Compassion A Word for Today
Has the word "compassion" disappeared from our vocabulary? People "give breaks," "let things slide," and "look the other way," but is anyone truly compassionate today? Yes Someone is. He not only has compassion in His vocabulary but for our life.
As words go, the English word "compassion" is quite ordinary. It comes from the Latin meaning "to suffer along with someone." The Greek word on the other hand is a graphic word, but you wouldn't know it from the tepid, blase way Bible translators render it: "compassion," "sympathy," "pity." The verb splagchnizomai comes from the plural form of the Greek word for spleen. In the plural, it didn't just refer to the spleen but to all the internal organs: heart, lungs, liver, and kidney as opposed to the entrails. In Jewish and Greek thought compassion arose from the noble, internal organs.
Is that really such a strange idea? Don't we have expressions that give that impression? Isn't the fireman carrying the child out of the Oklahoma City bombing "a heard breaking sight?" Didn't you have a "gut-wrenching" feeling when the World Trade Centers fell? Even in your day to day life don't you sometimes feel your stomach churn or have butterflies there? The Greek splagchnizomai captures this, but only the King James Version conveys it. It uses such colorful phrases as "bowels of compassion" or "bowels of mercy." See the depth of emotion?
The Holy Spirit could have used other Greek words to express the feeling Jesus had for the crowd, but they aren't as blunt, forceful, or rough. Splagchnizomai rivets our attention on the depth of Jesus' feelings. The other Greek words would've highlighted the condition of the crowd not Jesus. The Holy Spirit wants us to focus on Jesus not the crowd. The graphic word splagchnizomai does that.
"Compassion" is not just a graphic word; it's a dangerous word even in English. Having compassion in a fallen world makes you vulnerable. In a way it's like having a spleen. The spleen is located in a prime spot for blunt trauma just under your rib cage on the left side. Just a few years ago NFL quarterback Chris Simms suffered a ruptured spleen while diving into the end zone. Maybe the Greeks used a word derived from the plural of spleen to express the fact that having compassion leaves you vulnerable. What happened to Jesus' shows this truth.
Our text says Jesus had compassion for the crowd because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Disregarding His disciples' need for rest, disregarding His need to mourn the murder of John the Baptist which had just happened, Jesus began shepherding the crowd by teaching them. Next week we'll read that Jesus became concerned for their lack of food and fed over 5,000 of them. Later on this summer, we'll read that the majority of the crowd Jesus had compassion on turned against Him.
If "love hurts" compassion hurts worse. Being compassionate is dangerous. You risk abuse, misuse, and getting grimy. The Levite and the Priest who passed by the man just robbed, walked away clean. The Good Samaritan got his garments bloody and his hands dirty. He probably hurt his back putting the wounded man across his mule. You know what I'm saying is true. If you have compassion on the smelly and dirty, you'll end up sullied and stinking.
So we try to insulate our delicate organ called compassion. We use our intellect saying, "You can't help every one, can you?" We use blinders to "see no evil," so the dangerous but delicate compassion has no chance to arise in our heart. But there's danger also in not having compassion even as there is not having a spleen. You can live without a spleen free of the worry of ever injuring it, but you have a higher than normal risk of contracting serious or even life-threatening diseases. Likewise, by living compassion-free you won't get dirty or hurt, but your spiritual life is at risk.
Compassion is a graphic word, a dangerous word, and a divine word. I mean more than compassion is a quality of God's. In the Gospels this blunt, rough, gutsy word is used only to describe Christ and Christ-like people in parables. The master who forgives the enormous debt, the prodigal son's father, the Good Samaritan all had splagchnizomai. Isn't this startling? This very human word which strikes a cord deep in our body describes how our God and Lord feels toward us! The feeling that churns deep within us rumbling up from our stomach, to our heart, and into our throat when our loved one is hurting and needs help is how God in Christ feels toward us!
