Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Compassionate Life

Luke 15: 1-32, Micah 7: 18-20

Today I want to talk about compassion. This is a sermon in our series ‘The Relevant Jesus’. So I wanted to say something about what Jesus had to say about compassion that was new and different then and is still new and different – yet relevant - today.

I am also keen to talk about compassion because we are reading Karen Armstrong’s relatively new book: ‘Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life’ in a discussion group I attend. And when I say we are reading it I don’t mean just discussing it. Our group – perhaps because it has been going for nearly 30 years now - has got a bit fed up with just discussing things one week and moving onto something else more or less interesting to discuss the next.

Karen Armstrong’s book is not just a book to be read and put down as one would perhaps a novel or a biography of a famous person. It is rather an instruction book: more like a recipe book or a manual for a new piece of electronic equipment. Karen Armstrong is of course being extremely ambitious when she sets out to give us some instructions for a better way of living: a more compassionate life, but I recommend her book to you and this sermon draws from it.

Of course the Bible is also not just supposed to be merely an interesting read. It is – amongst other things - also an instruction book – like Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. The gospel is not merely consoling but life-changing.

Now the Bible contains lots of stories about compassion such as the three parables in our Gospel reading. But it also contains some clear instructions. I’d like to touch on just four before I move onto the parables. The four instructions I have in mind: are first the principle of an eye for an eye, secondly the so called ‘Golden Rule’: ’Do unto others as you would have them do to you’, thirdly the second of the two great commandments: ‘Thou shat love thy neighbour as thyself and fourthly ‘Love your enemies’.

We need rules to live by if only because otherwise there would be no such thing as society. Margaret Thatcher was wrong when she said there is no such thing as society. Of course there is – and it needs rules to function. One of these rules which can be found in the book of Exodus is ‘an eye for an eye’ or more precisely: ‘an eye for an eye and no more’.

You’ll remember that it was – in Jesus’ time – legitimate for someone who, say, had had his sheep stolen by a neighbour to go and get a sheep from that neighbour’s flock whether or not he got his own sheep back as well.

Just one sheep mind. Otherwise you could see that the situation would get completely out of hand. In a way an eye for an eye is not a bad rule. Basically it prevents anarchy and we still use the principle today when punishing offenders: there is a graded series of penalties depending on the seriousness of the crime. Even if we now don’t say require a person who has killed a neighbour’s child whilst drunk in charge of a vehicle to hand over their own child to be killed: killing a child is treated more seriously than say killing a neighbour’s sheep – or these days –cat.

Now an eye for an eye and no more while sort of sounding fair doesn’t in the end lead to a stable situation for as Gandhi says ‘An-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye ... ends in making everybody blind.’

Everyone – including atheists - would surely agree with Gandhi. We recognize that an eye for an eye is really no way to deal with crime such as manslaughter through drunken driving, or hacking into the mobile phones of missing teenagers, etc. – crimes punishable by the State. But it doesn’t work even when it comes to us ourselves dealing with less serious offences committed against us If we are burgled and we find out who burgled us we should not go round and burgle our burglar’s house. If a work colleague steals our idea and then gets credit for it with the boss it’s not going to work if we go and steal some of their ideas in retribution.

You’ll remember too that Jesus also criticised the eye for an eye and no more rule by saying – according to Matthew - "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” Would atheists agree with this? Surely on the face of it is unrealistic and also a recipe for disaster. Giving my cloak to someone who has just sued me for my tunic is surely going to encourage others to sue me for car on the basis that I will give them my house

This rather odd instruction on the part of Jesus seems to suggest that Jesus had completely different ideas about justice, fairness and compassion. I’ll come onto those a bit late when I want to explain why I have chosen today’s Gospel reading and it’s relation to our theme of the compassionate life.

The second rule I want to talk about is the so-called Golden Rule, i.e. ’Do unto others as you would have them do to you’. Now this is a rule promulgated by all the major religions. Confucius says in around 500 BC ‘Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you ‘. And Jesus commands his disciples to follow this rule when, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount, according to Matthew, he says ‘So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them, for this is the law and the prophets’.

Now ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’ is at variance with ‘An eye for an eye’ because obviously exacting retribution in this way isn’t what the other would have you do. Even if I steal someone’s treasured possession I do not want them to come and steal my treasured possession.

Most atheists seem to agree with the Golden Rule. They might even agree that it comes to us via Jesus from the Jewish law and the Old Testament prophets rather than say Confucius. This is because of course it seems to require no belief in God. And on the face of it sounds sort of logical – if everyone behaved towards one another in a empathetic, compassionate way the world would surely be a better place?

However when you start to think about it a bit more, the Golden Rule is not as simple as it sounds, because in order to put it into operation you need to know ‘what you would really and truly wish that men would do to or for you’. And in my experience this sounds simple but is not.

I am sorry if some of you have heard this rather simple illustration before: But when my wife asks me whether I would like some breakfast I know whether I am hungry or not. So far so good. But if I am hungry and she asks me what I would like then things start to get difficult. Should I have just a slice of toast as I am trying to lose weight? Or should I say a bacon sandwich which I know I will enjoy but has lots of calories or should I compromise with some porridge. I just don’t know. And as I get older I become less and less certain of what I want, let alone need. Perhaps we cannot really know what we need and our desires are surely a poor guide to our needs. It is I think only God who really knows what we truly need and therefore the Golden Rule – for all its apparent logic – only makes senses if there is a God who knows what it is we need and therefore what people should do for one another.

