Unconditional Compassion

From Inverted, by Tom Ellsworth

We love the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). It’s filled with a sense of adventure and intrigue, unexpected responses, good guys versus bad guys, and a happy ending.

There’s another reason we love this story. It isn’t personal—we don’t have issues with Samaritans. Most of us have never even met a Samaritan. Jesus’ audience, however, certainly had! This story wasn’t called the Parable of the Good Samaritan when Jesus first told it—in the minds of his Jewish audience there was no such thing. Those in attendance at the parable’s premier weren’t oohing and aahing with delight; they were squirming in their seats. Jesus pushed his listeners way out of their comfort zones with this story; even his disciples were uncomfortable.

Real Neighbors

Interestingly, the Jews and Samaritans were indeed neighbors. Samaria was sandwiched between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north. The quickest way from one to the other was straight through Samaria, but the hatred between the two races was so intense that a devout Jew would take the long way around, crossing to the east side of the Jordan and traveling through Perea and the Decapolis. Though the trip was considerably longer, it was worth it to avoid contact with any Samaritan.

Why such hatred? The nation of Judah viewed Samaritans as spiritual half-breeds—half-Jew and half-Gentile. The seed of Abraham had been compromised through intermarriage; the richness of God’s Word had been diluted by idolatry. Hatred between the two groups only intensified as the years passed.

The feud between the Hatfields and McCoys looks like a Sunday school picnic compared to the animosity between the Jews and Samaritans.

Jesus was determined to prove that the compassion of God is greater than any prejudice. To demonstrate his point he changed the life of a Samaritan divorcée at a well (John 4:4-42), healed a Samaritan leper in a border town (Luke 17:11-19), and cast the starring role in his parable to a Samaritan roadside rescuer. It’s no wonder this story met with such a cool reception.

There is no room in God’s kingdom for bias or prejudice. One color is not more desirable than another. One race is not more loved by God, nor more needed in the church, nor more anticipated in Heaven. All of us fit into one simple category—lost! It makes no difference whether you are male or female, rich or poor, formally educated or experientially educated, handsome or homely, popular or unpopular, liberal or conservative, red, yellow, black, or white—in this world, we are all lost without a Savior.

In the church we are all one because of his grace. In a sense we are all neighbors because of a shared need.

Had Jesus told the story first in our culture and generation, it is certain he would not have chosen a Samaritan as the hero. What roadside rescuer would make you squirm? A drug addict? A Hell’s Angel biker? A homosexual? A member of the Taliban? The boss you can’t stomach? The nosy busybody who lives next door? The geeky twit that everyone picks on in class? The homeless guy you cross the street to avoid? Your arrogant coworker who can do everything just a little better than you?

Visualize the person you detest most in this world saving you, and you’ll understand how this parable affected Jesus’ audience. And maybe we’ll all better understand how it is intended to impact us.

The lesson on prejudice is certainly valuable, but it only serves to enhance the main point of the parable. More than anything, Jesus taught us how to demonstrate God’s compassion.

Seeing with 20/20 Vision

I wear contact lenses. I wouldn’t dare get behind the wheel of a car without them—you wouldn’t want me to! Every morning I gently place them on my eyes and the world is instantly clear again. I can see 20/20.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could purchase a set of spiritual contact lenses that would help us see clearly what we so often overlook? It’s difficult to be compassionate when you can’t see the need.

When the Samaritan happened upon the brutalized traveler, he seemed blind to the fact that the man was Jewish. Nor did he pause to analyze how rescuing “the enemy” might come back to haunt him. Oblivious to all the potential problems, he did see one thing with 20/20 vision—the desperate need of a wounded human being. He acted on the need alone and applied every asset within his possession to saving the man’s life. When it comes to exercising genuine compassion, a person’s need should determine how we respond.

Our vision gets clouded when we make our compassion conditional. Do we help only those with future potential? Does our compassion reach out only to those who can reach back when we hurt? The Samaritan bandaged the man’s wounds, but he didn’t scold the traveler for his carelessness. Meeting the need was far more critical than the what-a-stupid-thing-to-do sermon he could have preached.

My experience is that I don’t need someone to remind me of my stupidity; I am painfully aware of my mistakes. What we need is someone to help us in our misery and to care for us despite our dumb decisions. Compassion must not be conditional.

Compassion Returned

It’s hard to explain, but unconditional compassion sometimes returns as a blessing. On a hot July evening in 1999, Penny Brown had the night off from her nursing job in intensive care1 and was watching her son’s Little League game.

