Zinn and the Art of Cultivating Compassion

Readings for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost:

Deuteronomy 30:9-14

Psalm 25:1-9

Colossians 1:1-14

Luke 10:25-37

This sermon was preached at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church on Sunday July 11, 2010.

According to the Jewish Talmud, at a time when Jesus was around Nelson’s age,[1] there were two famous rabbis teaching in Jerusalem, Hillel and Shammai. One day, a Gentile approached Hillel and Shammai at different times with the same rather obnoxious question. He first approached Shammai, standing on one leg, and said, “Rabbi Shammai, can you summarize the Torah for me while I stand on one leg?” Rabbi Shammai was offended by this question and picked up a ruler and chased him away. Apparently undeterred (or perhaps a glutton for punishment), the Gentile then approached Rabbi Hillel and asked him the same question, “Rabbi Hillel, can you summarize the Torah for me while I stand on one leg?” Rabbi Hillel kindly answered, “Love your neighbor as yourself. This is the Torah. The rest is commentary.” Profoundly impressed by this answer, the Gentile converted to Judaism. And even today, Jews have a saying, “One should always be humble like Hillel and not impatient like Shammai.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus also affirms the Golden Rule as a summary of the Torah. In his parable, he presents a man who is not standing on one leg, but is lying on the ground, stripped and beaten to near death. Members of the religious elite (a priest and a Levite) respond to the half-dead man by keeping a safe distance. If they come within five feet of this bleeding man, they could temporarily lose their status as icons of ceremonial cleanliness. So when they see him, they pass by on the other side, condemning the man to more suffering. But then a Samaritan walks by and sees the half-dead man and shows compassion to him, risking defilement in the process. Now to Jesus’ listeners, the Samaritans were considered social pariah. In fact, just two weeks ago, we heard the disciples asking Jesus if they could consume the Samaritans with fire (!). Like Rabbi Shammai, the disciples of Jesus wanted to get rid of those people whom they considered unclean and disrespectful. But Jesus throws them a curve ball when he makes the Samaritan the hero of his parable. Now hearing that a Samaritan was the hero of a Jewish story would be almost as jarring as hearing that Glenn Beck was just elected to be mayor of Berkeley. Jesus is obviously making sure that we are paying attention here. The lowly and despised Samaritan proves to be the model neighbor and thus embodies the Great Commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself while the priest and the Levite, whose job is to uphold the rules of the Torah, completely miss the point. Although Jesus’ story is a little more nuanced and complex than the Talmudic tale, the conclusion is similar: “Be compassionate like the Samaritan, not aloof like the priest and the Levite.”

Another famous Jewish teacher also taught the Golden Rule by telling stories of compassion. When I was around Nelson’s age, Professor Howard Zinn published his groundbreaking magnum opus, A People’s History of the United States, in which he looks at US history from the perspective of the oppressed and the marginalized, from the perspective of those who were beaten and stripped and, like the Samaritans, were socially maligned. Zinn contrasts the compassionate actions of the lowly and despised with the violent actions of major historical figures. He urges readers to be compassionate like Bartolome de las Casas who opposed the poor treatment of Native Americans and to not be ruthless like Christopher Columbus who often abused the Natives and condemned them to a life of slavery and servitude. Zinn writes, “I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.”[2]

The Jewish Talmud, Jesus of Nazareth and Professor Howard Zinn all tried to teach their students the art of cultivating compassion. And how did they teach their students this art? They told stories: stories of real-life situations, stories that took into account our social prejudices, our economic limitations, and our busy lives. They knew the danger of speaking about compassion only in the abstract. Rabbi Shammai could speak of compassion in the abstract but failed to show it to the Gentile. The priest and Levite knew the Torah better than the Samaritan, but failed to follow its main point. And Christopher Columbus saw himself as the “Christ-bearer” to the New World, but failed miserably in embodying Christ to the Natives. If compassion does not make that (often arduous) journey from the head to the heart, it remains useless. Stories of compassion in real-life situations help us make the journey from the head to the heart. In Deuteronomy, Moses says, “The commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not up in the sky or beyond the sea. No, the word is very near to you. It is in your heart.” Moses is warning the Israelites not to make these commandments too abstract, merely as topics for conversation, but to keep them real and down-to-earth, to practice them, to do them. Stories help us do this, which is why the whole Torah contains hundreds of stories and is itself framed in the form of a narrative. And this is why Jesus quickly concludes his parable with the words, “Go and do likewise.” He does not want to speak abstractly about the concept of compassion, but he shares the Good Samaritan story so that his listeners can go out and make their own Good Samaritan story.

