Summary: Compassion must be owned personally, and we must know that we do have the resources to meet needs. However, it will be costly to do so.
If we suppose that the essence of being compassionate is simply to have mushy feelings about somebody, we are dead wrong. If for us the word "compassion" suggests nothing more than feelings of sympathy and maybe the willingness to dole out a few dollars of welfare, then we’ve missed it. We’ve not understood what compassion is.
We’re going to be talking a lot about compassion this month. By the time August is over you will hear a dozen different ideas about compassion. But I believe that the best thing I can do to get us started is not to list abstractions but just to tell a story.
Young Esther had won what I guess you would have to call the "Miss Persia" beauty contest. When old King Ahasuerus found that his queen, Vashti, was too uppity, he sent out for all the beautiful young ladies of the Empire, and from among them chose Esther, not knowing and maybe not even caring that she was Jewish rather than Persian. Esther found herself living in a fantasy land, surrounded by more luxury and privilege than anyone could imagine. The Biblical text even describes a banquet that went on for six months without even an exercise break! Esther had it made, and, I would guess, if you had asked her why all this had happened, her answer would have been, "Just lucky, I guess."
But in other quarters of the palace trouble was brewing. A proud man named Haman had been promoted by King Ahasuerus to be the prime minister, wielding the king’s power over a wide variety of matters. But it wasn’t enough for Haman that he had the king’ s trust and favor. Haman had to have the trappings of power too. Haman wanted everyone -- and I mean everyone -- to bow down to him and flatter him. He expected you to kiss his ring, he wanted you to pay him compliments; I don’t suppose they had private jets and government limousines in those days, did they, but, if they had, Haman would have expected a free ride to New Hampshire!
Haman got what he wanted. Almost. Almost everyone played the game. Almost everyone knew which side their bread was buttered on. All, that is, except a man named Mordecai, who was one of the palace gatekeepers. Mordecai just absolutely refused to treat this Haman as if he were some little tin god. That ruined Haman’s day. Every time he went out that palace gate, here’s everybody bowing and scraping, and holding the door and grinning from ear to ear, except over in the corner is old Mordecai, with a grim look on his face and his arms folded in defiance. Haman couldn’t stand it. He had ninety-and-nine little sheep following him blindly, but he wanted that last one.
Well, the story has it that Haman jumped to a very big conclusion. He concluded that not only was Mordecai guilty of insubordination, but so was everybody like Mordecai. That is, so was every Jew. I can hear Haman now, can’t you? "These people are all like that. If you’ve seen one of these folk, you’ve seen them all." And so Haman did what brutal tyrants always do; Haman set out to destroy not just Mordecai, but the whole Jewish people. Massive overkill. It was not long before Haman had whipped up the king to set a date on which every Jewish family was to be destroyed.
There was just one thing that Haman failed to reckon with, however. His CIA, strangely enough, never told him that the abject of his hatred was the cousin of the Queen. And therefore, obviously, if every Jew is to be put in danger, that would include even the Queen. If you attack Mordecai, you are attacking Queen Esther. If you are attacking the Jews, you are attacking the king’s favorite.
And so Mordecai got word to the queen in a hurry. Mordecai informed the queen about the decree of destruction and then, as you might expect, asked her to use her influence with Ahasuerus to get the whole thing stopped. Let me read you Esther’s reply when this problem was placed in front of her, and then I want you to listen carefully to Mordecai’s challenge. I want to ask you to hear Mordecai’s challenge to his strategically placed young cousin as if it were a challenge to you and as if it were something that will instruct your sense of compassion:
Three key phrases: First, "If you keep silence at such a time as this"; second, "Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"; and finally, the word of Esther, "If I perish, I perish."
First, I want you to see that compassion means owning a problem as our own. Compassion is not only knowing that there is a human need. Compassion is making that need our own. Compassion is recognizing that the human dilemma is our dilemma. Compassion is seeing that no man is an island, entire of itself, but that each of us is a part of one another. And authentic compassion begins when I know that whatever hurts someone else hurts me too.