I think that, too often, intellectual, theological, and scientific debate regarding the existence of God and the role of religion, as it is perceived in our culture, misses the point. When one lines up the different cultures, religions, and denominations of the world, what sticks out as a real indicator of truth and goodness? Is there some characteristic that might indicate a god, religion, or culture that really is good, in the truest sense of the word? That characteristic that we can look for, I believe, is compassion.
The woman who sacrifices her lunch hour to deliver a warm meal to an elderly shut-in without telling anyone else. The person who routinely devotes his personal time to visiting residents of a nursing home. The married couple that adopts a Down syndrome child knowing of the extra challenges that lie ahead of them. Please note that none of these examples seem to be examples of religious life. There is no mention here of giving money to the preacher on television, attending confession, or teaching a Sunday scchool class, but, instead, examples of sacrifice and the simple practice of putting somebody else’s needs before one’s own.
Today’s American culture is rightfully cynical when it comes to how they view Christianity. The evidence is hard to ignore. Televangelists who spend more time begging for donations than they do sharing the good news, wealth and prosperity preachers, and sexually-abusive priests. It is this crooked reputation that has developed as a result of imperfect people and it has effectively drowned out the core message that the Christ of Christianity stated was most important: loving and serving others in a selfless manner and with a humble demeanor.
What could indicate more sincere goodness than somebody serving the needs of somebody else knowing that they will not recieve compensation and doing so discreetly? I know that, too often, when I do something for somebody else that there is a part of me that wants to slide the fact into conversation with others so that might get a pat on the back. But, I contend that the truest mark of goodness is the person who gives and does so quietly. Someone who is compassionate, not in the sense of political campaign compassionate conservatism, but in the sense of humble, selfless sacrifice for the needs of others leaves no doubt that their act of kindness was pure and true.
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him “of all the commandments, which is the most important?“ The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this; ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them…So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men…But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.
Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
This is the true mark of God and it exists to this day despite the fact that so many of us don’t recognize it. If more of us did, then more of us would want it and take the steps necessary to have it. Then, more faithless would see it and become faithful. The cynics would lay down their weapons and more of the world’s needy would have enough.
Jesus gave us this key to full life, but, too many of us are wasting our time focusing on self-centered, fruitless ventures. Some of us fill our lonely moments just trying to rationalize our decisions not to follow Him saying that we’re already good and honest and fair. But do we selflessly serve the needs of others without putting our own needs and desires first?
The gap between the ideal put forth by Jesus Christ and the reality of our daily lives is wide. It may even feel, to some of us, like its too wide to even consider lifting a finger to change. But, Jesus has given us the key to that problem, too: His grace. His unmerited favor. It is a gift and requires nothing on our part but the realization that we are less than we should be and that we possess an emptiness that, on our own, we cannot fill. Once we understand our place, in the light of His grace, we find that our desire to sacrifice more for the sake of others increases in direct proportion to our own increasing humility.
From Devotions For Ragamuffins, by Brennan Manning, Pp.15
The measure of our compassion for others lies in proportion to our capacity for self-acceptance and self-affirmation. When the compassion of Christ is interiorized and appropriated to self, the breakthrough into being for others occurs. In the reverse of a catch-22 situation, the way of compassionate caring for others brings healing to ourselves, and compassionate caring for ourselves brings healing to others. Solidarity with human suffering frees the one who receives and liberates the one who gives through the conscious awareness “I am the other.”