Jesus has compassion for you when He sees you in need. When the apostles returned elated but tired, Jesus called them to come away and rest. When the spiritual need of the crowd became apparent, His heart went out even more so to them, and He taught these spiritually starving sheep. Such a God we have in Christ. "A God full of compassion and grace," says Ps. 86. A Lord who "is gracious and full of compassion" according to Psalm 111.
It's even better than this. Our God has compassion on us even when the mess is our fault. This point is often missed by self-reliant Americans who live by the dictum, "You made your bed; now lie in it." There is truth to this. Our sinful acts do have consequences that we have to live with, but our Lord has more compassion that we have sins. Jesus tells us He sends His rain on the believer and the unbeliever, on the hardened sinner and the forgiven one. Psalm 78 says that although Israel continually rebelled against the Lord and did not listen to His Word, "He being full of compassion did not destroy them." And Lamentations 3 tells us that it is because the Lord's compassion does not fail that we are not consumed by His wrath.
When we think the Lord can't be compassionate to us because of our many sins, we are making the Lord in our image. Actually, we're making Him worse than our image. Doesn't a sinful mother have compassion on her kids even when they sin? Does a fallen father's heart only go out to his kids when they fall down through no fault of their own? Surely the God who is love incarnate has no less compassion for His straying sheep than a sinful parent has for their straying children.
Indeed, Jesus has much more. He is like a nurse named Hulda who worked in a hospital for the insane in England. A 12-year-old girl was admitted who had been abused physically, verbally, and emotionally by her parents all her life. She would let no one come near her without violently attacking them screaming profanity at them as she did. Hulda went into this girl's room for two weeks a full hour at a time. The girl would kick, claw, pound, and curse Hulda until she had no more strength and collapsed on the floor. Then the bloodied and bruised Hulda would bend down and say over and over to her, "Darling, I love you."
Though our sins left Jesus bloodied and beaten on the cross; though our sins caused Him immeasurable pain and suffering; though our sins caused His damnation and death, Jesus still has compassion on us and says over and over again from the Font, the Pulpit, and Altar, "Darling, I love you." Isaiah 54:10 says that God's compassion is more enduring than the mountains. That's because His compassion for us is rooted in another mountain: Mount Cavalry. The blood Jesus poured out there washed away any reason God had for not helping us From God's point of view through Jesus there are no sins left for Him to say, "You did them; now lie in them." Sure our sins have contributed to the mess we find ourselves in probably more ways than we know. But Jesus doesn't say to us, "Clean up the mess first, and then I'll help." On the contrary, Jesus invites us, begs us, commands us, "Come to Me all you are heavy laden and I will give you rest."
Compassion is a graphic, dangerous, divine word, and it is a word for today. 18th century Irish poet Jonathon Swift said, "It is wonderful with what patience some folks can endure the suffering of others." This is me. My lack of compassion flows from the thought that much of the suffering I see is a result of people's own sins and the sins accepted by our society, but don't you see? This takes me back to the cross. We've known first hand Jesus' compassion even in the midst of our sins. He didn't have compassion on us because we deserved it. We didn't, but He still did. This changes us, moves us, empower us. Reborn as a new creature in our Baptisms; raised from the death of sin by Absolution; bodied and bloodied to Jesus in Communion makes us different.
Jesus had compassion on us not once we became His sheep but while we were still wild dogs biting any hand that tried to help us. Christ-like compassion comes from what Christ did on the cross and does in Word and Sacraments, not from what a person who needs help did or does. I know where you're going because I go there too. We really can't help everyone, and giving money to homeless people isn't compassionate if they go and use it to buy booze or drugs. We don't want to be "bleeding heart" liberals, but we don't want to harden our hearts to the blood that flowed freely for us from the heart of Jesus either.
This is the dilemma Christians have always faced in this fallen world where compassion is misused and the compassionate suffer abuse. I can't tell you what is the right or even compassionate thing to do in every situation. I only know that while our world has pity, sympathy, and even compassion for people caught in tragedies through no fault of their own, it doesn't know the divine compassion that loves and mercies people despite their sins. We do. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (20090802); Mark 6: 30-34