How often do we turn on the news to encounter tragedies as a result of famine, hunger, war and natural disasters? How often do we flip through the channels and encounter the photo of a child with the belly the size of a watermelon because they are malnourished and have not eaten for days? How often do we come across someone on the street, grocery store, or anywhere else who is struggling because they don’t have a job so that they can pay their bills, feed their family, and basically live a life that is honorable and dignified.
How often do we turn away? Not because we do not care, but because the sight of someone else’s pain makes us feel uncomfortable and we just don’t know what to do with it. We feel bad for them, we pity them and wish that they were not in that state, but we are immobilized to do anything about it.
Pity does not do anything for us, in fact it does not do anything for anyone. Pity causes us to feel shame but it does not make us change nor does it allow us to address the root of someone’s problem. Instead, it causes us to do something, to do anything, to make our own discomfort disappear. This is why we roll down the window to hand a few dollars out to the man standing on the corner with a street sign ‘Will Work for Food.’ And this is why we send $30 a month to children in far away places who are starving and uneducated. And this is why we work in food kitchens, feed the homeless, and do so many other things so that our guilt will be relieved. But we have not done anything to relieve their burden.
This is the approach that the innkeeper took the night that Joseph and Mary, the parents of Jesus, came to him. They were called to go back to Bethlehem to be counted in the town’s census and had no place to stay. And so they turned into an inn, hoping that the innkeeper might have something for them. But he did not, and that’s fair, because if his place was full to capacity it was full to capacity. But because he pitied them, he put them up with the animals. The filthy, stinky animals. Sure it was something, but it was more his solution to the surmounting guilt in his heart. He could not bear them sleeping on the streets, but he was okay with them sleeping with the animals, with a newborn baby at that!
Compassion causes us to act differently, actually it causes us to act in a justified, dignified manner and compels us to treat others in a way that we ourselves would like to be treated. If the innkeeper was a man of compassion, he would have invited the Savior of the World into his own house rather than into his barn. Luckily, our Savior, Jesus, was a man who demonstrated compassion. Every time the word occurs in context to Jesus in the Gospels, it is always followed by an action of some sort in response to the needs of the people he was ministering to. It caused him to heal people who were sick, feed those who were hungry, restore vision to those who were blind, and return those who were far from God (Matthew 9.36, 14.14, 15.32, 20.34; Mark 6.34, 8.2; Luke 15.20).
Compassion caused Jesus to respond out of love and care. And herein lies the difference between compassion and pity. Pity seldom requires love or genuine care for the other person because it is guilt driven. Yet compassion always does. And as the apostle Paul states in I Corinthians, anything done without love is meaningless and fails to make a lasting impact on those affected.
Let’s stop being driven by guilt, instead let’s be motivated by love. It is love, heartfelt love for others that will create jobs, because this is what people who are unemployed need, not handouts. It is love that will get to the bottom of the financial crisis, as we put aside our selfish motives and self-interests. It is love that will help us eradicate terrorism, world hunger, poverty, and gross human rights crimes. Pity does not accomplish this, it just leaves us in the same place we started.