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The Christadelphian | August 2009

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial Fellowship in the Gospel: 12 – When does fellowship cease?
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “Compassion” | Alan Watkins
  • Sabbath psalm | Geoff Henstock
  • The early chapters of Proverbs | Trevor A. Pritchard
  • Another look at Judas Iscariot | Dudley Fifield
  • Acts of the Apostles 29 – Acts 26:24-27:6 – Departing from Caesarea | Paul Cresswell
  • The Letter to the Philippians 8 – “Beware of the concision” (Philippians 3:1-7) | Mark Allfree
  • Pause and ponder 31 – “Ecclesial harmony and worship” | Stephen Whitehouse
  • The flesh wars against the spirit | Peter Forbes
  • Signs of the times Negative views about Europe
  • Israel and their land Israeli warships in the Red Sea
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

Sunday morning

“Compassion”

THERE is a passage in 1 Samuel 23 which tells us of an occasion when the Ziphites came to Saul to betray David, who was hiding in a wood in their territory. Saul’s response to them is, “Blessed be ye of the Lord; for ye have compassion on me” (verse 21). We might not think that Saul was a very worthy object of compassion, engaged as he was in the frantic and obsessive pursuit of David. But it is the word Saul uses. By now he is quite unstable and is feeling sorry for himself. Compassion is hardly the word we would have chosen to use of feelings towards Saul, but its appearance in this context reminds us that sometimes the same word is used to reflect different ideas. Here the original is a word which means ‘to take trouble for’ or ‘to be kind to’.

Sometimes the word ‘compassion’ has a different force and reflects a different original. It occurs in Peter’s exhortation: “Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous” (1 Peter 3:8). Here it is a more intense word, appropriate to the feelings of brethren and sisters towards one another. The original gives us our word ‘sympathise’ and essentially means ‘to suffer with’. It is the same idea that the apostle uses when he says in Hebrews 10:34, “For ye had compassion of me in my bonds”. Here it is literally ‘suffering with’, to the extent of sharing the feelings and experiences of the apostle. ‘Empathise’ is probably the word we would use today.

“Jesus … was moved with compassion”

When we find the word ‘compassion’ in the Gospels, however, we come to something different and more profound. Certainly the word for ‘taking pity on’ or ‘being kind to’ is evident in the Gospels – in the parable of the two debtors, for example, where the servant who had been forgiven a huge debt immediately demands full repayment of the insignificant amount he is owed by a fellow servant. “Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?” (Matthew 18:33).

Yet that is not the concept of compassion that we associate with our Lord. In Matthew 14:14 we read, “And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick”. It is a moment of great poignancy. Jesus had just received what must have been one of the bitterest blows of the early part of his ministry, the execution of John the Baptist; and when he hears it he wants a little time apart to mourn and meditate (verse 13). He departs by boat to another part of the lake, but the people, scarcely aware of what had happened and certainly not understanding, follow him on foot. Jesus, his own feelings set aside, is moved with compassion when he sees them.

Mark’s account amplifies the incident for us. There had been no leisure so much as to eat. The disciples not only conveyed the news about John, but they had been out on their first preaching commission and they wanted to tell him what they had accomplished. And in all this Jesus was moved with compassion towards the multitude, “because they were as sheep not having a shepherd” (Mark 6:31-34).

The word which the Gospel writers use here is remarkable. It literally speaks of the inner parts of a person, the internal organs. Thus in the AV we come across curious phrases like “bowels of mercies” or “bowels of compassion”. Paul uses similar expressions, as in the letter to Philemon: “Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord” (verse 20). The NIV helpfully renders this, “Refresh my heart in Christ”. In the ancient world people thought of the internal organs as the source of the deepest of our emotions: anger, fear, melancholy, love etc. It is interesting to reflect on the fact that in our own modern culture we retain the idea in “the heart” when we want to refer to those emotions which – like love – affect us most profoundly and personally.

It is not difficult to appreciate from this, and from our Lord’s reaction, that the expression “moved with compassion” refers to no ordinary pity or sympathy, but rather to an emotion of great force and depth. It is the most powerful word which the scriptures have for the feeling of compassion. It is used almost exclusively in the synoptic Gospels, and, except for three parables, it is always used of Jesus himself. In the parables it is used of “a certain king” who had compassion on the servant who was unable to pay the enormous debt which he owed: “Then the Lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18:27). It is used of the compassion which a father felt for his prodigal son: “But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). It is used also of the Samaritan who went to the aid of a wounded man on the road to Jericho, “and when he saw him, he had compassion on him” (Luke 10:33).

Together, these parables present a picture of our own situation, and they illustrate the fact that the feeling of compassion does not and cannot exist by itself – in an isolated or detached way. It always has a cause or an object, and it always has an effect or a consequence. In the first case the king was moved by the plight of a servant who had a debt of such magnitude that he would never be able to repay it, and it resulted in the cancellation – the total removal – of that debt. The father, far from remonstrating with his son or being critical of his wayward behaviour, recognised the change of heart and repentant spirit which had brought his son back home, and welcomed him unreservedly. The Samaritan, seeing a man in desperate need, attended to that need personally and ensured that everything was provided for the man’s restoration and rehabilitation.