This brings me to the third rule: the second of the great commandments: ‘thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’. This is called a great commandment because Jesus gives, or rather reiterates this commandment, in answer to a lawyer who asks him – according to Matthew – ‘Which is the greatest of the commandments?’ I have of course deliberately detached it from the first of the great commandments: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind’. And I will argue in a minute that the second doesn’t make any real sense without the first but to concentrate sole on the second for the moment.

It is I think, worth pointing out again and again what we tend to forget about this commandment, that here Jesus commands us not only to love others but to love ourselves as well. We can quite easily miss the end of the sentence. Actually I think loving ourselves is just – if not more difficult - as loving others. It is also worth remembering that Jesus connects the two things: loving others with loving ourselves, suggesting that one without the other is impossible.

Just a word about loving ourselves. This is not just about loving what we like about or find good in ourselves but what we also find shameful. Just as God loves us for all that we are – not just what he finds good but also what he finds bad - so we must love ourselves in a similar fashion. But I have talked about this before, so I won’t go on about it here.

I am not sure what atheists think about this second commandment but note how it is different from the Golden Rule.

Firstly this commandment talks about love rather than doing or not doing to others or what we ourselves desire or don’t desire. Of course love is as much about doing as feeling but it is surely more than just recognising the desires of others through empathy. For a start, as I pointed out earlier, compassion is surely as much about needs as desires. But love is surely also much than acting upon others needs and desires: I’ll come onto that in a minute when I talk about our Gospel reading.

Secondly, the second great commandment is different from the Golden Rule because Jesus connects it with the first great commandment: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind’. In Luke’s account Jesus roles them together as just one commandment: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind and with all thy strength and thy neighbour as thyself’: so indicating that all three: love of God, thy neighbour and thyself are all connected and perhaps that each is impossible without the other two. This is of course where atheists would part company with followers of Jesus.

And finally that fourth instruction: ‘Love thy enemies’. Jesus, according to Luke, gives this commandment in his Sermon on the Plain. When discussing an eye for an eye, the Golden Rule, and the great commandments Jesus makes it clear that he is just reiterating what had been said before ‘in the law and by the prophets’ but this commandment ‘love thy enemies’ is new and surely just as incomprehensible today as it was then. I am not going to attempt to say anything more about it.

Instead I want to turn, finally, to today’s Gospel reading. I chose this whole chapter from Luke’s gospel because all three parables – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son are clearly meant to be read together and they all relate to today’s theme: the compassionate life. The third of the parables might seem to be more important because it has more of a plot. It superficially seems more interesting but, as I said earlier, the Bible is not just supposed to be interesting but life-changing. Furthermore whereas Jesus did say what he thought were the most important commandments he never said, ‘Listen to this parable this is more important than those I have just been telling you’.

Reading them all together takes a bit of time but brings out the similarities between them. All three have something that is lost – a sheep, a coin, a son. The central character in all three is also someone who is ‘lost’: the shepherd – because his is a despised occupation, the woman because hers is a despised gender, the father because he is humiliated by the behaviour of his son who in effect insults him grossly by claiming his inheritance before he has died.

But there are two other similarities which bear upon today’s theme. In all three parables the main character either expends a lot of energy and/or takes a considerable risk in looking for what is lost. And in all three there is a party at the end of the story when what has been lost has been found. All three stories are basically – when you look at them closely – frankly implausible. It is as if Jesus is saying: ‘This is the nature of love: it doesn’t make logical sense.’

So in the first parable the shepherd – out of love for the lost sheep - goes to look for it abandoning the other sheep. What shepherd would actually do that? And what shepherd would actually throw a party when he found a single sheep that had been lost.

In the second parable what woman would actually spend a day looking for a single lost coin – unless of course it meant a lot to her – and even then would she really invite all her friends around to celebrate what was merely a rectification of a mistake on her part?

Finally the father – in the third parable - does not need to divide his inheritance between his beloved sons at his younger son’s request and in fact risks a lot by doing so. He, in effect, by losing control over his property and income, becomes dependent on his sons – the younger of which promptly up-sticks and leaves home with the money - leaving him dependent on his elder son (who we know from later events) isn’t exactly generous. Then when the younger son having squandered all his money returns home, the father rushes out to greet him in a completely undignified manner, and they celebrate with the standard party. When I say standard I mean the party we have come to expect in such a parable, rather than a standard party per se: in fact this party is completely over the top with the best calf being slaughtered.

Who is who in these unbelievable stories and who are we the listeners supposed to identify with: the loser or the lost? Are we supposed to identify with the loser: the humble shepherd, the despised woman, the foolish and insulted father? Or are we supposed to think of ourselves as the lost helpless sheep, the inanimate coin which can hardly be held responsible for being lost, or the mean and feckless son, who even when he is has lost everything, and is himself disgraced, plots to wheedle his way back into the household by exploiting his Father’s demonstrable weakness.

Incidentally the lost son’s behaviour on finding himself penniless hardly seems to be a model for repentance: he seems more scheming than genuinely remorseful. And note too that the lost sheep and the lost coin do absolutely nothing to get found, to return to the loser.

But if we are supposed to think of ourselves as lost are we then supposed to imagine that the humble shepherd, the despised woman and the foolish and insulted father represent God? Well perhaps. In these parables Jesus shows that true compassion is so much more than what we might have thought it was or have come to expect: whether this is God’s love for us or our love, for him, for others or even ourselves, perhaps it doesn’t matter who is who in these stories.

Compassion is of course about empathy – as the Golden Rule and the second of the great commandments suggest – but these thee parables show us that compassion is so much more than that. Love is risking all for what is loved including dignity. Love is forgiving all on the part of the loved. Love is holding a party when the lost has been found.

Remarkable but still relevant today.

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