In a Mirror

Date: November 22, 2020/Speaker: Reverend Jon Hauerwas

At a bioparc in Valencia, Spain, a mother zebra was exhausted after giving birth to the colt that she had carried for the previous 13 months. In captivity, her newborn had no predators from which to flee. But, instinct is a powerful force. And as soon as he entered the world, he quickly leapt up on four, wobbly legs, and prepared himself to run from any possible danger. [1]

The colt’s first dash for freedom was swift but ill advised. And he soon plunged into the depths of the watering hole where more capable relatives regularly bathe and receive their daily nourishment. His mother, sensing the urgency of this looming tragedy, was desperate to save her newborn. But she was also still too depleted from the challenging labor of giving birth to enter the water on her own. So she began frantically crying out for help until two human keepers rushed into the water. And those keepers, after summoning their available reserves of strength and courage, lifted the colt up and returned him to the safety of dry land.

Friends, this is what we have in mind when we speak about compassion. There are other words – sympathy and empathy among them – that describe our emotional connection and internal response relative to the needs of others. Certainly, feeling something in regard to another person’s pain is a good place to start. But, a compassionate person takes these feelings a step further, by choosing to act in a manner that might relieve the suffering of others.

This is why we say, for example, that the Good Samaritan acted compassionately. It is not the initial feeling of sympathy or empathy that we ultimately admire. For one’s thoughts are here today and gone tomorrow. Rather, it is the care that he extended to the beaten and bloodied stranger that has become so memorable for those of us who seek to go and do likewise in the name of Jesus Christ.

In the Old Testament, Deuteronomy “urges special care of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.” This same book mandates that “enough grain, olives, and grapes be left behind at harvest” so that “the most vulnerable people – could glean enough to eat.” [2] And in the New Testament, we find the continuation of this narrative. The book of Acts, for example, describes the feeding of the widows. And because “prisoners subsisted on what was brought to them by visitors,” the earliest Christians understood that “caring for those in prison was a life-and-death matter.” [3]

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus modeled his expectation that we care for those in need. For he is the one who came to bind up the brokenhearted and to bring justice to the oppressed. He is the one who welcomed sinners to his table. He is the one who washed the feet of his disciples. And he is the one who suffered the death of a criminal on a Roman cross. In each of these ways, Jesus demonstrated his love of serving and his heart of compassion. And it is from this place of authentic self-giving that he instructed us to seek to do good whenever we are able.

Our second lesson from Matthew’s Gospel on this Christ the King Sunday is the only scene in the New Testament with any details regarding the last judgment. And here, Jesus tells us what it means to be righteous. To the surprise of readers both ancient and modern, “the criterion of judgment is not confession of faith in Christ. Nothing is said of grace, justification, or the forgiveness of sins.” [4] “Righteousness may not be judged by group membership, adherence to general group norms, or following the rules of group behavior, but by concrete acts of compassion toward all people.” [5] “What counts,” in other words, “is whether one has acted with loving care for needy people.” [6]

Curiously, those who are truly righteous rarely even recognize how adept they are at honoring this commitment. For as Jesus describes them, they don’t go around telling others about their good deeds. Oftentimes, they don’t even notice how profound their witness really is. They simply do what is right because their character has been formed with a compassionate disposition.

Even more curiously, Jesus observes that whenever the righteous act compassionately on behalf of those who are suffering, it’s as if he is looking a mirror in which he is the recipient of the helping activity. For Jesus so completely identifies with the plight of the marginalized and the longings of the forgotten, that he embodies their reality in the core of his being. What kind of a king says that?

In the end, the triumph of good deeds experienced in this world does not completely overcome the trauma that preceded it. The man who was aided by the Good Samaritan would forever remember the day that he was left beaten and blooded on the roadside. And at that bioparc in Valencia, Spain, a mother zebra was forever scarred when her newborn rushed headlong into a watering hole before he had ever learned to swim.

Yet, through both the peaks and the valleys, we find signs of the resurrection. For where death once seemed all but certain, the light of hope comes shining through. Here, we are reminded that each day and that, even, every breath is a gift. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face-to-face. And as we wait, we can be assured that whenever works of righteousness flourish, it is as if Christ himself has been served. May it be so, and all thanks be to God. Amen.


[2] Laura Mariko Cheifetz, Connections, Pg. 507.

[3] Cheifetz, Pg. 507.

[4] M. Eugene Boring, NIB, Pg. 455.

[5] Cheifetz, 508.

[6] Boring, 455.

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