If it hadn’t been for Charles Porter’s snapshot, we’d probably never known his name. The photograph of rescue worker Chris Fields cradling a blood-soaked baby in his arms as he carried her out of the Oklahoma City Federal Building changed all that. Time magazine ran the picture under the headline: “Amateur Snaps Photo That Moves the World.” The headline writer was right. Chris Fields did touch us, in at least two ways. First, he revitalized in us the sense of pity we’d like to show. Second, the tragic circumstances so graphically displayed in full color reminded us of the difficulty of showing any compassion at all.
That’s the exact point early in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, when a delegation from London enters Scrooge’s office to ask for a donation for the poor. Ebenezer responds, “Are there no prisons? No workhouses? No orphanages?” Scrooge found mercy a difficult act.
Chris Fields walks one road, Ebenezer Scrooge another. Crowds follow both men. Some laugh at the student with AIDS. Others help. Some pity the homeless. Others despise them. Some ignore victims of tragedy. Others serve them. How do we choose which way to go?
Jesus says it has something to do with which road we travel. In Luke 6:32-34, he tells us about two kinds of situations that confront us in life. Sometimes we love others and they love us back. Most people keep on loving in those situations. It’s pretty easy to show compassion when we get something back. On other occasions, we love somebody and get no love in return. Those are the tough ones. If we lend money to a person and get interest on our investment, we’re likely to continue. Most people find that attractive. It’s when we lend our money and don’t even get he principal back, let alone the interest, that we give up on showing pity.
Jesus said when we show mercy with no prospect of return we take the high road in life. That’s the road he followed. Out in the country, Jesus passed a mother about to bury her son. He couldn’t walk by because “he had compassion on her” (Luke 7:13, all quotes from RSV). Outside Jericho, a blind man sang the refrain, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:38). Jesus did. The man saw his own way home. Ten lepers at the side of the road cried for mercy. Jesus supplied it (Luke 17:11-19). In each case, he showed compassion with no hope of getting anything in return.
As Jesus traveled, he told stories about others on the road. In Luke 10:25-37, two Scrooge-like characters ignore the battered man in the ditch. A Chris Fields-like man shows pity with no hope of return. We call him the Good Samaritan. The compassionate father welcomes home the starving prodigal son who has already taken a sizeable portion of the dad’s income. The Scrooge-like elder brother sees no profit in his sibling’s return (Luke 15:11-32).
Jesus says that compassion is the high road. How will we know it? Will there be a sign? Here’s his answer: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). You’ll know the road by the people who travel there. Love the unlovable, show compassion to those who fight you every step of the way, and Jesus says “you will be sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:35). The footprints on the high road of compassion were made by God himself.
Chris Fields. The Good Samaritan. The prodigal’s father. Jesus. God. Take the high road. The company’s great.