Our own position

The relevance to our own position, our helplessness and the desperate situation from which we have been rescued is self-evident. It is this, and the means of our salvation, that we come to remember week by week in bread and wine. It is also a reminder to us that compassion like this has to have a consequence. It gives added significance to “being a good Samaritan” or a good neighbour. And whenever we think about this parable we hear our Lord’s challenging imperative: “Go, and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:37).

It also brings firmly to mind that which James is at pains to point out: that loving our neighbour as ourself is the royal law of scripture; that our faith doesn’t exist in isolation or, as it were, in a vacuum. It has to find its expression in our works, in the sort of people we are and in the things we do. James’ cogent illustration is, “If a brother or a sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” (James 2:15,16).

What a contrast with our Lord Jesus Christ. He was moved with compassion when he saw the multitudes because they fainted and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd (Matthew 9:36; Mark 6:34). He was moved with compassion when he saw the needs of the crowds who had followed him to a desert place, and when he saw the hunger of those who had continued with him three days (Matthew 14:14; 15:32; Mark 8:2). The same expression is used of our Lord when he is moved by the suffering of the leper (Mark 1:41), and the darkness of the two blind men (Matthew 20:34). It speaks of the Lord’s feelings towards the widow at Nain who had lost her only son (Luke 7:13); and of the appeal of the distraught man with an epileptic son, whose plea was that Jesus should have compassion on him (Mark 9:22).

All these incidents show us what it was that moved Jesus so profoundly. He saw the desperate need of the crowds, which translates into the lack of direction, the want of spiritual awareness of people in general. He didn’t reject them as the products of their own folly or waywardness. He saw them rather as having lost their way and needing to be healed, restored and brought back to God – a harvest to be reaped (Matthew 9:36-38).

Jesus was affected by the suffering of people. The sight of hungry, tired people, the appeal of a blind or leprous person, moved him to compassion. The people who followed him when he wanted to be apart were not to him an intrusion or a nuisance: they were people whom he must help. And he never failed to be involved with their problems. We think a good deal about Jesus’ ‘wholesome contagion’ whereby virtue went out from him and he was able to reverse the corrupting process of sickness and disease. We emphasize rather less the total readiness of our Lord to make personal contact with those who were in need, however unpleasant or isolating their condition. Never did he regard those who suffered with indifference. When he encountered the funeral procession at Nain Jesus did not remain detached. He was not merely sympathetic: he identified himself with the widow, and her sorrow became his sorrow. This great word ‘compassion’ teaches us that our Lord was willing fully to enter into the experience of men and women, with all their frailties and all their failings, and, filled with compassion, was able to heal and restore.

And what of us? We are not merely the recipients and the beneficiaries of his compassion, brethren and sisters who have felt the Master’s healing touch. We are his disciples, his followers. We are those who seek to let this mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus. We cannot remain indifferent to need. The difficulty is that following our Lord along these paths is not at all easy. Some of us, perhaps, are more compassionate by nature than others. Some of us are not good in situations of need and are not sure how to handle them, so perhaps we think it best not to get involved: leave it to those who are trained or experienced in these things. But compassion needs to have its effect, its outward expression. It is seldom a matter of heroics. It is often just a cup of cold water!

There must be many situations in life in which just a little more than mere sympathy could achieve so much. Certainly it is good to express our sympathy on appropriate occasions: we do so naturally and we can do it with a word or a card, with a letter or with flowers. But we cannot express compassion in this way. To feel compassion is a much more comprehensive and moving experience in which we are involved and impelled to action. Significantly, seeing is always associated with compassion. How many times do the scriptures recall that “when he saw … he was moved with compassion”. It is as if recognition of need not only generates compassion but carries with it a responsibility, the outcome of which is action. Again, words of James, written in a different context, come to mind: “To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).

A God who can save

There is another aspect of compassion. Throughout the Old Testament a vivid contrast is drawn between the gods of the surrounding nations – who had neither senses nor feelings – and the God of Israel who is the Creator and sustainer of all things, who therefore knows us intimately and cares for us. He is a God who can save. The Psalmist frequently praises and extols Him as a God of mercy and compassion: “The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy” (Psalm 145:8); a God who does not deal with us as we deserve, but who exercises mercy and clemency; a God of love whose concern with the sadness of the human situation moved Him with compassion, and that had its expression in the giving of His only Son to be a “propitiation for our sins”. His Son was moved with compassion by our waywardness, our lack of spiritual direction and our need of redemption. His compassion was expressed in the giving up of his life in the worst imaginable way before rising to glory. And this is what we come to remember week by week.

Alan watkins

 

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