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One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Do you see this woman? Jesus asked the Pharisee.
This woman who was touching Jesus – who and what kind of woman was she. She was a sinner thought the Pharisee.
Do you see this woman? Jesus asks us.
Who and what kind of woman was she?
When we walked past women in the streets of Geylang, what do we see?
When we see people, what do we see? Do we see objects? Labels? People? Human beings?
When we see one of those Stomp video posts that go viral – of people behaving badly – what do we see?
When we see someone who is working here in Singapore – whether he or she is from India, Philippines, Bangladesh, China, or from Malaysia, Europe or United States of America – what do we see?
Do we see like Jesus sees? Or do we see with our tinted, biased, prejudiced, jaundiced eyes? Do we see with compassion, or do we see with flawed judgement?
Today we think about the question of compassion, based on the second chapter from the book Jesus is the Question by Martin B. Copenhaver.
The word “compassion” comes from Latin – meaning “co-suffering.” Passion here is the same meaning as the word “passion” in The Passion of Christ, meaning the suffering of Christ.
Compassion requires us to put ourselves in someone else’s situation and feel how they feel. We need to imagine how their situation is, how they are feeling, we need to empathise.
It is not easy though – because i think sometimes when we imagine how they are feeling, we feel a fraction what they are feeling – the despair, the pain, the suffering. It can be so draining, that we look away.
Have you walked on the streets, and rendered someone invisible? The person selling tissue at the hawker center? The beggar sitting on the corner of the street? Have you avoided seeing them? I have. I avoid them because they trigger internal struggles within me.
I struggled a lot because i was brought up to believe that people end up begging because they did not work hard enough. I was told to work hard and not end up like them. If someone ended up on the streets, it was their own fault. It was because they were lazy, they did not work hard enough they did not try hard enough. It did not help that one of the homeless i gave a dollar to in the first few weeks i was the US, i bumped into him later at the corner store buying alcohol. It didn’t help me see him better.
It has been years since, and i am in my 4th year of ministry. I have learned a great deal more. I have learned the power of addictions, and how it drives people to behaviours that are destructive. They know it is destroying them, eating them away from the insides, wrecking their relationships – but the addiction is so powerful that they cannot control it.
i have learned to see, not a person who tricked me into giving him money so he can buy a drink, but a person who turned to drink to escape from his troubles, but ended up getting addicted to it.
There was another homeless on in Berkeley that i see often – i would often pass him on the way to the pool in UC Berkeley. Cheerfully, he would say “Spare some change” to folks passing by. i avoided looking him in the eye when i passed. i rendered him invisible. It was easier on my conscience.
Some of my friends in seminary befriended him. They would chat with him, and they got to know him better. I know his name through them – his name was Grayson. They knew about his life, his situation, and his joy, despite his circumstances was infectious. On his birthday, some of my seminary friends came together to buy a gift certificate at LaValle’s, the local pizza and pasta restaurant. The gift certificate would have bought him 10 meals, but he shared it with his friends.
How would Jesus see Grayson? Did I see Grayson like Jesus did? Who demonstrated compassion and love? Not me. My friend Paul Arensmeyer did. When I was preparing this sermon, i even forgot his name and had to ask Paul.
I remain a skeptic. Yes, i am to try see as Jesus sees, but that doesn’t mean i get fooled. Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, Jesus said. I just recently received an email to FCC requesting for help. A quick google search revealed a little more – this person had not been entirely honest about his situation.
Jesus healed Bartholomew, asking “what do you want me to do for you.” However, at the pool of Bethesda, he asked the man who had been sick for 38 years, “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus asked him a simple yes/no question. The man gave all manner of excuses – he was never the first to get into the pool when the water was stirred, nobody was there to help him into the water. Jesus told him, “Stand up, take up your mat and walk.”
Jesus saw them both, and understood their situations. Different people have different circumstances. I have learned to slow down and empathise, be compassionate, and then figure out what to do.
I have learned to pause and look at them in the eyes and say “what do you want me to do for you?”
For some folks, they would just part with their loose change. Sometimes, they won’t even look at the person. Giving them some loose change means that we don’t need to connect – we have “helped.”
Pope Francis, during his visit to the Philippines, said “superficial compassion for the poor shown by many in the world, which amounts to just giving alms, was not enough.” He added, “If Christ had that kind of compassion, he would have just walked by, greeted three people, given them something and moved on,” he said.
The pope said the main reason for visiting the Philippines was to meet survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest storm ever recorded on land which hit the country in November 2013, leaving more than 7,350 people dead or missing.
