Jesus’ ethic of compassion

Jesus, in his solidarity with the outcasts, is moved to compassion.

The characteristic Greek word for compassion, splagchnoisomai, means to let one’s innards embrace the feeling or situation of another.  (Breuggeman 88)  As we will see, Jesus’ compassion is for the whole range of human persons who are harassed and helpless. He enters into the pain of the world—and finally comes to embody it.

Consider his compassion for the sick: “As he went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them” (Matt 14:14).

For the hungry: As he went ashore he saw a great thong, and he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)  “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days, and have nothing to eat.” (Mark 8:2)

And for those who mourn: “as he drew near to the city gate, see, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a large crowd from the city was with her.  And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her.” (Luke 7:12-13)

Jesus’ compassion, his ethics of compassion, is not simply a personal emotional reaction but a public criticism aimed at the entire numbness of his social context–which Brueggeman calls “the royal consciousness”.

He says—

Empires live by numbness.  Empires, in their militarism, expect numbness about the human cost of war. Corporate economies expect blindness to the cost in terms of poverty and exploitation. Governments and societies of domination go to great lengths to keep the numbness intact. Jesus penetrates the numbness by his compassion and with his compassion takes the first step by making visible the odd abnormality that had become business as usual. Thus compassion that might be seen simply as generous goodwill is in fact criticism of the system, forces, and ideologies that produce the hurt. (The Prophetic Imagination, p. 88)

Two parables of compassion

The Good Samaritan

Consider the parable of the good Samaritan (Lk 10).

David Teniers the Younger, the Good Samaritan

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”  And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’  Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The Samaritan, by his care for a wounded man, judges the dominant way of avoiding the marginalised.  The ones who pass by, obviously carriers of the dominant tradition, are numbed, indifferent, and do not notice. The Samaritan expresses a new way that displaces the old arrangements in which outcasts are simply out. The replacing of numbness with compassion, that is, the end of cynical indifference and the beginning of noticed pain, signals a social revolution.

The Prodigal Son

Consider, too, the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15)–or, we might say, the reckless son.

Rembrandt, the Prodigal Son

Then Jesus  said, “There was a man who had two sons.  The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.  A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.

When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.  So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.  He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.  But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!  I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’  

So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.  Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’   But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

The father, by his ready embrace of his unacceptable son, condemns the “righteousness of the law” by which society is currently ordered and by which social rejects are forever rejected.

Brueggeman says—

[These] stories, if seen as radical dismantling criticism, bring together the internalization of pain and external transformation. The capacity to feel the hurt of the marginal people means an end to all social arrangements that nullified pain by a remarkable depth of numbness. Jesus is remembered and presented by the early church as the faithful embodiment of an alternative consciousness. In his compassion, he embodies the anguish of those rejected by the dominant culture, and as embodied anguish, he has the authority to show the deathly end of the dominant culture.  (91)

The transformation of pain

Compassion makes possible a transformation of pain.  When we compassionately witness another’s pain, we enable its dislocation from the subject. 

One can understand Jesus’ ministry as the transformation of pain into new life.

Breugemann says:

I have come to think that there is no more succinct summary of prophetic ministry than the statement of Jesus: “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21), or, more familiarly, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:4). Jesus’ concern was, finally, for the joy of the kingdom. That is what he promised, and to that he invited people. But he was clear that rejoicing in that future required a grieving about the present order.1 Jesus takes a quite dialectical two-age view of things. He will not be like one-world liberals who view the present world as the only one, nor will he be like the unworldly who yearn for the future with an unconcern about the present. There is work to be done in the present. There is grief work to be done in the present that the future may come. There is mourning to be done for those who do not know of the deathliness of their situation. There is mourning to be done with those who know pain and suffering and lack the power or freedom to bring it to speech. The saying is a harsh one, for it sets this grief work as the precondition of joy. It announces that those who have not cared enough to grieve will not know joy. (pp. 119-120)

Finally, we are yet to learn that the God of life and growth “grieves in ways hidden from us and … waits to rejoice until his promises are fully kept.”  (120)