Cultivating Compassion

As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”

Luke 7:12-13

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but we’re experiencing a period of rapid cultural climate change, where compassion is receding and conflict is heating up.  (Oh, you were aware!) In such a culture I find myself turning to the stories of Jesus and his deep and compelling compassion; that emotion we feel in the gut that moves us to action. One of those compassion stories unfolds in the village of Nain (Luke 7:11-17).

As Jesus and his friends approach the town they hear a funeral procession. The man about to be laid to rest is the only son of a widowed woman. Details that are important for understanding what happens next. Jesus surveys the scene, and it tugs at him. He has compassion, not for the dead man, but for the weeping widow of Galilee who has lost her son. He tells the man to rise, and when he does Luke says that Jesus “gave him to his mother.” Life is restored for her.

Nain is located in Galilee on the northwest slopes of the Hill of Moreh. It is visible from the ridge that runs near Nazareth where Jesus grew up. I wonder if he had his mother Mary on his mind that day in Nain. I say mother, not parents because after the story of 12-year-old Jesus in the temple, Joseph disappears from the gospels. As readers, we’re left to assume that he died before the start of Jesus’ public ministry, which means that Mary too is a widow of Galilee.

It also means that Jesus knows what it’s like to bury a parent at a young age, knows what it means to care for a widowed mother, and knows what it means to endure grief and death. He too was a widow’s son. When Jesus saw this funeral procession with a weeping widow at the front, he knew that soon his own mother would lead a procession to the foot of the cross where she too would lose a son. He tells the young man to rise up, even as he prepares to lay his life down.

Compassion comes easy when it connects to our personal experience.

Of course, that also means that compassion is harder for us to experience on behalf of those who are different than us. We are quicker to feel compassion and respond with action for those impacted by flooding and storm damage in Houston and Florida than we are for those in Indonesia or even Puerto Rico. We are more inclined to show compassion and extend forgiveness to politicians who show poor judgment if they are members of the political party we identify with.

The same is true of recent debates around athlete’s choices during the national anthem, and the related movements of Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter. We are more likely to have compassionate responses to the priorities of one movement and be dismissive of the other, based on our personal experience. That is our natural inclination, and one we should challenge. After all, Jesus didn’t just show compassion to the widow of Nain in whom he could recognize his own mother. He also showed compassion to the blind men of Jericho (Matthew 20:29-34) and the leper of Galilee (Mark 1:35-39) despite having no personal experience of their ailments.

Cultivating compassion when it isn’t easy begins with an act of imagination; “What would it be like to walk in her shoes?” That simple question challenges us to bracket our own experience and seek to truly understand another, even if it’s someone we would be inclined to call an enemy. That kind of compassion takes some courage!

We can try to answer that imaginative question on our own, but we’ll always come up with better answers when we seek out relationships and genuinely learn from those who embody a different experience. In our increasingly polarized culture, the temptation is to settle into echo chambers where the news we read, and the voices on our Twitter feeds, only reinforce our personal experience. Now more than ever, people who want to follow Jesus need to cultivate compassion by recognizing that all pain is personal. It’s only when we are in relationship with the pain of those who are different than us that we can begin to extend compassion to those “on the other side” and act in ways that seek to address the pain of all.

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