Compassion is Hard Work

“Compassion is Hard Work” Text: Matthew 9:35-36

Compassion is an interesting and difficult word for Christians. It means “suffering with” or literally “to let one’s innards embrace the feeling or situation of another.” This is much more than love, mercy or pity. It is a word that connects people, for if one is compassionate toward another, one is connected to that person in their suffering.

Remember the story of Jonah. Jonah lacked appreciation for God’s compassion toward the people of Nineveh. God told Jonah to go to the city and call on the people to repent. Instead Jonah went on a boat and landed in the belly of a whale in his attempt to run away from God. After that experience, God again told Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn the people of God’s anger. This time Jonah did as he was told, but was angry when the people repented and God decided not to destroy the city. Jonah did not want to be connected to the people in their suffering. He believed God was wrong in showing compassion.

Compassion is not something that becomes a part of one’s being easily. Instead it comes by allowing God completely into one’s heart, by connecting with God. The ability to be compassionate comes about through a process of coming closer to God within ourselves.

Jesus often showed compassion on those that were on the margins of his society. He would see huge crowds of people “and he had compassion for them and cured their sick;” or he would teach them “because he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd;” or as he went about the cities and villages preaching the good news and healing, he had compassion for the people “because they were harassed and helpless.”

Walter Bruggemann in his book Prophetic Imagination describes compassion as “a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.” He goes on to say that Jesus in his showing of compassion is “criticizing the system, forces and ideologies that produce the hurt.” This form of criticism is something that governments and rulers cannot tolerate nor do they know what to do with it. They believe that nations cannot be built on compassion and love; they prefer the “numbness of indifference” to human suffering whether during the time of war or prosperity. Jesus showed compassion by eating with the outcasts, preaching to the slaves, healing on the Sabbath, raising havoc in the temple and talking to women as equals and in so doing he clearly exemplified the alternatives to indifference, exploitation, oppression and suffering.

In 2008 an interfaith group of theologians under the leadership of Karen Armstrong developed the Charter for Compassion. Its purpose is to make compassion a driving force with a measurable impact on community life and on the well-being of all members of a community. The charter has been endorsed by communities of people across the globe, including our Nashville Metro government on September 10, 2013.

The charter emphasizes:
Compassion is at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.
Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of others.
It is necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently from inflicting pain. We acknowledge that we have failed to do this and at times caused pain in the name of religion.
Called to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion and to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world.
Compassion is indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.

In the last 2 years, have we as citizens of Nashville showed compassion? Has the Metro Government in its actions alleviated the suffering of the people? Or has compassion become just another co-opted word taken from scriptures to be used in the political arena to win friends?

Remember compassionate people are connected to all God’s family. They recognize the worth of each person as a child of God.
Remember compassionate people are willing to “stand with” those who are hurting and suffering.
Remember compassionate people challenge the systems that abuse and oppress and they work for a compassionate society that cares for its vulnerable and needy.

Jonah and Jesus were certainly at different ends of the “compassion spectrum.” Both knew God was a compassionate God. One acted in anger; the other with compassion. One preferred death to sharing God’s compassion with others; the other truly suffered with the people. One sat around waiting to see what would happen; the other took on the suffering of others and brought redemption.

Where are each of us individually and as the community of Nashville on the compassionate spectrum? Are we suffering with others, or are we suffering from compassion fatigue? Jesus was compassionate. Can we as his followers, be less?

I would close with this prayer by Brennan Manning. Let us pray.

Dear God: I’m afraid far too many of my moments of compassion are nothing more than the warm fuzzies, experiences I can manage and keep at a safe arm’s length. These illusions of compassion can fool my friends and neighbors, but not You. When I consider this week, I don’t know if my heart was torn up about anything, my gut wrenched by another’s pain, or the deepest parts of me hurled to the surface for all to see. I know it’s a dangerous request to make, but teach me compassion so that others might take notice and be drawn to Your beautiful heart. Amen.

First preached at Tuesdays in the Chapel, Scarritt Bennett Center, June 30, 2014
Joyce D. Sohl, Laywoman-in-Residence

Joyce SohlJoyce D. Sohl has been Laywoman-in-Residence since 2009 as a full-time volunteer. She retired as CEO of United Methodist Women in 2004. She is the author of 4 books, a teacher, retreat leader, writer and non-professional musician. Here at the Center her work is in the area of Spirituality & the Arts with such programs as Tuesdays in the Chapel, Vespers & All That Jazz, Poet’s Corner, and quarterly retreats and art exhibits.