This autumn, there was a horrific accident in Anchorage, Alaska. A man had stopped on a busy street because his truck wasn’t working. As his wife sat in the cab, he crawled under the back of the truck to check it, and when he emerged, a car plowed into him with such force that both of his legs were nearly severed.
A woman, with her young son in the car, was passing by. She worked as a waitress and a nurse’s aide at a local hospital, and she was coming off a long shift. Like the Samaritan of Scripture, she stopped and used her skills to staunch the man’s bleeding. Passers-by handed her any scarf they could find — even a belly dancer’s scarf with coins attached — and she, with help from another motorist, tied them so tightly around what remained of the man’s legs that he didn’t bleed out before the ambulance arrived. He lost his legs, but he lived.
In an interview with Julia O’Malley in the Anchorage Daily News Sept. 15, the woman described how she felt calm and prayed that the man would live as she waited with him in the interminable minutes before the paramedics came.
I suppose in every town and every city, every day someone responds with compassion to events large and small. Many are capable of great acts of compassion, and many of those are not religious people.
But those of us who believe in the Gospel are compelled to act with compassion. I think compassion encompasses the Scriptures so completely that every word needs to be read within compassion’s framework.
“Moved with compassion” is a common phrase in the Gospel. It describes Jesus’ own actions, and he describes the Samaritan — a disrespected outcast in the eyes of Jesus’ audience — as being “moved with compassion” when he came upon the bloodied, injured traveler on the road to Jericho.
Jesus seems to admire above all others those who act with compassion. That should give us pause in examining our own lives.
Very pointedly, Jesus mentioned in the story about the Samaritan that there were others who passed by the victim, including a priest and a Levite who had crossed to the other side of the road. They did not want to risk ritual impurity by consorting with this wounded stranger. They wanted to avoid being soiled. They were following the rules but obviously missed the bigger rule, the law of love, which Christ was trying to teach.
Jesus was an observant Jew, and he did not advocate breaking the rules for the sake of it, but he called us to a higher standard in almost everything for which a law existed.
It was for this reason that he used the Samaritan as his example of compassion: not only was he trying to tell us that the injured stranger is our neighbor, but that the Samaritan is our neighbor as well.
Every day we hear about needs. Food bank shelves are empty and shelters are full. We feel compassion. But Jesus’ sense of compassion is one that moves us to action. It translates our feelings of suffering with another into a concrete sacrifice. It begs us to call an agency and ask how we can help or to get out the checkbook and stretch our dollars.
Most of us will never have to face the brutal test of compassion demanded of the woman in Anchorage. But each day, Jesus calls us to be “moved with compassion.” It was how he lived his earthly life, and it’s how he calls us to live ours.