A couple years ago, I met a Good Samaritan when I was the Youth Minister of a fairly wealthy Episcopal church in southern California. I was challenged to provide a ministry that would hold the attention of youth who were (honestly) spoiled by weekly trips to ski-resorts, quarterly trips to Hawaii and annual trips to Italy. During my first year I tried to attract students with expensive gimmicks, but soon I realized that I simply could not compete with the array of entertaining activities that were already vying for their attention. I needed a whole new strategy. I decided to challenge the youth with a Christianity that did more than just teach them abstract truths. I challenged them with a Christianity that compelled them and even commanded them to serve those in need, to love their neighbors as themselves. Ironically, the student who responded most enthusiastically to this challenge was a self-proclaimed atheist. (Talk about a modern-day “Samaritan”). Her name was Zoe and every second Saturday of the month she would show up eager to serve food to the hungry at the Food Bank. Like the Good Samaritan, she put the more “religious” students to shame. But quickly, the others followed her lead and the youth group began to understand and even relish the thrill of embodying the Golden Rule.

Zinn, Christ, and the Jewish Talmud all teach the art of cultivating compassion by telling stories of Good Samaritans who show compassion in real-life situations, where the rubber meets the road. In this same tradition (and especially in the spirit of Howard Zinn), Diana Butler Bass shares stories of what she calls she calls “Great Command” Christianity. This Christianity begins where today’s Gospel ends, when Jesus calls his listeners to “go and do likewise.” According to Bass, many have followed Christ’s command and have embodied the Golden Rule, but their stories have often been overlooked. Bass takes great pleasure in highlighting these unsung heroes in A People’s History of Christianity, which I look forward to discussing with some of you shortly and throughout this month. And I hope these stories will cultivate compassion within us.

St. Paul reminds us that we share in the “inheritance of the saints.” We inherit these stories so that we might, as Paul says, “bear fruit in every good work as we grow in the knowledge of God.” We inherit these stories so that we can make our own stories in our own real-life situations.

So what does it mean for you to embody the Golden Rule, embody Great Command Christianity? Who are the obnoxious people in your life that you want to chase away? Who are the half-dead people in your life who are left stranded on the side of the road? Perhaps they are the hundreds of people who show up at GRIP[3] everyday for lunch. Perhaps they are the homeless people that we walk by (or drive by) on the way to church. Perhaps it’s the person you see everyday that you just can’t stand. Perhaps it is the wounded person that I had to ignore on the way here so that I could arrive on time to preach this sermon about the Good Samaritan. Perhaps the wounded person is within us and we need to show compassion to ourselves. (After all, in order to love our neighbors as ourselves, we need to first have a proper love for ourselves.)

Diana Butler Bass would always end her church history classes by saying, “You have studied church history. Now it is your turn. Go make church history.” So I invite you to make your own stories of compassion this week, even today, and make history by following Christ’s command to “go and do likewise.”


[1]Nelson, one of the youngest members of St. Alban’s Church, is about three years old.

[2] In the wake of our nation’s 234th birthday, it would behoove us to remember Zinn and the art of cultivating compassion. Recently our nation has been bruised, beaten and stripped by a great economic recession and slashed with a severe flesh wound that will not stop bleeding in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the worst environmental disaster in our nation’s history. Zinn would call us to respond to these disasters not by passing blame and condemnation but by practicing compassion. (Although Howard Zinn often spoke condemnatory words against governments, his condemnation of them was due primarily to their lack of compassion.) Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 11.

[3] Greater Richmond Interfaith Program provides services to the Greater Richmond community. http://www.gripcommunity.org/

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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