When do we show compassion and when do we not? That was the question a study recently tried to answer. To answer that, the researchers gathered some seminarians and asked half of the them to prepare a sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The other half were given other passages from the Bible on which they would prepare a sermon. When finished, they were asked to go to another building to deliver the sermon. As each left, they had to pass by a person the researchers had placed there who was exhibiting great distress. The researchers postulated that the seminarians, who had just worked on the Good Samaritan sermon, would be more likely than the others to help. They, however, discovered something else. They had also told the seminarians as they left that they had varying amounts of time to get to the other building. Some were given plenty of time, enough time even to stop for coffee. Others were told they had to hurry if they were to be on time. The researchers discovered that it didn’t matter which Bible passage the seminarians had worked on. What mattered was how much time the seminarians believed they had to reach the place where they’d deliver the sermon. Most of those who were given enough time stopped and assisted the person. Almost all of those who thought they had very little time failed to stop and help the person.
So, it’s not teachings from the Bible that determine whether we’ll show compassion to another hurting soul. It’s whether we believe we have time in our schedules to do so. That doesn’t speak highly of our collective Christian characters, now does it? Still, that’s the disturbing truth of my own life. I’d like to think that the Bible has so formed me that I’d respond to such an obvious biblical warrant to assist someone in distress. Of course, I always have a good excuse when I don’t. As a Bishop of the Church, I’m a busy person with important work. Besides, someone else will help that person. I’m always sure of that or at least that’s the story I tell myself to engage in self-absolution.
I get it. We all have busy lives. We have schedules and commitments to keep. We have obligations to our employers and families that matter. Helping another might mean we don’t fulfill a job or family commitment. Life’s messy and complicated, always. Still, I’m uneasy with such excuses. Can I recognize the difference between the urgent and the important? The urgent (e.g., being on time to deliver a sermon) may seem at the time as trumping the important (e.g., stopping to assist someone in distress). Discerning the difference between the urgent and important is where we live as disciples of Jesus.
As we approach our celebration of God becoming flesh behind an inn that was so over-scheduled it had no place for him, we find ourselves in a rush of holiday frenzy. We have work to do. Our employers demand it. We have family commitments that can seem overwhelming, even if some of them are banal (“What will we get Uncle Joe this year for Christmas?”). So, can we stop for a moment and learn again the difference between what’s urgent and what’s important? Can we set aside our pathetic efforts at self-absolution that seek to justify ourselves at the expense of those we think don’t measure up? After all, as Jesus asks in the parable of the Good Samaritan: “Who is it that does the will of God?” His answer: “The one who shows compassion.”