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The Person of Jesus is at the heart of Christianity. And we know about him principally from the Gospels. Who he was conditions everything he said and did. He was declared ‘to be moved with compassion’ on several occasions. To try to understand this compassion is our present quest. Because he mirrored exactly the way the eternal God always is we study every disposition of the public life of Jesus as recorded in history. He is normative for us in our understanding the true nature of being a fully flourishing human being.
A Background Help
We have been putting on medical conferences in Rome and elsewhere for some years. We organise the lectures under four headings: The Four C’s. These are foundational especially for teaching and health engagement: Competence, conviction, community and compassion. If we check out what we know of Jesus under these four rubrics we get a very positive result. Jesus is presented from the beginning in the Gospel as teaching, preaching and healing. And he knew what he was doing as something totally reflective of his Father’s being. His teaching style, reflected especially in his parables, is illustrative of his competence as a teacher. He knew perfectly what he wanted to say, he knew how to say it, and he respected totally the competence of those who listened to him.
The Our Father (Mt 6:9f.)
Teaching the Our Father to his disciples is an unsurpassed instance of his competence and conviction, of his sense of community and of his compassion. The very word father indicates love and all that love involves. Jesus exhibits a most positive picture of father in the Gospels. An ordinary father really deeply cares for his children- would he give them a snake when they asked for a fish (Mt 7:10)? Would he be indifferent when a son goes off and makes a mess of his life? (Lk 15:11ff.). Would anyone know the father better than the son or the son better than the father? (Mt 11:25-7). The father tells the son everything. Does the son relate with the father trustfully? Not my will but thine be done (Mt 26:39). When a father asks Jesus to heal his son –even when the father is a gentile- Jesus replies positively (Mt 8:5ff.). Good parents manifest human relationships at their very best. Loving relations are fundamental in the life of Jesus- even when one has to leave father and mother and labour for the sake of the kingdom (Mt 5:35ff.).
Conviction: The kingdom of God is close at hand.
This is the language of the prophet. And Jesus described himself as a prophet. A prophet is not despised except in his own country, among his own family and in his own home (Mk 6:4ff.). A prophet is the man of supreme conviction. One does not dialogue with prophets. They proclaim; they declare. Not to listen to them is to be condemned. They are the supreme traditionalists: monotheism, morality and messianism. These three words map the Old Testament prophetic experience, and accompany election, covenant and salvation as the essence of the self-understanding of the chosen race.
Now as we see the way Jesus lived his life we can see that people approached him for help because he could help. He was competent. They asked for help because he could give it and they knew it. They also knew that such help would strengthen their social life- their human relationships were an essential part of their flourishing. Without it none could exist. This is most obvious in village life. All work together- sharing manpower and labour and tools, and the collective sense of joy and relief when the harvest comes in, when the crops are collected and saved. There is no rivalry here; it is a common commitment. Just a sense of gratitude as all together work together for the same goal. This is attested everywhere. In such a community the poorer folk are not deprived. The orphans and widows get a share of what has been collectively achieved. That was rural society then and until relatively recently in all agricultural communities. The industrial revolution changed al that. But that then was the world Jesus was brought up in. Social involvement was essential to it.
This word is reserved for the way that suffering human beings relate with each other. One can pity an animal for the way it is treated. One cannot have compassion for it. Such would destroy the essential difference between fellow human beings and animals. The difference makes all the difference. Compassion is sharing the suffering with another human being. It involves all that is conscious and societal and communitarian in human relationships. We do not talk of compassion among animals. Compassion is a word reserved uniquely and exclusively for relationships between human beings. It is totally and entirely personal. This must never be forgotten.
