Listen to sermon here: Gutsy Compassion
This sermon was preached at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Danville CA on July 10, 2016.
A crowd gathered on the streets, forcing major roads to be shut down. Among the people gathered was an 80-year-old man named Tim, who had devoted his life to caring for the vulnerable and oppressed. He noticed some people in the crowd who are trying to incite violence and so he boldly chastised them. Unfortunately, the spark of violence had already caught fire and everyone’s safety was put at risk as armed men in uniform began attacking the people and vice versa. Tim tried to make sure that women and children were out of harm’s way, and in doing so, he put himself in danger. A part of him wanted to get out of there and return to the safety of his home, but his gut was telling him to stay. Eventually, troops of armed men started to approach the people; and Tim, after clearing away any innocent bystanders, courageously stood in between the people and the oncoming troops and started yelling “No more violence! No more violence!” but they did not listen. Now this mob was actually a violent pagan festival that got out of hand and bishop Tim, who lived about 2000 years ago, is known today as St. Timothy whom the Apostle Paul refers to as his “brother” in one of our readings this morning. St. Timothy knew that following Christ required courage, self-sacrifice and gutsy compassion.
This morning I want to talk about gutsy compassion, which according to today’s Gospel is perhaps the key to the abundant life that God invites us into today. It is part of Jesus’s answer to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” By “gutsy compassion” I mean two things. First, I mean a compassion that is felt deeply inside, in the gut, and that compels one to take action. Second, I mean a compassion that is bold, courageous and willing to make sacrifices and take serious risks; a compassion that takes guts.
In Jesus’s parable, the Good Samaritan embodies this gutsy compassion. When he sees a bruised man, stripped naked and half dead on the side of the road, he does not look in disgust and subsequently keep his distance. Instead, he is “moved with pity.” This is a translation of the Greek word ἐσπλαγχνίσθη (esplagchnisthe), which is connected to the word splanxna, meaning the “body’s inward parts,” “the entrails,” “the gut,” which were all believed to be the seat of love and pity. The Samaritan is moved viscerally in his entrails by the sight of this broken man on the side of the road. He is so gut-wrenched that he has no need to consult any sacred texts in order to figure out what he ought to do in this particular situation. For him, this is a no-brainer. It’s all about the heart and listening to his gut, which clearly tell him to take care of the poor man. This is what Moses is getting at in our reading from Deuteronomy when he says, “This commandment [to love your fellow humans] is not too hard for you. Nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven…It is not beyond the sea. No, it is very near you. In fact, it is inside you. It is in your mouth, your heart, your gut.”
God has written the commandment to love others in our hearts. When we feel our insides move with compassion we are invited to welcome this feeling as the life of God moving within us. The Gospels use this same word ἐσπλαγχνίσθη (esplagchnisthe) to describe what happens to Jesus when he sees vulnerable people in need of healing and love, like sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 6:34; 8:2; Luke 7:13). So the Samaritan feels the same empathy that Jesus feels. He enters into the life of God by feeling compassion in his guts. In the words of theologian James Alison, the Samaritan experiences what it is like to have “God rush through his entrails like an express train.” Gutsy compassion is the pathos of God moving through your body and compelling you to move with love towards those in need.
Gutsy compassion is also a compassion that is bold, intrepid and willing to take risks and make sacrifices. The Good Samaritan embodies this as well. Commentators often like to point out that the Samaritan was more free to tend to the man on the road because he was not beholden to the Jewish purity laws, which prevented the priest and Levite from coming close to a corpse. New Testament scholar Amy Jill-Levine, however, has dismissed this reasoning as not only inaccurate but also as an offense to first-century Jewish theology and piety. Although there were indeed strict purity codes, the Torah cannot be used as an excuse for leaving a half-dead man on the side of the road. “To [properly] follow the Torah,” Levine writes, “the priest should have checked to see if the man was alive and, finding him alive, should have helped him. [One cannot become impure from contact with a ‘half-dead’ man.] Should he have discovered a corpse, he should have covered it and then immediately gone for help,” ensuring that the corpse be buried as the Torah expects. The Torah demanded that they care for the man on the road, and they failed, but although the priest and Levite clearly failed, we need to be careful not to condemn them as “legalistic Jews,” which Christian readers and commentators usually do and have done over the centuries, thus offering more fuel for anti-Semitism and missing the whole point of the parable, which is compassion, even for those who mess up.
Another excuse that we often make for the priest and Levite is one that hits more close to home, at least for me. We sometimes wonder if perhaps they were on their way to an important meeting and already running late. Maybe it was a vestry meeting or a worship service in which they were scheduled to preach and preside. I often wonder what I would do if, on my way to leading a worship service on a Sunday morning, I were to walk by someone in serious need on the side of the road. Would I, while wearing my collar, also try to cross the street in order to “pass by on the other side”? How would I justify that to myself?
In one of his most famous sermons, Martin Luther King Jr. reflected on the priest and Levite’s failure to show mercy. He humorously suggested that maybe they were going down to Jericho to organize a “Jericho Road Improvement Association,” and “felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effort.” He then suggests, more poignantly, that the priest and Levite were probably concerned (justifiably) that the bandits might still be nearby, perhaps lurking behind a bush. Or perhaps the apparently half-dead man was faking his wounds in order to lure them into a trap. Perhaps something like this had happened to them before. Maybe in the past, their compassion made them vulnerable to other people’s selfishness and violence. Perhaps we can relate to that as well from our own past experiences. However, King highlights the main difference between the Samaritan and the Levites when he says, “The first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But when the Good Samaritan came by…he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’” King asked himself this question when it came to the sanitation workers in Memphis. What will happen to them if I do not stop to help? Certainly one’s own safety and well-being can be put at risk in helping others, but that was a risk that the Good Samaritan and Martin Luther King Jr were willing to take. Tragically, King was assassinated in Memphis soon after preaching this sermon on the Good Samaritan. In his case, there were indeed “bandits on the road” who violently took advantage of his compassion.
St. Timothy also put his safety and well-being at risk in order to help prevent the violence of the rabid mob. He also embodied this compassion and you are blessed to have him as the patron saint of this community. And believe it or not, he is the patron saint of the gut. Apparently, he had some stomach problems, which is why Paul advised him to drink a little wine in his letter to him in 1 Timothy (5:23). Some also suggest that he was initially reserved and timid based on other comments Paul made (1 Cor 16:10). But St. Timothy had overcome his timidity and anxiety and eventually embodied gutsy compassion in his ministry, including by trying to assuage the violence of the mob. Unfortunately, like King, he also suffered martyrdom. He was stoned to death by the mob. But his life and martyrdom still stand today as a witness and model to us of gutsy compassion, which is an expression of God’s abundant life here on earth, a life that ultimately has no end.
So in the midst of all the chaos, confusion and racist violence that is now convulsing in our country (and in the midst of this community’s own transitions), let us pray to have the active compassion of the Good Samaritan, King, and St. Timothy, who is not only the patron saint of the gut, but also a gutsy saint. Let us invite God to rush through our entrails like an express train and ask him to embolden us with the power to be gutsy saints like St. Timothy, to take risks for the sake of others, knowing that by doing so we are experiencing a life that is abundant and everlasting; we are living the answer to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And we are basking in the delight of a God who loves us more than we can imagine, who is very near to us, even in our heart and even in our gut. Amen.
 James Alison, Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice (Glenview IL: Doers, 2013), 550.
 Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 92.
 Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), 200.
 King, I Have a Dream, 201.