19 October 2014                                    
Joseph Britton

Feast of St. Luke    `                        
Christ Church, New Haven


“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to let the broken victims go free…” (Luke 4:18)

Imagine, if you will, looking upon a married couple whose child has just died. To lose a child, they say, is one of the hardest things a human being can suffer, so your sympathy naturally goes out to the couple. You feel regret for their loss, a sympathy for their grief. But your sympathy is not the same as their grief: you can feel for them, but not entirely with them, for their loss is uniquely their own.

Yet between the two parents, there is a more deeply shared feeling in which what they feel, they feel together. Their emotion is one and the same. Their common grief is indistinguishable, the one from the other, and so they feel with and not just for each other.

I read today’s gospel to be a place where Jesus identifies himself as one who does not just have a feeling for our human sorrows and anxieties as a sympathetic yet distant observer, but rather as one who feels them with us as one of us. Everything that we feel and bear, he does so with us. Jesus shows himself to be the bearer of God’s compassion for us, which literally means, God’s feeling with us, in all that it means to be human.

The scene for this disclosure is Jesus’ visit to his hometown synagogue at the beginning of his ministry, just after he has returned from being tempted in the wilderness. He stands to read a passage from Isaiah expressing God’s compassion for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the brokenhearted. Then rolling up the scroll, he applies the text to himself: the text has been fulfilled in his companions’ hearing, because he is the one through whom God will accomplish this divine mission, this feeling not just for, but with, the human condition.

Compassion is defined by the dictionary as an emotion that arises when we are confronted with someone else’s suffering and feel it as our own, motivating us to seek to alleviate that pain as best we can. Compassion is thus related to mercy, but mercy is more of an outward action that does not necessarily spring from a deep inward feeling. The Greek word often translated in the New Testament as mercy, eleos, refers to the kind of response that is motivated by the wretched condition of a poor party to which we respond out of a sense of duty or obligation, but not necessarily with any real fellow-feeling.

Compassion, on the other hand, refers to a more inward feeling and often translates the Greek word oiktirmos. It is a deeply felt emotion that originates in our most inner being. It responds to someone else’s need with a heartfelt affection that is motivated by our own personal identification with their plight. Their suffering becomes our own.

Over and over again, Jesus is described in the gospels as one who has compassion on those whom he encounters. When he sees the hungry crowd, for instance, he has compassion on them and provides food enough for the whole 5,000. As he one day leaves Jericho, Jesus encounters two blind men who cry out to be healed, and having compassion on them he restores their sight. From the cross, Jesus has compassion on the repentant thief, promising him that that day he would be in paradise.

Now as Christians, we struggle to understand what it might mean that in Jesus, God took upon himself human form. Keeping in mind Jesus’ compassion, though, we might say that at the very least, Luke seems to want us to see in today’s gospel that the incarnation (whose origins are described in such detail in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth) might be best understood as the means of God’s compassion for the human family. Luke, himself ever the healing physician that he was, sees in Jesus God’s entry into our deepest sorrows and suffering, feeling them with us as one of us, making them God’s own.

In Jesus, in other words, we discover that God’s primary relationship to us as human beings is not a remote judgmentalism, nor an emotionally aloof mercy, but rather a passionate, sympathetic, unreserved compassion.

But here’s the rub: Luke is especially concerned to have us understand that in having compassion on us, Jesus also teaches us to have compassion for one another. The parable of the Good Samaritan, which is told only in Luke’s gospel, is the quintessential expression of this conviction. “Who,” Jesus asks his disciples, “was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” “The one who showed him kindness (or compassion),” they answer. And then the clincher: “Go,” Jesus says, “and do likewise.” Be compassionate with one another, as I have been compassionate with you.

If you think about it, that puts a slightly different spin on the “Summary of the Law” with which we began this service, doesn’t it?* There we heard that we should first love God with our whole being, and then love our neighbor as our self. But in light of Jesus’ example of compassion, we might paraphrase that second part to read, “Have compassion on thy neighbor, as thou wouldst have thy neighbor to have compassion on you.”

Yet compassion is also something more than just a deeply motivated desire to reach out to another person who is in need. Compassion is also the primary means by which God seeks to transform us, to redeem us. Compassion does not just seek to alleviate our current needs, but to alter the origins of those needs so that they no longer hold us in their grip. God for example had compassion on the people of Israel trapped as slaves in Egypt, and brought them out of bondage into freedom. Jesus had compassion on those who crucified him, speaking words of forgiveness for those who knew not what they did.

And throughout his ministry, the way Jesus heals those in need is time and again a demonstration of both his sympathy for their plight, and a desire to relieve them of it. To the woman caught in adultery, he gently tells her, “Go, and sin no more.” To the man born blind, he heals him while all the others attempt to assign blame for why he was without sight. The point of the miracle stories is not simply that Jesus has power to heal: their point is that Jesus’ power to heal comes from his compassion, which affects within those in need a transformation of both body and soul. So rather than judgment, compassion is God’s tool for change—and Luke would have us to see that it should be ours as well. We won’t change someone else for the better by judging them, but by entering into their situation sympathetically and compassionately.

Mother Teresa is perhaps one of the strongest examples we have in recent times of this kind of transformative compassionate concern. As you know, her work in Calcutta involved going through the streets of its worst slums, gathering up the dying poor from the gutters and bringing them back to her convent where they could be cared for with dignity and die in some peace and repose.

The story is told of an American journalist who was once touring the convent, watching Mother Teresa bathe the wounds of these poor dying souls. “How do you do that?” the journalist asked in some horror. “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” “Neither would I,” shot back Mother Teresa. “But I would do it for Jesus.”

Who in your life is in need of your heartfelt compassion? Someone struggling in school? Someone dealing with grief and depression? Perhaps it is someone whose personal insecurity makes them difficult and hard to work with, or someone whose lack of self-awareness makes them callous to those around them. Perhaps it is simply someone different from yourself. They are all in need of your compassion.

Today in our hearing, the scriptures have been fulfilled that in Jesus Christ, there is good news for the poor, release for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and freedom for the brokenhearted. Jesus came to have compassion on them all—and on each of us. So now let us go, and do likewise.

© Joseph Britton 2014