It’s hard to believe it was over a quarter of a century ago. Probably harder still to believe that the memory is as clear as yesterday. I was a graduate student in theology and my friend was a senior in college. We were on one of those “summer abroad” trips that are now ubiquitous but were just then becoming popular. Making our way back from London’s West End, I literally stepped over a drunk or addict or mentally-ill (take your pick) man lying in the subway passage. My friend stopped, “We’ve got to help.”
“But, we’ve got to.”
“But . . . “
“No, your intervention would not help him anyway. He can go to a shelter; this is not our problem.”
And so we walked away, a bit of anger in her eyes, self-certainty in mine.
Interesting word, that. Literally, “to suffer alongside.” I don’t know how many times someone has said to me, “Your work must be very rewarding,” or “This must make you feel really good.” It’s not, and it doesn’t. I remember our first trip to Brazil, hearing the kids’ stories, holding the dirty child of the 16-year-old prostitute, seeing the boys living under the overpass. We returned home to the question, “Did you have a good time?”
Taking seriously our Lord’s command to care for the least of these is not about self-fulfillment or conscience-salving, and certainly not about having a good time. At its essence, it is about suffering alongside those who are hurting. As Paul says in Philippians, “But have this mind among yourselves which was in Christ Jesus, who did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” Suffering alongside those he came to redeem.
Compassion. It means we don’t get to step over those lying in our path.