Before we had children, Jenny and I did what many other would-be parents have done: we dreamed about who our kids might be. One night, just for fun, we even made lists, each of us writing down some hopes — just the first things that came to mind. After a few minutes we looked up from our legal pads. “Who wants to go first? Okay, okay… I will,” I said. “Now, this is just a rough list, but uh, here goes: I want them to be successful. I hope they’re leaders. I hope they get scholarships. I want them to have big ambitions and goals.” I continued for a while, then looked up to Jenny giving me the side-eye that all her children have inherited from her. “Ummm…” she said, “I want them to be kind.” It seems she was making a different list.
The Epistle to the Colossians offers a similar list — the virtues that define the life of a follower of Christ — and right near the start we hear this: “Clothe yourselves in kindness.” God wants us to be kind.
That’s not a particularly radical statement. Simple. To the point. Many of us have heard it since childhood — from parents who instilled it in us, perhaps every day when we left for school; or schools that encouraged us to respectful to our peers and offer friendship to one and all; or Sunday School teachers who repeated the mantra “Be ye kind” until it echoed in our heads. “Love kindness,” a banner in our Children’s wing reads today, with the words of Micah 6:8. Some of us can probably remember a song or rhyme listing kindness among the “Fruits of the Spirit” from our own Children’s wing days.
So we greet people with a smile or a polite nod. We care for our neighbors. We reach out to our friends. We’re basically generous and understanding with coworkers. We serve our communities. If we have spare change in our pocket, we give it to the person who asks and we do what we can. When we lament the lack of civility in our public square, we try to be respectful. When we perceive social rudeness, we resolve to be mannerly. We do unto others, and find that often they reciprocate to us. We practice random acts of kindness, and sometimes experience such goodwill coming back around.
That’s what we normally mean by kindness — the notion that there’s a part of all of us that is kind, and that we have merely to access it as we’ve been taught. We need to reach down into that part of us that is kind, sometimes way down deep in our reserves, and then pull up enough morality to be the best version of ourselves, and then when we encounter others we’ll be kind. It’s one way to practice kindness.
The problem is, it doesn’t always work, and ultimately it’s limited, because it’s dependent on our own capacities, our own social norms and decorum. Sometimes this kindness is tied to a sentimentality and public display that is as much about us and our need for recognition as it is about the other. Sometimes this kindness can just be a cover-up for bigger issues and injustices in our world. Simple, straightforward kindness, you see, ultimately has nothing specifically to do with Christ or Christian community.
Put another way, you don’t need Christ to practice basic kindness. The scouts help people cross the street. The social club contributes to society. People of all religious backgrounds and commitments wave people out into busy traffic or help a neighbor in obvious need. Some of the greatest charity and decency you and I have received and witnessed has come from people of other faiths or people no faith. What, then, is Christiankindness? What does it mean to put on the kindness of Christ?
Well the kindness of Christ is actually a very radical thing. It’s what theologians call an “eschatological virtue” from “eschaton” meaning “the end.” In Christian theology this references the ultimate hoped for time in which “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” and the virtues embodied by Jesus Christ will be embodied by all creation.
This past Wednesday night, we began our Lenten “Midweek” series, “Faces of Faith” — a wonderful, multi-generational time of storytelling and reflection on these attributes of Christ listed in Colossians, and how we can know them more through the lives of fellow church members. Phil Barbee, Meg Rudd, and Margaret McCracken shared powerfully on last week’s theme of compassion — what it means to them, how they experience it, how they try to practice it in their lives of faith, what challenges they encounter as they do. At one point, Margaret reflected on Christian compassion and how it has formed in her life, and she commented that she has discovered that compassion changes how you see people.
