The Circle of Compassion

Our Jewish friends have a treasure of stories and legends about the great rabbinic sages of the past. Among the stories that have been passed down, Rabbi Hillel, who lived in the first century, is the one most remembered as a wise and patient teacher.

One story is about a young man at King Herod’s court who made a wager with his friends that he could make Rabbi Hillel angry. He had heard of Hillel and he wanted to see if he was really as wise and patient as everyone said. And so he went to the study house one day where Hillel was teaching a portion of the Torah.

“Rabbi, Rabbi!” he cried, interrupting the lesson, “Why do the Babylonians have round heads?”

Hillel turned to him and calmly said, “That is because their midwives are not properly trained,” and the young man left.

But the next day, he came back again and cried out in the middle of an intricate discussion of law, “Rabbi, Rabbi, why do the Egyptians have flat feet?”

And Hillel responded, “That is because they walk for miles along the marshlands of the Nile.” And with that, he returned to the discussion at hand.

But the young wasn’t ready to give up yet. He had wagered a lot of money with his friends that he could make Hillel angry, and he didn’t want to lose his bet. All night he stayed up, and finally he came up with a plan. The next day, he burst through the door of the study house, stood in front of Hillel, and started hopping up and down, saying, “Rabbi, Rabbi, can you teach me the whole of Torah while I stand on one foot?”

All of Hillel’s students looked up from the text they were reading and stared at the young man. Hopping up and down and repeating the question over and over, he looked like a stork flapping his wings and squawking. They whispered to one another, “We study the teachings of the Torah day in and day out! How can the rabbi give him an answer in just a few words?”

Rabbi Hillel remained perfectly composed. He looked straight into the young man’s eyes and said, “That which is hateful unto yourself, do it not unto your neighbor. That is the whole of Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” [See While Standing on One Foot, p. 92-93]

People have questions and they turn to teachers for answers, and not every question is an honest request. Some questions are intended to anger or embarrass the questioned.

The lawyer in Luke’s story stands up to test Jesus. Has he also made a wager with his lawyer friends? Is he trying to shame the rabbi from Galilee by exposing a weakness in his teaching? Or does he simply want to see for himself if Jesus really has the kind of wisdom and insight people say he has?

“Rabbi,” the lawyer says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It’s a serious question; nothing silly like round heads and flat feet. To many people it is the question, the one worth asking, and we ask it in a variety of ways:

What must I do to walk through the door to heaven?

What must I do to hear my name being called when the book of life is opened?

What must I do to live a good, fulfilling life?

How do I know that the life I’m living is the one I’m supposed to live?

It’s a serious question, not a silly one designed to embarrass the teacher.

Jesus doesn’t give the man a tract with the four steps necessary for salvation—actually, he doesn’t seem interested in giving him any answer at all. He responds with two questions. “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” Jesus points the man to the things he has studied, to the things he knows, and asks, “What is written there? What do you read there?” And the funny thing is, now it’s the lawyer who is being tested, and everybody wonders if he knows his stuff.

He does; he answers well, quoting the two great commandments from the Torah, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

“You have given the right answer,” says Jesus, and he adds, “do this, and you will live.” The good teacher knows that giving the right answer may be enough to pass the test at the end of the year, but that life depends on doing. Love of God and neighbor is the right answer, but life depends on loving, not on right answers. The lawyer knows the answer, but the distance from a well-trained mind to an eloquent tongue is so much shorter than from knowing to doing with heart and soul and strength, with hand and feet.

Love God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself, and you will live. The lawyer knows the answer, all that’s left to do for him is live it—but we all know that giving right answers is so much easier than living them.

The lawyer apparently can’t just go and do what he knows, do the best he can, succeed and fail and try to keep the course of love; he wants to stand there and debate how complex and complicated things really are, and that loving obedience is probably too simple an answer. “Who is my neighbor?” he asks.

Again Jesus doesn’t give him an answer; he tells him a story, a story we have heard so many times, it doesn’t really do much for us anymore, does it? O yeah, The Good Samaritan we say with a yawn. But the lawyer hears for the first time about the poor fellow on the road to Jericho who fell into the hand of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and left him half dead.

The lawyer can relate to the priest and Levite, religious experts who know the law and its application to specific cases. He knows how their minds work at the sight of a bloodied body lying by the road.

O my, that’s a naked man over there. Is he dead? What am I to do now? The law demands that I help those in need and show love to my  neighbor. If he had clothes on I’d be able to tell where he’s from. How am I supposed to know if he’s a fellow Jew? If he were conscious and calling for help, I could tell from his accent where he belongs. What if he’s dead? I can’t be expected to touch a corpse; I’d have to go through all these lengthy cleansing rituals afterward, and that is such an inconvenience. What if the thugs are still around?

The lawyer is right, the desire to obey God’s commandments can make life complicated and inconvenient. And not just that. Scripture can be used not only to challenge our attitudes and actions, but also to justify them. Scripture was quoted to justify slavery, bloody crusades, and the persecution of minorities, and in current debates around sexuality and ordination or marriage scripture is being quoted by all sides all the time.

“What is written?” sounds like a simple question, but the second question probes deeper, “What do you read there?”

How do I interpret what is written? What lenses do I wear when I read the ancient scriptures? Am I searching for proof texts to bolster my position and confirm what I already know? Am I fine-tuning my interpretive skills in order to boil it all down to the minimum requirements? Am I looking for ways to get away with what I’m doing?

Knowledge of the law is power, and even the law of God has loop holes that allow the well-informed to justify all sorts of dubious actions. You need reasons for seeing a naked man bleeding by the side of the road and passing by on the other side, reasons that will not crumble under rabbinical scrutiny? No problem, you couldn’t tell if he was a fellow Jew, if he really qualified as a neighbor.

So far the lawyer has been enjoying the story; this highway robbery is an interesting case. He also knows the laws of story-telling; he knows that there will be a third character who will bring the resolution. Who will be the hero?

The priest and the Levite passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.

A Samaritan? The lawyer is shocked; repulsed may not be too strong a word.

Samaritans don’t know the law! They have bad bloodlines, their holy texts are insufficient, they have the wrong theology and the wrong temple. Samaritans are a bunch of dimwitted half-breeds!

But Jesus finishes his story. He describes in great detail the righteous actions of the despised and hated alien, how he was moved with compassion and went to the man, bandaged his wounds, put him on his animal, took him to an inn, and even paid the inn keeper to take care of the man.

Again the lawyer doesn’t get an answer from Jesus, but another question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

“The one who showed him mercy.”

And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

Learn from the despised and hated foreigner the meaning of love of neighbor. Don’t look for answers that will help you build a wall around yourself within which your religious obligation for loving applies. You say, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ and you are asking, ‘What are the limits of my responsibility?’ You ask, ‘Who is my neighbor?’and your question implies that there is a line beyond which the commandment no longer applies, that the law puts you in the middle of a circle and that somehow you can determine how far to push the boundaries of your obligation beyond yourself: is it your family, your friends, your tribe, your nation, your faith community, your generation?

Jesus teaches me that, yes, there is a circle, but it is not defined by me and my interpretation of who is neighbor. It is defined by the other whose need calls forth a neighbor’s loving response.

The Samaritan’s compassionate response is the answer to a question that doesn’t get asked nearly enough, "What must I do to be a neighbor to the person whose need I see?"