During the game the 11-year-old bat boy, Kevin Stephan, was accidentally struck in the chest with a bat and collapsed. As Kevin’s terrified parents watched helplessly, Penny rushed onto the field and discovered that Kevin’s heart had stopped. She pounded on his chest and began CPR. Amazingly, Kevin’s heart responded and he survived.

Perhaps that life-altering episode inspired him to learn first aid. In any case, Kevin received education in life-saving skills first as a Boy Scout and then as a junior firefighter.

Fast-forward a few years. Seventeen-year-old Kevin was working as a part-time dishwasher at the Hillview Restaurant in Depew, New York, when he noticed a woman choking. Drawing on his first-aid training, he administered the Heimlich maneuver, and “two quick thrusts later,” the dislodged piece of meat flew out. Kevin’s mom was eating lunch in the restaurant that day and recognized the lady—it was Penny Brown, the nurse who had saved her son’s life nearly seven years earlier. Kevin’s comment said it all: “It’s like divine intervention.” Indeed, compassion expressed often returns as God’s reward.

Compassion Goes Above and Beyond

Actor Peter Ustinov said, “Charity is more common than compassion. Charity is tax-deductible. Compassion is time consuming.”2 Pity looks for the easy way out or the path of least involvement. Genuine compassion always goes above and beyond what is expected.

In the parable, the priest and the Levite obviously saw a need, but their fear or excuses trumped what little compassion they may have had. Some suggest that the priest and the Levite were concerned that helping the injured man would have made them ceremonially unclean, thus disqualifying them from serving at the temple. But the priest and Levite were not headed up to Jerusalem; they were going down toward Jericho. Their temple duties were over; their spiritual obligations had been fulfilled.

I think, given the reputation of that road, it’s possible that both the priest and the Levite feared the situation might have been a setup or trap. We understand that fear. I’ll be honest; I’m often reluctant to help in suspicious circumstances, like picking up a hitchhiker or stopping to aid a stranded motorist. I guess I’ve read too many tragic stories about people who stopped to help and instead of finding a victim, became the victim. It’s easy to be critical of the priest and Levite, but I suspect we have all acted similarly.

Perhaps they were in a hurry to do something else for God. It is easy to rationalize that someone else will come along to help. How many times has your plan to serve God prevented you from God’s plan for you to serve? If we are busy doing God’s work in some unique capacity, we often justify not getting involved because we have a duty to do. If we stop to help, our spiritual jobs may not get done. If you need clarity, just ask yourself, “Would Jesus travel on down the road to do something important for God or would he stop to meet the immediate need?” Let compassion lead you; let it take you above and beyond what is expected.

The Samaritan’s response was indeed above and beyond; he not only empathized with the man, he administered first aid, provided transportation, and paid the bills for his complete recovery. Wow! That wasn’t just going the second mile; he went the third and fourth miles as well. When we go above and beyond what anyone expects or imagines, people notice. Such acts of compassion speak louder than any lesson or sermon ever could!

Compassion Moves Us to Action

Here is an irony of life. When our primary goal is to satisfy our own desires at the expense of others’ needs, we rarely experience a moment of contentment. On the other hand, when we invest our lives in others, we discover a deep sense of satisfaction. There are wounded lives on the rocky path all around you. Open your eyes; it’s not difficult to find hurting people who need a compassionate you. They hurt because:

• they are all alone.

• they suffer with a devastating physical disease or condition.

• they struggle with dysfunction and distrust in their homes.

• they mourn the death of one they loved dearly in this world.

• they feel stressed because they can’t meet their financial obligations.

• they don’t know the One who can fill the spiritual void in their lives.

I’m an Indianapolis Colts fan. I tend to be one who cheers from my sofa instead of the stands—tickets to NFL games are costly! With an average ticket price of $75 per game, how many people do you think would buy season tickets to watch their favorite team just stand on the field and huddle for 60 minutes? No players running back a kickoff, no shotgun formations, no running plays or deep pass plays, no third-down conversions, no nothing—just a 60-minute huddle in the middle of the field.

Who wants to watch that? Nobody. We pay to see some tough-hitting, hard-fighting action. Move that ball down the field and score!

We in the church can huddle up and talk about compassion all we want, but who wants to watch that? We’ve talked about it enough; talk is cheap. It’s time to get in the game. The world around us needs to see some action. Let compassion lead you down the field and into the end zone of changing lives through Christ’s love.


1 “Two Great Saves,” People magazine, 20 February 2006, Vol. 65, No. 7, http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20156851,00.html (accessed 11 May 2010).

2 http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/the-compassion-of-christ-warren-lamb-sermon-on-forgiveness-general-109919.asp.

Tom Ellsworth serves as minister with Sherwood Oaks Christian Church in Bloomington, Indiana.


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