Kindness, like compassion — like all of these virtues — before it’s something we do, it’s a way of seeing. It means to see people with that eschatalogical lens — from the end, in the way made possible by Christ. It means to come to see in the way that God can see, beyond the present but from the vantage point of the ultimate, hoped for end, when Christ is all and in all, as Colossians 3:11 says. So Colossians urges us to remember that we have a “new humanity,” made possible through the resurrection of Christ, and because of that we can be different kinds of people — not in the future, but now. We don’t have to wait. We can live out our hope for the future right now in the present. We can be kind as the work of Christ enables us to be kind. We can see as God intends for us to see.
Some of you know the ministry of Father Gregory Boyle — the Jesuit priest and author — who is a model of Christian kindness and of seeing this world with a vision made possible through Christ. Father Boyle is known for a ministry he was part of starting in Los Angeles — a gang-intervention program that’s known today as “Homeboy Industries,” which works with and employs members of rival gangs and formerly incarcerated individuals, supporting them and working together as they seek to redirect their lives.
One such person is Mario, whom Father Boyle describes as “the most tattooed individual” who has ever worked with Homeboy Industries, which causes some people to see marks of violence, trouble, the gang name across the back of his neck. But Father Boyle points out that if you ask anyone at Homeboy who the kindest person there is, they would say Mario, who sells baked good at the coffee counter on weekday mornings. He’s an active part of Homeboy Industries, so once when Father Boyle was invited to make a speech at a local college, he invited Mario to join him to share some of his story. And Mario made his presentation to a room of a thousand people, just clutching the microphone and trembling as he talked about his violent past, a painful period of life, an attempt to redirect and change. Then afterward, Father Boyle invited questions from the crowd, and the first question came from a woman who walked up to the auditorium microphone and said, “I have a question for Mario.” Mario stood up on stage, terrified, as the woman said, “Yeah, you say you’re a father and that your kids are approaching their teenage years. I just wonder, what do you tell your kids? What advice do you give them?”
And Mario was searching for the words, “I just…” and he stopped, and he clutched the microphone stand, which was seemingly propping him up at this point. Still, he wanted to get the words out, so he finally said, “I just don’t want my kids to turn out to be like me.”
And Father Boyle says there was total silence, until the woman who asked the question stood back up, and she was tearful as she said, “Why wouldn’t you want your kids to be like you? You are loving. You are kind. You are gentle. You are wise. I hope your kids turn out to be like you.” And in that instant, a thousand people stood and would not stop clapping. And Mario held his head in his hands. He was weeping, because a room full of people had seen him, and they had helped him to see himself. (1)
Kindness. Seeing one another in the light of Christ. Jesus told a story about such kindness, and it’s not simple or straightforward. It’s radical, in fact. You know it. A man is beaten and robbed on a journey, for there were bandits on the road. And so two people — one after the other — travel the same path. They should help, but they pass by — sentimental, perhaps chirping about their own faith or offering up prayers. But then a third traveler comes near. And at first, this is a story about seeing.
Dr. Martin Luther King once said of this parable, the first two see the wounded man and wonder only, “If I help, what will happen to me?” But the Samaritan sees and says, “If I don’t help, what will happen to him?” (2) Dr. King spoke these words to sanitation workers in Memphis, in his last speech before he was killed; because there are bandits on the road. There are still those who stand violently against kindness, and oppose with all they have the new vision such kindness demands. There are those who will try to keep your vision corrupted, your actions blocked, your self-preservation in tact. For such kindness is a radical thing, a dangerous thing in this world.
But the Samaritan teaches us that kindness always takes the risk — it comes near to the wounds of this world, with a sense of mercy and commitment that are more pressing than the threats that might be lurking.
Such kindness also returns. Note at the end of Jesus’ story, the Samaritan says, “Take this and keep a tabulation of what is owed, and I will come back. I will return and pay.” Because kindness is more than a random act — a one time drop off or a momentary drive thru. Kindness asks who else might be wounded for whom we need to go back, and what else must be done so people stop being wounded and left as though dead or disposable on life’s highway, and what more must be paid so that the process of healing and restoration can be completed and fulfilled.
