In the book Les Miserables, Victor Hugo speaks of a man, Jean Valjean, whose only crime was the theft of a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving children. Valjean served nineteen years for this crime before being turned out penniless on the streets. Hardened and unable to find work as a former convict, Valjean finally makes his way to the home of a good old bishop, who gives him supper and a bed for the night. He serves Valjean using his best silver platters and candlesticks, which Valjean recognizes as being highly valuable. Yielding to temptation, Valjean steals the bishop's silver plates and slips away from the bishop's home, but is soon caught and returned by the watchful police. When shown the silver plates, the bishop says to the apprehending policeman, 'Why?, I gave them to him.' And then turning to the thief Valjean, he adds, 'And Jean, you forgot to take the candlesticks.' A shocked and eternally grateful Valjean accepts the candlesticks as more than valuable silver pieces, but as expressions of love beyond measure. The bishop's compassion gave freedom back to Valjean. The real freedom.
One act of compassion that you do can have a tremendous impact on the life of the person receiving it. I remember I had tears in my eyes when I saw this scene acted out in a film.
A woman caught in adultery
In John chapter 8 we find a similar scene.. The scribes and the Pharisees, this self appointed "get-Jesus" committee, bring a woman who had been caught in adultery - and where is the man?! -, and placing her in the midst they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?" They got him trapped - an airtight case. Deuteronomy 22:22, on one side, is very clear : "If a man is found sleeping with another man's wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel." On the other side, they knew that Jesus had the reputation of being "The friend of sinners" If he released her, he would be contradicting the Law of Moses; if he condemned her, he would lose his reputation.
Jesus however is too smart for them! He came to save not to destroy. The problem is always deeper. That is why he refuses to meddle with the magistrate's office. He goes to the heart of the problem.
This woman has obviously committed a very serious sin. Adultery is not a minor peccadillo. I was watching this soap opera where the man said to his wife, "All I did was have an affair. So what?! What's the big deal?" Unfortunately the media are trying to convince us that adultery is nothing. Just an escapade! What a appalling travesty of truth! Anyone who has experience in counseling, knows that this is a terrible lie. Adultery is destructive. It violates marriage. It wrecks homes; it injures innocent children; it attacks everything that God holds dear! It is a very hurtful, fragmenting, shattering sin!
On the other hand these Pharisees are also committing a very serious sin. "He who told us not to commit adultery, told us also not to judge" say the Desert fathers. These self righteous prigs have a very bad design and they are just using this woman simply for their own vicious purposes. Manipulating an event in their own favor. They exploit a woman's unfortunate situation to get at Jesus. Murderers! Jesus reads their hearts and what he sees is awful. Someone has well said, "If the inner thoughts of a man were written on his forehead, man would never take his cap off!"
So, after a moment of stalling, Jesus stands up, looks them right in the eye and says , "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." A simple statement which takes the wind right out of their sails. The result is almost humorous. They all leave. One suddenly remembers that he had a previous appointment. The other thought he heard his wife calling. Another had a sudden fit of coughing and had to leave. Another felt it was time for lunch. They disappeared one by one until no one was left except Jesus and the woman alone.
And here is the amazing thing. Jesus alone had the right to condemn this woman. He was the Sinless One, the only One who fulfilled the qualifications to stone. But he did not do so. He understood and he forgave. And more, he gave her the strength not to sin any more. This woman for the first time in her life found herself in front of someone who really knew her. Who really loved her.
How much we need this compassion. The compassion of Jesus. How many times because of fear that I will be rejected, I had to masquerade myself. How many times I had to show off a mask because I know that no one loves you when you stink. He is the only one who loved me in my stench. In my filth. The only one who always showed me compassion.
Compassion is more than pity. It is more than feeling for the other. It means involvement for the other. It means reaching out to the pain which is inside the other person. A little girl was sent to the store with specific instructions from her mother to come directly home after her purchases. She was more than two hours coming home, much to the distress of her anxious mother. 'Where have you been?" scolded the mother. "I'm sorry, Mommy. I know I am late, but Jane broke her doll and I had to stop and help her fix it" "And how could you help her fix that broken doll?" In her precious, childlike manner the girl responded, "I really couldn't, but I sat down with her and helped her cry."
Compassion made this woman caught in adultery free.
Appearances are deceiving
When I became superior for the first time, many years ago, I felt overwhelmed with this new responsibility. I was still very young and did not think I had enough inner resources to live up to this assignment. How can I help others? How can I take the right decisions on others? And a priest came to me, one of the old holy monks we have back home, and he said to me : "Father Pius, let me tell you one thing. When you find in front of someone, never forget that you do not know where that person comes from. You do not know his past history, the facts which made him or destroyed him. You only see a facade. Inside every person there is a heart and many times that heart is bleeding." I never forgot those words.
This is the secret of compassion. Compassion means trying to be in harmony with the hidden pain of the other. Behind every face here there is a long history, many times a history woven with many threads of pain, anguish, setbacks, adversities and sometimes even tragedies. People do not go parading their sufferings around. But they are there. I remember once having to counsel this dense woman who had such a terrible temper. She would fly into a rage any minute. A living mine which made her very unsociable. Everyone avoided her. And then... she blurted out how her father abused her from age 9 to age 13. Her mum did not believe her. She had to live this ordeal alone, feeling guilty and alone. Is it a surprise if she reacts in such an unfortunate, sad way?
Do not let appearances deceive you. Behind every person there is a lot of pain. Feel that pain. Detect it and understand.
This week I spent a lot of my time listening to the confessions of the kids in the Catholic school in our parish. Many were telling me that they would like to come to Sunday mass but their parents do not bring them because they are always working. It reminded me that compassion has to start at home, because as Mother Teresa always kept reminding us when she was alive, that the worst disease is not tuberculosis or leprosy or Aids but this feeling of loneliness, of being unwanted, a poverty of the spirit. It reminded me of this story.
"Daddy, how much do you make an hour?" With a timid voice and idolizing eyes, the little boy greeted his father as he returned from work. Greatly surprised, but giving his boy a glaring look, the father said: "Look, son, not even your mother knows that. Don't bother me now, I'm tired." "But Daddy, just tell me please! How much do you make an hour, " the boy insisted. The father, finally giving up, replied: "Twenty dollars per hour." "Okay, Daddy. Could you loan me ten dollars?" the boy asked. Showing his restlessness and positively disturbed, the father yelled: "So that was the reason you asked how much I earn, right? Go to sleep and don't bother me anymore!" It was already dark and the father was pondering on what he said and was feeling guilty. Maybe he thought , his son wanted to buy something. Finally, trying to ease his mind, the father went to his son's room.
"Are you asleep, son?" asked the father.
"No, Daddy. Why?" replied the boy, partially asleep.
"Here's the money asked for earlier, " the father said.
"Thanks, Daddy!" rejoiced the son, while putting his hand under his pillow and removing some money.
"Now I have enough! Now I have twenty dollars!" the boy said to his father, who was gazing at his son, little bit confused.
"Daddy, could you sell me one hour of your time?"
"Let us not be satisfied with just giving money. Money is not enough, money can be got, but they need your hearts to love them. So spread love everywhere you go : first of all in your own home. Give love to your children, to your wife or husband, to a next door neighbor." (Mother Teresa) Start showing them the same compassion which God has shown you constantly in your life.
May God help you to make the right decisions today!
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.