“Jesus saw a great crowd and he had compassion for them.”
Compassion. It’s at the core of who Jesus is. Time and time again in the gospels we hear of Jesus’ compassion — for the crowds who have gathered to see and hear him, for lepers and others who are sick, for those on the margins of society.
Jesus looks at all of them with compassion. He sees them. He feels their needs and pain. He stands in solidarity with them, and acts to bring them healing.
Pope Francis calls compassion “the language of God.”
“Compassion is an essential character of God’s mercy,” he says. “God has compassion on us. He suffers with us. He feels our suffering.”
Compassion is more than sympathy or empathy. Compassion literally means “to suffer with” — to enter into another’s pain.
Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen writes that, “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish.
“Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears.
“Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
Compassion has not always been at the forefront of our culture. We’ve had leaders who mock the pain of others, and encourage their followers to do the same; who are indifferent to suffering and think compassion is a sign of weakness.
Perhaps as a backlash to this cruelty we now see compassion in some of our leaders.
I think of Pope Francis, who exudes compassion, after some of his recent predecessors were seen as cold and rule bound.
On the first Maundy Thursday of Francis’ tenure, he made headlines by going to a center for asylum seekers in Rome and washing and kissing the feet of Muslim and Hindu migrants, at a time when they were viewed with suspicion and fear.
Predictably this action brought criticism from many in the church hierarchy, but Francis replied, “We are all children of the same God.”
One of the appeals of President Biden, is that he, too, is a man of compassion. He looks at the American people with compassion, he allows himself to be vulnerable, to share his own pain to enter into the pain of others, and look for ways to ease their suffering — to acknowledge the grief caused by the pandemic, to care about those living in poverty.
We saw the opposite of compassion on display this spring in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd.
The shock was not only that a black man was killed by a white police officer, but in the way Floyd was murdered.
As the video of that day showed the world, Chauvin showed no compassion as he pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck, no compassion as Floyd cried for help. The enduring image is of Chauvin with his hands in his pockets, his knee on Floyd’s neck, looking bored and indifferent as Floyd’s life drained away beneath him.
As Christians we are called to lives of compassion. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. There are opportunities all around us, if we just pay attention.
A story of an 11-year-old boy in Utah exemplifies Christian compassion. Once a month Taylor Meehan went with his mother to serve meals to people with no home.
One cold, snowy January night as Taylor brought food to one man, he noticed the man shivering from the cold. He had an old, thin coat, and shoes with gaping holes in them.
When Taylor saw this he went to the supply room to look for extra shoes. All he could find was a pair of fuzzy pink slippers. With slippers in hand, he ran back to the shivering man and got down on his knees next to the man’s feet. He stuck his own feet out and pressed them against the man’s. “Look, mine are about the same size as yours!” he said,
Taylor gently pulled off the man’s torn up shoes, then took off his own brand new basketball sneakers. He felt the cold of the man’s feet as he pulled dry socks over them, and carefully put the new warm shoes on them, then sat with the man as he ate his dinner.
The rest of that night Taylor happily wore the fuzzy pink slippers.
The compassion of Jesus lived in that young boy on that cold Utah night. He noticed someone who was suffering, reached out to him in love, sat with him, and did what he could to relieve the suffering.
Yes, the man was still homeless. He would still be cold on other nights. But he was noticed, acknowledged as a fellow child of God, offered love and kindness and hope.
This young boy was able to love like Jesus.
But we also need to remember that Jesus’ compassion was not easy amid the empires and institutions of his day. Compassion and institutions do not always coexist easily — in government, in corporations, and even in the church.
Our attempts at being compassionate in our world and nation may encounter resistance. It may not be encouraged by the powers that be. Compassion, in Jesus’ time and in our time, is a grace from God.