Sunday, October 13, 2013

Who's the Greatest? (Part 1)

What is your typical reaction to other people?  When you see a toddler for the first meeting, I suspect you are filled with some degree of affection for the little person; a desire to be the child's protector might even well up in you.  But when that same rascal goes on the rampage, pulling out your potted plants, running around helter skelter, or screaming in a temper tantrum, those initial warm impressions quickly vanish.  Perhaps more interestingly, you thereafter view the same child, regardless of his/her present disposition, with at best only a patient tolerance; any original sense of regard is long gone. Furthermore, you now tend to project your dissatisfaction on the kid's parents, so you question their parenting skills and even their character: "Certainly responsible parents who understand the importance of discipline to the health and welfare of future civilization would never raise such an unruly little beast."  You stuff the kid and its family into your burgeoning file of names of all those people you classify as second and third class citizens, and therefore people to be avoided, or at least not to be trusted.

There are many more examples of how we tend to make lasting judgments of others based on scant evidence--people such as the loner in your office or class room, the mother screaming at her child in the check-out line, the guy sitting at the green-light for more than 5 seconds before going, or many, many others I'm sure will easily come to mind with only a mere touch of the rolladeck cards we all keep at the ready in our brains.

Face it; our judgments and assessments of others--any others, whether family, friends, acquaintances, or people we only read about--grow increasingly harsher and unforgiving as their actions or inactions become increasingly inconvenient to us.  We invariably take our first glimpse of our fellow human beings with critical eyes.  Even if we make the attempt to perhaps understand the other person's behavior, we usually find ourselves making qualifications, and end up shaking our heads at them for their obvious stupidity, flagrant and incomprehensible immorality, or--if we are in a particularly generous mood--ineptness.  We rarely, if ever--and I mean all of us, myself included--consider others with an unqualified compassion.  Why is that?

The question should be most disturbing to all of us who profess to be followers of the Lord and King, Jesus the Christ--that is, all of us who claim to be Christians--because Jesus always looked at the throng with compassion.  And the throng always contained all types from the murderers to the oppressed, the swindlers to the haughty, and the poor to the rich.  Yet, even though  Jesus teaches us the student is not above his/her teacher, nor is the servant above his/her master, we all seem to excuse ourselves from having to greet our fellow human beings with the same compassion our professed Lord does. Perhaps, we think Jesus is a perfection unattainable by any of us, or the compassion He exhibits is only something he expects us to practice in heaven, or maybe we take a mean view of the word compassion.  Joseph Ratzinger, in his seminal work Jesus of Nazareth--From the Baptism in the Jordon to the Transfiguration. Image (2007): p. 197, in describing the Good Samaritan's response to the man left beaten and bereft on the side of the road, explains our valuation of the term compassion this way:

"And now the Samaritan enters the stage.  What will he do? He does not ask how far his obligations of solidarity extend.  Nor does he ask about the merits required for eternal life.  Something else happens: His heart is wrenched open.  The Gospel uses the word that in Hebrew had originally referred to the mother's womb and maternal care.  Seeing this man in such a state is a blow that strikes him 'viscerally,' touching the soul.  'He had compassion'--that is how we translate the text today, diminishing its original vitality."

Dr. Ratzinger is absolutely correct; and the same word is used to describe Jesus' reactions to the crowds.  Regardless, we rarely conjure up such a "visceral" compassion for others.  Instead, we downplay the whole idea, thinking compassion is nothing more then writing a check to the United Way. Why is that?

I propose the answer lies in the fact we are all busy trying to answer another question far more relevant to us: Who is the Greatest?

And they went into Capernaum, and when He was in the house Jesus asked them, "What were you considering on the road?"  But they [His disciples] were remaining silent; for they were arguing with each other on the road, "Who is the greatest?"  And after sitting, Jesus called the Twelve and says to them, "If anyone wants to be first, he/she will be last of all and servant of all." [Mark 9:33-35]

Jesus has graciously given us the answer to the question consuming all of us.  I suspect it isn't what we wanted to hear.  I'm also convinced that in this answer we shall find the path back to the visceral compassion God expects each of us to have for our fellow human beings.  Therefore, next week we will allow Mark to unpack for us what Jesus means by being least of all and servant of all.  Stay tuned.


Jeff said...

Everybody wants to get to heaven, but nobody wants to be a Saint!

Kind of like setting your goal as making the cut on the football team and nothing beyond. Sure, you want to make the team, but is being a "bench warmer" good enough?