Jesus knew human nature – the best and the worst of it, the noblest side and the basest side. And Jesus was willing to meet people where they were in their personal and spiritual development, in their relationship with God.
In the first line of today’s Gospel, Jesus appeals to the altruistic, self-giving side of his disciples. "Be compassionate, as your Father is compassionate." He was encouraging them to love unconditionally, to identify with others, to be like God. Perhaps he was met with a response of quizzical looks, with expressions of incredulity. God is God and human is human! How can I be like God? I’m just me. You can’t be serious asking ME to be like God! So Jesus changed tactics. OK, if you can’t act out of empathy and compassion for another, at least start with your own self-interest. "Don’t judge so that YOU will not be judged. Don’t condemn so that YOU will not be condemned. Give and it will be given to YOU."
Self interest is hardly the highest of Christian motivations and actually little better than the attitude of "What’s in it for me?" Doing good to avoid punishment or personal harm is not what we would identify as a primary Gospel value. But Jesus recognized, as should we, that at least it was a starting point to changing behavior and broadening perspective. Self interest can be the beginning of consciousness raising, of challenging people to expand their personal interests to include others. For those who are open to becoming aware, the needs of others may actually become primary and they will be growing in compassion.
Maybe a real challenge to those who are compassionate, is to feel compassion for the uncompassionate. We all need conversion!
Cathy Anthony is on the staff of St. Paul of the Cross Passionist Retreat and Conference Center, Detroit, Michigan.