Imitating the Father of Compassion

THERE ARE MANY DIFFERENCES between the three world religions originating in the
Middle East (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). One thing which they all share is the emphasis on God as Compassionate. In the biblical story of Moses, for example, God reveals Himself to the prophet in these words: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).

The prophets of Israel continually returned to this theme, adding a new dimension. They saw compassion as a parental trait, paving the way for the Lord Jesus’ description of God as our Father.

In His parables the Lord often returned to themes of compassion. In the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35) the king, an image of God, is described as “moved with compassion” (Matthew 18:27), in contrast to his servant who shows no compassion to his fellow. The father of the prodigal son, is described, on the bedraggled boy’s return, as “filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

The Gospels describe Christ as “deeply moved” with compassion by the death of the widow’s son in Nain (Luke 7: 11-17), and of his friend Lazarus in Bethany (John 11). When recording the miraculous feeding of the four thousand, Mark tells us “Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people…” (Mark 8:1,2). In each case He did something concrete in response.

In the Church God was proclaimed from the beginning as “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). In our prayers today we regularly address God as “the only Compassionate One,” in contrast to the evident lack of that quality in our own lives.

What Is Compassion?

When the Gospels describe Christ as being “deeply moved” or being “moved with compassion,” they use a word which points to the heart of that quality. A literal translation of the Greek term would be “to be moved from the bowels.” (i.e. to feel deeply). Compassion is at the other end of the spectrum from the casual “I’m sorry” that people fling out at any unpleasant circumstance. Compassion is a “gut feeling” which we experience when we allow ourselves to be moved by the suffering of others.

People often equate compassion with sympathy, but true compassion is more. A person may express sympathy in response to sorrow with kindness and concern, then move on with their own lives. True compassion, on the other hand, includes expressions of care and concern, but moves on to concrete action. The compassionate person involves himself in the suffering of the other. Unlike the priest or the Levite in the parable, the Good Samaritan directly engages himself in the troubles of the man who was a victim to robbers and does not leave him until the man has recovered.

The compassionate Samaritan, like the compassionate king in Matthew 18 is an icon of God. He it is who involves Himself in the sufferings of the human race to such an extent that He sends His Son and Word to share in their suffering. This Word “…did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8).

Compassion as getting involved is put forward to us as a way of being godlike: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). God is, as we have seen, “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). St Paul goes on to say that God is compassionate to us “… so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3,4). Reflecting on how God has extended His compassion to us, should energize us into extending compassion to others.

Radical Compassion

Sometimes opportunities for compassion present themselves in daily life, such as taking in the child of a hospitalized neighbor. At other times people have been led to extend compassion in a more radical way. Perhaps no one in our society has personified this degree of compassion more than the late Servant of God Dorothy Day, the twentieth century convert extolled by Pope Francis as one of four “inspiring” Americans in his 2015 address to the US Congress. Foundress of the Catholic Worker movement during the Great Depression, Dorothy Day described one of her early ventures in these heart-rending words, revealing the depth of her compassion: “Every morning about four hundred men come to Mott Street to be fed. The radio is cheerful, the smell of coffee is a good smell, the air of the morning is fresh and not too cold, but my heart bleeds as I pass the lines of men in front of the store which is our headquarters…It is hard to say, matter-of-factly and cheerfully, ‘Good morning.’ …One felt more like taking their hands and saying, ‘Forgive us — let us forgive each other! All of us who are more comfortable, who have a place to sleep, three meals a day, work to do — we are responsible for your condition. We are guilty of each other’s sins. We must bear each other’s burdens. Forgive us and may God forgive us all!”

The Power of Compassion

Every year on Meatfare Sunday we hear Christ’s parable of the Judgment (Mt 25:31-46). In this story, people are judged based on the degree of their compassion. Christ identifies Himself with those in need to the degree of saying that I was hungry and you gave me food…” and the rest. . Christ identifies Himself completely with those in need: the essence of compassion.

What we may forget is that Christ begins the parable by saying, “All the nations will be gathered before him…” He is describing the judgment of the nations – the Gentiles – not the house of Israel. The faithful will be judged on the basis of their faith – the ‘nations’ will be judged on the basis of their compassion.

If compassion is so important in the Lord’s eyes that He calls the compassionate “blessed of my Father” even though they never knew Him, what should it mean to us?

In contrast to this blessing of compassionate Gentiles, we read a condemnation of the uncompassionate at the close of Christ’s parable of the unforgiving servant. We are told that, “In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” Then the divine Narrator of the parable presents the moral of the story: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother [or sister] from your heart” (Matthew 18:34, 35).

While true compassion often demands a radical generosity, the lack of compassion can separate us from God. The Russian spiritual writer, Fr. Alexander Elchaninov, expressed it this way: “Our lack of compassion, hardness of heart, and mercilessness towards others form an impenetrable curtain between ourselves and God. It is as if we had covered a plant with a black hood, and then complained because it died from lack of sunlight.”