Compassionate- A Description of Jesus
It seems that in the Synoptic Gospels ‘to feel compassion’ [splangnizesthai] is a verb found only as a characteristic of Jesus himself or when he puts it on the lips of people in his parables, cf. Mt 18:23-5; Lk 10:33; Lk 15:20 (TWNT VII 553f.). Jesus is the Messiah in whom there is instantiated the divine compassion of the Heavenly Father, the God of Israel. Mercy is an attribute of God himself. Shakespeare had got it entirely right. ‘The quality of mercy is not strained …it is (should be) enthroned in the heart of kings’ (The Merchant of Venice, IV,1,193). That attitude is attested at Mk 6:34 where Jesus himself is full of compassion on seeing the crowd like sheep without a shepherd, and because of that he multiplied the loaves and fishes to feed them. At Mt 20:34 he is moved with compassion at the condition of the two blind men asking him to have pity on them. A most touching case is the leper at Mk 1:41 where Jesus, being moved with compassion, put out his hand and touched him and healed him. At Mk 9:22 Jesus is moved with compassion when faced with the distraught father whose deranged son the disciples were not able to cure. We find also that at Lk 7:13 Jesus was moved with compassion in Nain and brought the widow’s son back to life.
The creative compassion of Jesus is articulated with this disposition. He is not only presented as sharing profound human feelings with everyone else, but he can change situations because of them. Our evangelists seem to say they are attributes of God himself lived out humanly in his Messiah. They do not say anyone else shares the sentiments in the same way. But it is obvious that Jesus recognizes the importance of these sentiments since he puts them as defining qualities in his principle characters in the parables. These feel compassion and act on the feeling they experience. Putting it simply we are talking the language of love. And love at its profoundest is identification with the person evoking in us these sentiments. It is deeper than personal acquaintance. It is a statement about humanity itself, suffering humanity in its greatest need. Then compassionate does something about it. Even though it may seem to be very little.
I recall being on a boat on the Mediterranean in 1965, just off Alexandria. A very emaciated black man in the simplest of white garb staggered up the gangplank into steerage class, with his only good arm steadying a green steel coffer on his shoulder, the other arm had been amputated at the elbow. There was a little French boy called Philippe on our first class deck. He immediately scampered down the stairwell into steerage, and kissed the sad man he had seen for the very first time, bringing a smile to his face. Competence- able to show love- conviction, community, compassion. It was all played out in the seemingly simple gesture of an eleven year old boy who expressed in symbol what we all agreed expressed our humanity at its best.
Help from St.Paul
Nobody was ever more personal in relationships than St. Paul. He uses the word compassion, now that he is converted, to express what Christ is all about. He often speaks about being moved profoundly in his care for his converts. By this he means his whole and heart and soul is engaged fully for their peace and happiness. This is nowhere expressed more poignantly than in the case of the escaped slave that he is sending back to Onesimus his owner. His visceral commitment [splangtha-plural] is involved –his whole being heart and soul. Once again he is doing something about his emotions. It is not just sentiment without commitment; it is heart and soul engagement in the interest of others. And here he is following Christ. For Paul Christ had a human face, who was in the form of God, (who in the Old Testament is full of mercy and compassion, slow to anger and abounding in love (Cf. Pss.78:38; 86:15;111:4;112:4;145:8). He mirrors the Father’s heart, and changing the world by his words and actions, supremely by his death and resurrection. He is the perfect image of God (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15).
Most people are appalled at the lack of compassion. Stalin’s atrocities, Hitler’s atrocities, The Killing Fields in Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi- where does it stop? Recently we have been presented with the history of girls taken captive in the USA and Austria, and human trafficking on an unparalleled scale since the slave trade was abolished. How can people so treat others? How can people forget this basic element in human relationships? But we have the antidote presented to us regularly in our Christian tradition: Founders and foundresses of religious orders, NGO’s, a plethora of organisations to help the under-privileged. The poor you will always have with you (Jn 12:7). There is no paradise here on earth- mitigating the pain is as much as most people can do. Augmenting the pain nobody should do.
Compassion is not obsolete. It is part of our nature. We cannot live in a world without it. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy- may Almighty God have mercy on us. Forgive us our sins, and lead us to life everlasting. Amen.
Rev Richard J. Taylor
Spiritual Advisor, MaterCare
Symposium, Health & Salvation: Compassion & Creativity January 6th – 11th 2014
Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, UK