him by the name “Dives,” but that name is not used in the biblical text. “Dives” – a name sometimes associated with the rich man – comes from the ancient Latin translation of the text. ”Dives” is the Latin adjective for “rich” – not the man’s name. (1)
The parable happens in two scenes: the first in on earth and the second after death. The first scene, describes the two men – The rich man dressed in fine purple linens (purple being a color of royalty) and feasting scrumptiously. And Lazarus, a beggar at his gates, wounded, looking for scraps from the rich man’s table.
And then they both die: And the rich man goes down to Hades to be tormented and there he sees Lazarus far above him at the side of Father Abraham. The rich man requests that Lazarus come and ease his torment, by bringing one drop of water for his thirsty tongue. But Father Abraham answers, “No, you had your good things on earth and Lazarus had only evil things, and now your situations are reversed.”
So, here we have two men, rich and poor, one goes to torment and the other to comfort and luxury. What is the point Jesus is trying to teach us? What is the warning to us, Jesus’ audience. “Don’t be like Dives.”
Dives here is not portrayed as an overt evil-doer. The man is very rich and very privileged, wearing garments of purple suggests some link with royalty. Having a gate and a wall implies a large mansion. But as much as Jesus talked about wealth, this parable does not condemn Dives for the mere fact of being rich. Here Dives is not condemned for being rich, but for his indifference and uncaring attitude towards poor Lazarus right outside his door. (As an aside, Abraham was wealthy, and he isn’t in the place of torment.) (2)
Wealth was not his problem. The text doesn’t indicate he gained his wealth by evil means, by exploiting anyone or taking advantage of anyone. There is no indication that he’s disobeyed the commandments or broken any religious or legal rules.
But Lazarus is at his gate. Lazarus is in need, is hungry, is wounded… Does Dives walk past him each day on his way into town, passing through the front gate, passing by Lazarus? Does he say “Good morning, Lazarus” as he leaves the house and “Good evening, Lazarus” as he returns? Does he acknowledge Lazarus or just look away? Does he complain that the presence of this beggar is disrupting his curb appeal and causing his guests discomfort or does he merely ignore him altogether?
Let’s go back to our illustration. Here is the rich man may be taking care of his priorities. His family and Health and work are being attended to and maybe he is doing good things in his community, but Lazarus is still at his gate.
Dives is presented with this “problem/opportunity” every day and does nothing. Perhaps he thinks, “I am only one…. I cannot do everything, so I refuse to do anything.” There are problems that are too big for us to conquer, so why even try?
But still Lazarus remains there. What or who is your Lazarus? What is God placing at your gate, calling for your compassion? How is God asking us to realign our priorities?
Now, because I tend to be practical, I will leave you with this: Compassion fatigue is real. And when we care, we can care to the extreme, and that can damage our selves, our relationships, even our spiritual life with God. So we need to discover how to deal with all the things and people that demand our compassion.
For example, if you are primarily concerned with a family member in crisis, and all your compassion and attention is needed there, look for others who are working in the other areas you care about… and ask how you can support them? “I see you care about the environment as I do. How can I support you?” This was you are not alone in showing compassion, you have a partner.
Look for a church program or a non-profit that addresses one of your concerns. Our UMW supports foster families through Serenity, troubled teens through the David and Margaret home, and global education through Friends of Padhar Schools. Is there a way for you to support their programs?
Lastly, Practice saying No. Those of us who are compassionate, tend to over-extend ourselves and that can harm us and our efforts. Identify the Lazarus at your gate. Acknowledge Lazarus and do something. You may not be able to solve everything for Lazarus, but can you show him some care, some love, some concern? Can you provide him with some food, water, medical care?
* “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”
May these words guide us in our compassionate care. And may God bless us now and always.
- Brian Stoffregen found on http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke16x19.htm