Many years ago when I managed a family outreach center/food pantry, people would often ask me how we determined who to serve and who not to serve. These same people would ask if we had income guidelines so we could determine who “really” needed the food and who didn’t; who deserved the food and who did not. What I learned very quickly was that answers to questions like this often defined just how compassionate someone might be.
Questions designed to determine someone else’s worthiness are a regular part of our society – especially when determining how generous we will be with those who are poor and homeless. Whether it’s the individual holding the sign at an intersection or an entire group of people needing food stamps or health care, we’re sometimes apt to judge their worthiness by applying our own perception of qualities we deem worthy of our support: does the person/group work hard enough; is the person/group grateful enough to receive our support; does the person/group appear to be spending their money in the way we think they should.
And yet, in the Gospel reading from John 5:5-9, Jesus yet again exercises compassion and generosity with someone who would not pass our worthiness tests. In the scripture reading, an “invalid” man – a man who was likely paralyzed – had been lying by the side of the pool of Bethzatha for some time; a pool known for its healing power. When Jesus approaches the man, Jesus asks, “Do you want to get well?” To which the man replies, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in someone else goes down ahead of me.” The first words out of the man’s mouth are a complaint about his condition and the lack of help he has received from others. Jesus’ response is simply, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk;” which cures the man instantly.
As I read this scripture, I am deeply moved by Jesus’ willingness to feed, dine with, and heal those who we would deem unworthy. Jesus never makes “worthiness” a measure for showing compassion. Jesus is simply loving and compassionate; responding to the outcast and those in need with the same tenderness and care that he would respond to anyone else. And, not only do Jesus’ words and actions invite us to hang up our “worthiness measuring sticks” but Jesus words and actions simultaneously issue a caution about judging others. If scripture is our guide, Jesus is very clear about how we are definitely not to judge others. If personal experience is our guide, I’m guessing many of us have fallen victim to judgments that have led us to false assumptions or conclusions.
On one particular day when I was working at the outreach center, a woman I didn’t like walked in the door. I had sized this woman up before as someone who didn’t “really” need our assistance. She drove a very nice car and my assumption was that she was taking advantage of our generosity. However, as this woman with the nice car looked through our clothing closet, I heard her engage in conversation with another woman. When the conversation circled around to the difficulties of getting to the outreach center, the woman with the nice car said, “Oh, I know what you mean. It’s hard for me to get here, too. Every time I come to the outreach center, I have to borrow my neighbor’s car.”
In that moment I certainly realized how dangerous it is to make assumptions or to make judgments about others without knowing their story. That moment also begged a bigger question: was Jesus able to exercise unconditional love and compassion to all those around him, because he always knew the bigger story; the story beyond our judgments?
May our own generosity be filled with the knowledge that we don’t know enough to judge someone else’s worth. May we live more justly by caring for each other with compassion.