The Labor of Compassion

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 16
July 18, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Compassion is a way of seeing, of feeling, of seeing again, and then of doing.

Imagine that you're walking down a city street. And there, sitting on the pavement, is a ragged man. He holds out a dirty hand, muttering something about a dollar to buy some food.

Your eyes meet briefly, but then you look away. You change course slightly, avoiding the outstretched hand. As you pass, he mutters, "What's the matter, don't you have any compassion?"

A snarky reply, to be sure. Most big-city panhandlers are more diplomatic than that. But it would still be a disturbing encounter for any of us. Whether or not we've ever been the target of such a taunting question, haven't we asked it of ourselves? It's a challenge we all face: how to act compassionately in a world where there's so much need.

A noble virtue

Compassion is among the noblest of human qualities. The word makes us think of the best the human race has to offer, of people who give of themselves so others may live. Some of us may even think of compassion as one of the marks of being human.

Yet, if we look at what compassion really means, we'll discover it's not so common at all. If we're truly honest with ourselves, we'll admit compassion is a high bar we often fail to clear.

You may object: "I do feel compassion. Whenever I hear a TV news report about starving African children or the homeless in our cities, I feel sorry for those people."

That may well be, but compassion is more than just feeling sorry.

Feeling a twinge of pity for people in need is commendable, but it's not compassion. It's sympathy. It's like the cards we send to friends who've lost loved ones: "My deepest sympathy is with you in your time of sorrow." Sympathy is a beautiful thing and goes a long way toward soothing the hurts and pains of life. But sympathy doesn't cost very much: the price of a greeting card or maybe a fleeting moment to type some kind words into a social media feed.

Jesus Christ expects more of us, his disciples, than sympathetic feelings. He expects compassion.

Compassion was the hallmark of his life. Time and again the gospel writers tell of Jesus' encounters with people in need: lepers, paralytics, parents who'd lost children. Jesus sees them and he feels compassion. When he sees the crowd in today's scripture lesson, stumbling around "like sheep without a shepherd," he feels compassion for them. In the verses that follow today's passage, when thousands show up to hear him teach, and they need something to eat, he feels compassion for them also, and he lives it. He feeds the people, multiplying a couple of fish into a meal for all.

Gut-wrenching love

The Greek word commonly translated "compassion" - splagthizomai - is an uncommon word in the New Testament. The only person described as having splagthizomai is Jesus. Others in the New Testament are said to love, to heal, to help the poor, but only Jesus is said to feel splagthizomai . Even in Colossians 3:12, where Paul urges, "clothe yourselves with compassion," that's a rendering of a different Greek word, and we get the sense that we can only do so as children who try on their parents' clothing. Compassion doesn't quite fit us.

Yet, Paul does urge us to put compassion on.

There are steps we can follow to get to that place where we can do so. Scripture tells how Jesus goes through these steps as he heals, feeds or teaches someone in need.

The first step is to see : to notice the need around us. The second is to feel : to suffer with the person who's in need. The third is to see again : to see not only the circumstances of suffering, but to see the potential in the situation, envisioning how the person can rise above the circumstances. The fourth and final step is to act : to translate compassionate vision and feelings into transforming action.

A compassionate eye

It's obvious: we'll never be compassionate unless we first see the need around us. But seeing is hard when there's so much inclination to practice selective vision. "Don't worry, be happy," as the classic reggae tune puts it. With pleasure-seeking choruses like that thrumming in our brains, we find it hard to linger over a sad news item on our Facebook feed before scrolling down to something more lighthearted. It's easier, sometimes, to simply pretend we don't notice.

That's what the snarky panhandler was talking about when he asked, "don't you have any compassion?" He was calling us out on our failure to see, to notice him as a person.

People who've known hard times, who've had to resort to panhandling, often say that the worst part is the feeling of others looking right through them, treating them as less than human.

A compassionate heart

The second step is to feel. It's not so easy either. That same Greek verb that means "to feel compassion" is very earthy. It's related to the word for internal organs, the viscera. (Thus, the old King James Version renders Colossians 3:12 as putting on "bowels of mercies.") Those who feel compassion experience that emotion deep within. Compassion is gut-wrenching love.

Christian novelist Frederick Buechner once described compassion as "the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it's like to live inside somebody else's skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too."1

What makes compassion so difficult is that it threatens our emotional equilibrium. The English word "compassion" literally means "passion with." And there's nothing peaceful about passion. Fans of romance novels think "passion" means an overwhelming force of emotion. It's Rhett Butler sweeping Scarlett O'Hara off her feet. But in its oldest, truest sense, "passion" means suffering. We preserve that meaning when we speak of Passion Week: the week of Jesus' suffering. To feel compassion for others is to share their suffering.

Buechner says compassion is a sometimes fatal capacity: and so it was for Jesus. For us, at the very least, it's risky and painful: this participating in another's suffering.

Compassion re-visioned

The next step after sharing the pain felt by another, is to see once again. This is a new, creative vision of the possible.

In today's scripture, Jesus feels compassion for that wildly disorganized mob, harassed and helpless, but he also has a vision for what they can become. Thus, he begins to teach them.

That's the sort of visionary Jesus is: he can look at people in need and see a whole person.

It is this kind of vision that flourished in a 6-year-old named Ruby Bridges. Psychologist Robert Coles, who counseled her at the time, describes how Ruby became famous as the young African-American girl who, in 1958, was the center of a court-ordered school integration case in New Orleans. Each day, Ruby was picked up at her home by Federal marshals and escorted to school. Each day, she passed hecklers at the schoolyard gate who shouted cruel things at her, things like "You don't deserve to live" and "You're worse than an animal."

One day, Coles heard that Ruby had been talking to the crowd. He asked her what it was she said. "I wasn't talking to them," Ruby said. "I was praying for them. They need praying for."

"They do?"' asked Dr. Coles, incredulously.

"Yes,"' Ruby answered. "That's what God would want me to do."2

At the tender age of 6, what a vision she had!

Compassion in action

There's a final stage in Christian compassion: action. It's how we translate our new visioning into daily living.

The Jesus we see in the scriptures never stops with feelings and vision. He always moves on to act. He sees, he feels, he sees more deeply - and then he acts. Jesus reaches out his hand, saying, "Take up your bed and walk." He makes a paste out of mud and smears it on a blind man's eyes so his blindness is removed. He looks up at the despised tax-collector Zacchaeus and says, "Yes, I'll be glad to accept your dinner invitation!" He stops on his way to an urgent errand, saying, "Someone touched me; I felt power go out of me."

In Matthew 10:8, Jesus gives a hint of a way we can orient ourselves to act compassionately. After commissioning his followers for works of healing, he says, "You received without payment; [now] give without payment." Jesus is reminding the disciples to remember who they are - sinners - and he's telling them to live close to their God, without whose freely given forgiveness they can hardly be said to live.

The best way to live compassionately is to live confessionally: confessing that God is the only one with power to turn lives around, ours or anyone else's; confessing that only God can give us the power and perseverance to chip away at the mountains of human need.

It's been said that "Prayer is the very beat of a compassionate heart" - and how can prayer begin other than with confession of our past failures and our present utter dependence on God's grace?

May God grant that each of us will discover anew the good news of the gospel: and that from it, we will draw strength for this Christlike labor of compassion!