He flew on Saturday morning from Manila to Leyte island, ground zero for the typhoon, and celebrated a deeply emotional mass with 200,000 survivors.
“Some of you have lost part of your families. All I can do is keep silent. And I walk with you all with my silent heart,” he said.
Like the Pope’s statement that just giving alms is not enough, I feel mission trips to orphanages and the like are not enough. The work of transformation and healing isn’t about flying in, doing good for a day, and then flying out. It makes us feel good about ourselves, but what does it do for the people who are “helped?”
Are they pitiful things to be helped? Is it sympathy – “I pity you” – or is it empathy – “I feel with you?”
My friend Justin used to work in Bangkok. He and a few other friends visit an orphanage every month. They don’t bring gifts, or money – they go there monthly to play with them. He told me that the orphanage gets a lot of financial help from people who want to do good – some of the Thais believe that doing good on one’s birthday will accumulate merit. So they arrive at the orphanage with gifts and money in their big cars, and then they leave. They don’t interact with the children. They don’t “see” the children.
What did the children want? They wanted some people to play with them. To hold them, to hug them, to make them feel loved and cared for. That’s what these volunteers did. Who demonstrated compassion and love here? Those who interacted with the kids or those who dropped by with material gifts and donations?
You are familiar with what FREE in FREE COMMUNITY CHURCH means – First Realise Everyone’s Equal. First Realise Everyone’s Equal means compassion and understanding.
Dirty Hands – our outreach ministry – reflects this philosophy. It means we get our hands dirty, just like Jesus got his hands dirty, mixing his spit with mud in the work to heal the blind.
Dirty Hands means that we see ourselves as equally beloved as those we want to help – we want to learn to love them. We realise that they have as much to teach us as we have to help them.
A few folks visit Emily, one of the household of elderly that we have adopted. Emily cooked up a feast every time they visited – and there were occasions the volunteers felt uncomfortable because they were not “helping” as they did not do much cleaning. But they have come to learn what Emily really needs – people to talk to.
Dirty Hands also adopted IMH Ward 64 and part of our ministry is walking with the mentally ill.
Compassion and love are about seeing people, being with people, and walking with them.
Sometimes it does not need any words. Like what the Pope said – all I can do is keep silent. And I walk with you all with my silent heart.
It is hard to be compassionate, to empathise not sympathise – when we are different. We come from different socio-cultural backgrounds. We may come from different countries, we may speak different languages, we do things differently, we may have different states of mental and physical health. It takes a lot more to empathise, to imagine someone else’s situation that we are not familiar with.
It is hard to understand someone who spent all their lives in the rural countryside, someone who did not have much education, and someone who has not taken a flight in their lives, much less understand how aeroplanes work and what is safe and what is dangerous to do on a flight, someone who thinks that opening the emergency exit door for fresh air is perfectly alright – because that’s what you do on a bus – open the windows to get some fresh air.
As Pope Francis pointed out, “(There are) certain realities in life, we only see through eyes that are cleansed with our tears.”
Many of us experienced discrimination, ostracisation, hate – from these experiences, we can glimpse other people’s situations of being discriminated, ostracized, hated.
But not all of us get it. Bishop Flunder wrote about oppression sickness in her book “Where the Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion.”
Instead of being compassionate and empathise, some of us close off our hearts so that we cannot be hurt, so that we do not feel, so that we will not be vulnerable. Then we would suffer from oppression sickness – that we perpetuate hate, oppression and discrimination so that we would not be the one at the receiving end, we would not be at the bottom of the pyramid, the bottom of the food chain.
I feel disheartened sometimes when LGBT people are the same people who spout hate at others who are marginalized. We can be as guilty of xenophobia, misogyny, racism, just as others are homophobic.
How we see ourselves? How we see others?
We who finally see ourselves as God’s beloved, need to see others too as God’s beloved. I think often those amongst us who still remain racist, xenophobic, misogynistic – are those of us who have still haven’t got it. Those of us who have yet grasped the radical nature of God’s love.
I am often disappointed when I read anti-Muslim, anti-foreigner comments that permeate social media today. Where is the compassion? Where is the understanding?
“Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
If we don’t feel that we are worthy, then we may also see others not worthy. And to feel better about ourselves, we put others down and see them as lower than ourselves.
Do you see this woman as Jesus sees her?
Do you see yourself as Jesus sees you?
First Realise Everyone’s Equal = compassion. It means understanding how radically God’s love applies equally to all. Perhaps, it is to see as Jesus sees us.