Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Inhabiting Compassion

When you think of Jesus, would you describe him as a compassionate fellow? What about God? Do you believe in a compassionate God?

As best I can tell, there are eight verses in the four gospelaccounts that describe Jesus as compassionate or having pity (same Greek word), and two of them are repeats:

  • Compassion on the Sheperdless Crowd (Matt. 9:36)
  • Feeding of the 5,000 (Matt. 14:14 & Mark 6:34)
  • Feeding of the 4,000 (Matt. 15:32 & Mark 8:2)
  • Healing of Two Blind Men (Matt. 20:34)
  • Cleansing of a Leper (Mark 1:41)
  • Raising of a Widow’s Son (Luke 7:13)

 That’s six different occasions when the gospel writers record for us that Jesus was moved with pity or acted out of compassion, and two of those moments were precursors for the feeding miracles. I think it’s interesting that both Matthew and Mark set the stage for two different but parallel feeding stories by mention Jesus’ emotional state. Perhaps there’s something in the background there about a Jewish mother feeding her upset son large quantities of matzo.

The Greek word for “have compassion on” (in the case of Sunday’s gospel lesson it’s “ἐσπλαγχνίσθη”) and its various forms literally mean “disturbed in one’s guts.” It shares the same root as the word “spleen” because people believed that emotion came from one’s bowels. That seems odd to us, but we still say things like “my heart yearns for you” even though the organ responsible for pumping blood through the body, of course, has nothing to do with love. I don’t think it surprises anyone to hear that Jesus was “moved with pity” at someone’s plight or “had compassion on” a person or a crowd. What should surprise us, however, is that through the incarnation the impassable (click on the word for a definition) God found a way to be compassionate.

The word “compassion” in its Latin roots means “to suffer with.” Suffer, in that sense, has to do with feeling something or to be affected by something—not just to endure the pain and trial of a situation. If I suffer with you, it means I am touched by your circumstance. I cry when you cry. I rejoice when you rejoice. That’s something we would say of a friend. It’s even something we would say of Jesus. But—at least until the middle of the last century—it’s not something we ordinarily would say of God.

God does not suffer. (Feel free to disagree with me on that—many, many theologians do—but that has been the orthodox belief for 2,000 years.) Jesus, of course, does suffer. God is not compassionate. God is loving. In fact, God is love. But God doesn’t look down on creation and shed a tear when we are going through a tough time. Like a radio whose dial has broken off and thus always plays the same station, God is always related to the created order through love. It never stops. It never changes. And that love might seem like empathetic, sympathetic, compassionate co-suffering, but it’s not. But with Jesus all of that is different. Jesus is compassionate. He does weep at the grave of his friend Lazarus. He does look out on the crowd and feel moved in his bowels at their shepherdless state. And that’s a remarkable thing.

Whether or not you believe that God is compassionate, at least stop for a moment and consider how amazing it is that the incarnate Son of God is moved with pity for us and for the whole human race. God shows his love for us in human form so that God’s love might inhabit our own miserable state of affairs. The power of the incarnation, therefore, is even more clearly expressed by the unfathomable mystery that the almighty, unchanging, completely-other God is found in human likeness—suffering and all.

Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote about compassion and questioned whether compassion might transcend politics. In the best moments, it can, and it does. But, too often, even compassion fails to break through. He didn’t ask it, but I will—why do we care so much more about Gaza than Syria? What is the disconnect between our broken-heartedness at Columbine or Sandy Hook and our nation’s gun policy?


What does it mean for us to believe in a God who sent his son to the world in human form in order that God himself might take on the very brokenness of humanity so that our brokenness might be transformed into wholeness? What does it mean for us to believe that the answer we seek is found in a God who inhabits our suffering? What does it mean for us to believe that the messy, emotional state of compassion is at the core of our faith? Through Christ we discover that God is not aloof but is love. Then why is the world so short on compassion?

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