By David Jones
A woman stood waist-deep in mud, crying.
A humble laborer in sackcloth stopped on the road and hollered to her, “What can I do to help you?” She replied, “I feel alone and scared, and I need comforting.”
“Come out of the mud to me and I’ll comfort you,” the man insisted. “No,” she answered, “I cannot leave the mud yet. Come to me and comfort me.”
The laborer walked away shaking his head, because he couldn’t feel compassion for someone who wouldn’t work to help themselves.
A learned merchant in fine clothes stopped on the road, and the same thing happened. He walked away shaking his head, because he worked too hard to earn such fine clothes to risk getting them dirty.
Finally a teacher in fine robes—priceless and brilliant as the sunrise—stopped on the road and hollered to the woman in distress, “How can I help you?” The woman in distress replied, “I feel alone and scared, and all the more because no one will come down here to comfort me.”
The teacher—a woman who had known loneliness and fear herself —stepped off the road, waded into the mud, and embraced the suffering woman for a long time. Then they walked together back to the road. “I’m sorry,” the woman in need said. “Now your beautiful robes are slick and caked with mud.” The teacher replied, “The robes haven’t complained.”
Sometimes to help someone who’s suffering in the mud, we need to get down in the mud with them.
That’s compassion. Of course, it might mean we get dirty as well. How do we feel about that? Sometimes the ancient Israelites were decidedly cold to the idea based on the ceremonial concern of remaining clean despite all the dangers of becoming unclean.
“Command the Israelites to send away from the camp anyone who has a defiling skin disease or a discharge of any kind, or who is ceremonially unclean because of a dead body.” (Numbers 5:2, New International Version) A person who had leprosy was ceremonially unclean, along with his clothes and bed. A woman with a bleeding disease was likewise unclean along with her clothes and bed. But why send them away?
“And whatever the unclean person touches shall be unclean, and anyone who touches it shall be unclean until evening.” (Numbers 19:22, English Standard Version) Just having the unclean person in the camp ran the risk of defiling the entire group.
Jesus grew up in a world which took such things quite seriously. Segregation for the benefit of a clean people was imperative, because even accidentally touching the unclean person or thing, knowing they were unclean, was itself a sin and required sacrifices to atone for it. So how did he handle that during his ministry?
When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. (Matthew 8:1-3, NIV)
And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” ‘You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ” But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering. (Mark 5:25-34, NIV)
Jesus showed the greater importance: to heal someone over remaining clean himself. Per Mosaic Law, physical contact—the “personal touch” as it were—made him unclean, but he didn’t think twice. He met them where they were to ease their suffering. What was more important anyway, the self or the other, purity or compassion? The path to true purity before God lies in compassion.
Jesus understood that sometimes we must come into intimate contact with another person’s suffering if we really want to help, even if we’re striving to remain free of suffering ourselves.
That’s the nature of serving others out of compassion, a principle behind the practice of Tonglen translated as “Taking and Giving” or “Receiving and Sending.”
One description I read about Tonglen involved visualizing someone’s suffering as poisonous air around them, and you breathe it in until their suffering fills your spacious, gracious heart. Then visualize how it becomes clean air full of peace and wellness, which is what you breathe out for them to take in. Just as Jesus felt energy leave him, feel the peace and relief flow out from you and into them.
Like prayers and meditations for others, it’s a healing practice.
What makes such healing work is less about their circumstances and more about how prepared we are to say “I am willing!” to reach out and care for those who suffer. That’s good to remember when we wonder what we can do to help others.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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