“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”*
In early spring, we had a group of college and seminary students sitting around our living room after dinner. Our conversation was rich and life-giving, full of thoughtful opinions and ideas. At one point during the evening, we began to talk about abortion. One of our guests quoted his professor at seminary: “Life begins at the moment of compassion.” The teacher is an ethics professor who is affectionately known as “Dr. Tim.”
The quote has stayed with me. On the one hand, I love it. On the surface, compassion is easy for me. I tend to naturally have compassion for people. It’s what led me into becoming a nurse, it’s been honed through the years in developing countries and refugee camps. I have exercised compassion at the beds of dying patients and in the exam rooms of those who have just received a diagnosis of cancer.
But below the surface, it’s a lot more difficult. Because I subconsciously and consciously choose who is worthy of my compassion. If I am honest, I believe that some situations are worthy of compassion, and others are not. Some people are worthy, others are decidedly not worthy. I may sit at the bedside of a cancer patient, and cry with them, extending compassion and love. It’s far harder to sit at the bed of an alcoholic who is dying of esophageal varices brought on by lifestyle choices and extend that same compassion.
We humans are a complex and stubborn people. We rage about one thing, and turn our backs on another something equally disturbing. We pick the things that are most important to us and we guard those ideas and values with all of our energy and words.
Holding fast to our truth claims is critically important. In a world that changes on a whim, it is important to know not only what we believe, but why we believe it. But in all that energy we use to defend our views, we forget to add one of the most important ingredients – compassion.
What if we made sure that even when others disagree with us, they will see that we don’t hold a view to be vindictive or ugly or mean. What if we make sure that others hear compassion in everything we say, see compassion in everything we do?
What if we expended as much energy on compassion as we do on framing our well crafted and articulated beliefs?
I think about the life of Christ, and his interactions with broken people. His was a ministry of compassion. Scripture tells us that “He saw the crowds and had compassion on them.” We see him stop in the middle of the street and ask “Who touched me?” relentlessly pursuing a woman who had touched him, desperate for healing. Instead of condemning a promiscuous woman at a well, he dug deeper and challenged her that he could offer her something to quench her thirst and fill her soul. His was a blind men see, dead men walk, deaf man hear, dead are raised, good news for the poor ministry. His words, his work, his life were filled with compassion for the human condition.
Perhaps true compassion is a result of a perfect blend of grace and truth. Jesus knew the truth about sin and poor choices, but he saw through the behavior to the expressed need behind the behavior – and in compassion he offered something so much better.
As I write this, I think about a picture I saw this past week. It was a family picture. My niece and her husband with their children — my brother and sister-in-law on one side of them, her husband’s parents on the other side. Typical family picture – but there was nothing typical about it. There in the center was the baby they have had as a foster child for the past year. They took the picture in celebration of her adoption into the family. My niece and her husband’s life changed when they decided to take seriously the words that grow tiresome when they are not lived out: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
In taking those words seriously, a little baby came into their lives. While the goal of fostering children is reunification with the birth parents as much as possible, in this case, it wasn’t possible. And so they adopted her. There she is, all smiley, chubby baby, adopted into a family that chose compassion.
What if life, real life, begins at the moment of compassion?
“So he replied to the messengers, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.'” Luke 7:22