Because ultimately, kindness sees. This parable reminds us, perhaps as much as any story in the Bible, that the kindness of Christ is a way of seeing first. With a Samaritan on the road, that leaves an Israelite in the ditch, and presents the bold reminder that in the kingdom Jesus envisions, those opposed to one another — Samaritan and Israelite — those who would otherwise be enemies, can come to see one another differently. They can see in the other the capacity for kindness. They can see in the enemy the one with the capacity to heal. They can see that the face one they’ve despised is also in the likeness of God.
One of my former professors and brilliant New Testament scholar, Dr. A.-J. Levine, has said that if you want to understand this parable, you could locate it in the Middle East today. Samaria today has various names: the West Bank, Occupied Palestine, Greater Israel. If you want to hear the parable today, update the figures, A.-J. has said. Imagine an Israeli Jew on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho, attacked, robbed, left half dead in a ditch. Two people who should know to stop instead pass by: the first, a Jewish medic from the Israel Defense Forces; the second, a member of a global humanitarian agency. But the person who takes compassion and shows mercy in this updated telling, would be a Palestinian Muslim whose sympathies lie with Hamas. (3)
And if you can imagine that, then you can start to imagine the Kingdom of God that Jesus prayed would come to earth — to earth — as it is in heaven.
Surely we feel very far from that today, grieving as we are with Muslims around the world, and our neighbors and friends here locally, after the shootings at Muslim mosques in New Zealand during Friday prayers — an act devastating not only for the lives it shattered and stole and the peace it threatens, but for the ideology and rhetoric behind it. A white supremacist shooter, who even in a photo at his arraignment was making a “white power” hand gesture. Radical and fringe though this perpetrator seems to us, this ideology remains a part of our world. And as we lament, we must also pray confessionally with the Psalmist, “O Lord, search me and know me… see if there be any trace in me… see if there is any wicked way in us…” Show us, O Lord, if our vision is corrupted; because before it ever is an action, such supremacy and terrorism is a way of seeing, too. It sees inferiority and threat in others, and it instills such vision over time. So if we are to imagine a world where Christ is all and in all — a world where the kingdom is known on earth as it is in heaven — it starts with how we see.
The ancient writer, Suetonius, is one of the very earliest to make a historic reference to Christ and Christianity outside of the Christian scriptures. (4) He talks about the followers of “Chrestus,” who were defined by their generous acts towards one another, their gathering for worship and at table, their love for one another and their neighbors. But there’s been some debate among scholars about the reference to “chrestus” and the spelling used; because Chrestus with an “e” is slightly different than “Christus” with an “i,” the Greek word for Christ. Many think it’s a simple misspelling or scribal error, but it’s an important question because the vowel change is a meaning change. “Christus” is the Greek word for “messiah” but “chrestus” is the Greek word meaning “kind.” So it leaves us wondering whether the proponents of this strange new religion were understood to be followers of a man they believed to be “Christ,” or whether they were people defined by their commitment to “kindness.” Then again, maybe they were both. Maybe we can be both.
A teacher was once said to have asked their students, “How will you know that the night is over and that a new day has come?”
Someone raised their hand, “Is it when there’s enough light that you can tell the difference at a distance between a sheep and a goat?”
“No, that’s not it,” the teacher said.
“Well is it,” another asked, “when there’s enough light that you can tell the difference at a distance between an oak tree and a fig tree?”
“No, that’s not it either.”
“Then how?” the students asked, “How will we know that the night is over and the new day has arrived?”
The teacher said, “When there’s enough light around you that when you see the face of another, even at a distance, you see the face of your brother, you see the face of your sister, you see the face of your sibling, then you will know that the night is over and a new day has dawned.”
So remember what God wants for us. It’s right there at the top of the list. In the light of Christ, be kind. Be kind.
- Gregory Boyle, Pepperdine University Commencement Speech (May 2018).
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” (April 3, 1968).
- Amy-Jill Levine, “The Parable of the Good Hamas Member,” in Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.
- Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 25.4