The Guts of Compassion
Have you ever thought about the beginnings of the word compassion? What does it mean when we say that we have compassion for a person or a people group? Is it as simple as having pity for another, or does the meaning go much deeper than that? In the short story that we get from the Gospel according to Luke this evening, we get a profound telling of what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do on our behalf. In this short narrative, we begin to get a glimpse of the compassion that God has for us through the life of the Son that is powered by the Spirit.
The word for compassion in the Greek text is related to the word for guts or entrails. In fact, the root of the word for having compassion is the word that means entrails. In order to have compassion, it is not simply deciding to be compassionate to another. in the Greek, it means that you are moved within the depths of your being for another person. You are gripped within your gut to take action on behalf of another in order to improve their lot in life. It is an emotion that springs up from the deepest parts of the body and inspires us to look out at ways that we can be a gift to another.
In the gospel text this evening, we are given a story in which Jesus was moved out of the very depths of his personhood to change the reality for a mother that lost her only son. In having compassion for her – feeling pity for her within the depths of his entrails, his guts – Jesus performs an act of charity, a profound act of kindness, for the woman and for her son. Jesus takes a moment to allow the power of God the Spirit to work through him and to flow out towards another person, whom he does not know. Jesus pauses for long enough to recognize that the loss of an only son is an experience filled with pain and suffering; Jesus pauses long enough to take the time to enter into that pain and suffering in order to change it from sadness into joy.
It was late in the summer of 2005. It had been several days since the destruction of the small city had taken place. Now, the landscape was filled with debris from trees, houses toppled over, smashed cars, and the ruins of what were once vibrant neighborhoods. Communication outside the city was nearly impossible as all the communication lines were either filled with water or disconnected from any source of power, which continued to be out across the city landscape. It was very unlikely that anyone actually understood that the destruction had been so strong this far inland. It certainly was not the norm for storms of these types; of course, this latest storm had been anything but normal.
As the day wore on, the folks worked feverishly to find solutions to the problems the local community faced in the aftermath of the storm. Though the resources available were dwindling quickly, they continued to share whatever resources they had available to serve the community. It was beginning to get very uncertain how much longer they would be able to sustain any kind of response – no matter how pitiful it might have been – without some help from outside. Hope was hanging by a thread.
In the late evening, the sun began to set and the work for the day began to wind down. Another long, hard day of trying to find resources to respond to the growing needs of the community. Another day filled with difficult, gut wrenching questions to which there were no good answers. Then, hope appeared slowly turning into the drive way. Three large trucks modeled after the box shaped ambulance turned into the drive each carrying a load of fresh supplies and volunteers. People entered into the pain of the community and brought with them hope – the realization that others were aware of what was happening in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Those volunteers entered into the pain and suffering of a disaster-torn landscape. They entered into the landscape to suffer with those that were directly affected by the hurricane. They had compassion. Interestingly, the roots for the English word compassion are two words in Latin – “com” meaning together and “pati” to suffer. To have compassion for another is to suffer with that person together. It is to enter into their reality and be present with them in that reality. It is to freely enter into a landscape torn by a disaster in order to suffer through those hardships while also bringing hope. It is precisely what Jesus does in the narrative this evening. He enters into the mother’s reality of suffering and brings hope into the situation. In seeing her tears of sadness, Jesus had compassion – a gut wrenching pity for her that called him to suffer with her together.
We, too, are called to have that kind of compassion with our fellow human beings, but the more challenging thing for us is to find that gut wrenching desire to help another in the face of everyday injustices. Injustices like poverty, mental illness, homelessness, hunger; these are the injustices within our time that deserve our compassion – our willingness to suffer together with those that feel the brunt of these injustices. In finding the courage to have compassion for the poor, the hungry, the destitute, the mentally ill, the homeless, the migrant or any other person suffering under the weight of societal injustices, we are taking part in the ministry of God’s justice. When we enter into suffering with another together and bring the hope of Christ into that situation, we are sharing the power of the Spirit just as Jesus did in the gospel narrative tonight. We are allowing the power of the Spirit to flow through us to touch the life of another, and in so doing, we find that the Spirit has an even more profound effect in our own lives. We discover that by allowing God’s blessings to flow through us, we also receive more blessings from the people we meet in our own suffering. Enter into your own ministry of compassion – of suffering together with another – and take the light of Christ out into the world to share His joy and hope.