Each time we hear readings from the Hebrew Testament (Old Testament), it takes a little more work to get into them than do the Jesus stories, which are more familiar to us. But let us see if Jeremiah, who lived 600 years before Jesus, has something to tell us.
Jeremiah prophesied at a time when his country, Judah, was about to fall to the enemy, the Babylonians. The leaders of Judah instead of turning to and renewing their trust in God, decided to turn to Egypt in the hopes that with the help of Egypt’s military power, they might be able to turn back the Babylonians. It did not work, and Judah was invaded; the people were deported. It was a disaster. I paraphrase his warning: “Woe to the shepherds who have been poor leaders, who have divided people rather than bringing people together. Woe to you leaders who spend your money on arms buildup rather than feeding the poor. Despite the fact that you have turned from God, God will still raise up a real Shepherd from the branch of David.” We read that as Jesus who was an ancestor of King David. Jesus is going to be a real shepherd, the compassionate one, the one who brings people together in God’s name, that is, in the name of truth, justice, love, and mercy.
What does it mean to call Jesus the compassionate One? And what does compassion look like in our own lives?
Firstly, before we can give compassion away, we have to learn to be accept compassion in our own lives. We each have to accept God’s compassion in our own suffering and failures and be transformed by it before we can offer it to others. Yet, in the face of God’s unconditional love and mercy, many of us still think we have to earn God’s compassion, which is not true at all. If it is earned, it must be given out on the condition that we have done enough to earn it. That’s the downfall where compassion gets tripped up. We falsely think: If I’m not deserving of God’s graciousness, then that person over there—who is clearly not as morally upright as I am—also, is not deserving of God’s grace either. Compassion goes nowhere, if I first cannot accept God’s compassion in my own life. Without it, life just become a dog-eat-dog world where I have to convince myself that I am more worthy of God’s compassion than you. The truth is: God is always gracious and compassionate toward us no matter who we are or what we have done. God’s graciousness and compassion is not a tap that gets turned on or off on the condition of whether we deserve it or not. In that sense, we should never speak of losing the state of grace, for God never stops being gracious and compassionate toward us. In the world of compassion–God’s compassion–you are always in a state of grace! Always. Nothing you do nor anything you have ever done can take you out of God’s grace.
A second thing we learn about compassion is that it constantly overcomes division. The very moment you exercise compassion towards someone else– regardless of whether they deserve it or not–immediately the bond between you and that person is strengthened. Compassion is something other than pity. The gospels never tell us that Jesus pitied people, but it tells us many times that Jesus had compassion on them for they were like sheep without a shepherd. Pity keeps a safe distance, it risks nothing, and at worse can be condescending. I can give money to someone on the street in downtown Moncton but never look that person in the eye, talk to him, or even ask him his name. My money replaces my personal attention and gives me an excuse to carry on with my usual business. Compassion come from the prefix “com” which means “with” and “passion” which means “to suffer”. We always suffer, or are inconvenienced, when we exercise compassion rather than just pity. The late Fr. Henri Nouwen sums it up well for me when he wrote: “Compassion means to come close to the one who suffers. But we can come close to another person only when we are willing to become vulnerable ourselves. A compassionate person says: “I am your brother; I am your sister; I am human, fragile, and mortal, just like you. I am not scandalized by your tears, nor afraid of your pain. I too have wept. I too have felt pain.” We can only be with the other only when the other ceases to be “other” and becomes like us. Fr. Richard Rohr goes even further when he says, “Individualism makes compassion impossible.”
A third thought about compassion is that compassion is indiscriminate. Can a flower withhold its fragrance from bad people and only give it to good people? No. Similarly, God’s compassion does not discriminate between who deserves it and who does not. Jesus compares it to the rain that falls and the sun that shines on the good and bad alike. There are many stories of Jesus moving toward people with compassion, but there is not a single story of Jesus grilling someone on how they came to need compassion in the first place. He cared nothing about whether circumstances of life or peoples’ own poor choices or sinfulness brought them to this place where they need compassion. His compassion always superseded his convictions. People in their need always came before rules, even and especially religious rules. It was Jesus’ compassion, especially his curing the sick on the Sabbath, that eventually hastened his own crucifixion. A story to end with. The rabbi addressed his students with the question, “When can you tell the night has ended and the day has begun?” One of the rabbi’s students offered the reply: “When you can see a tree in the distance and tell if it is an apple tree or a pear tree.” The rabbi answered, “No.” Another student responded: “When you can see an animal in the distance and can tell if it is a sheep or a dog.” Again, the rabbi said, “No.” “Well,” his students protested, “When can you tell the night has ended and the day has begun?” And the rabbi responded, “When you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that he is your brother, that she is your sister—because if you cannot, no matter what time of the day it is, it is still night!”
Fr. Phil Mulligan