We hear the word “compassion” tossed about a lot these days. So much so, that I think we take it for granted. We speak of compassion in terms of the poor and the homeless, the sick and suffering, and all those in a state of need and difficulty. We Christians especially throw the word around in just about every conversation that takes place about Jesus. But do we really know what compassion is? Do we practice it as Christians like we are supposed to? Are we even aware of the fact that if one is not compassionate one is not a Christian? Compassion is the heart of Christ. If we are truly intent on living our lives as Christ did, if we are intent on living in Christ, then compassion must be in our hearts also. If we do not have compassion for others, then we have no right to call ourselves Christians. The same is true if we do not love as Christ taught us to love or forgive as He practiced forgiveness. Compassion, love, and forgiveness are actually intimately intertwined, because you cannot have one without the other, but compassion is what we shall discuss today.
Compassion is a word of action. It is not just a feeling; it is not just sitting in the bleachers watching the game as a spectator. No, compassion is the heart of a person in action. It is our physical response to the needs of others. Compassion is Christ working through us.
Compassion is a characteristic of God. We first learned of God’s compassion in Scared Scripture. The Old and New Testaments are full of examples where God’s compassion is revealed through His acts of kindness, mercy and concern for His suffering children. From the very beginning, when He created Adam and Eve and set them in the Garden of Eden, God showed Himself as a God of love and compassion. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, He nevertheless showed mercy and compassion upon them. We see this, for example, in God’s clothing of Adam and Eve after their fall.
After Adam and Eve lost their state of grace, they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. By removing them from Eden, God cut them off from access to eternal life. In spite of the fact that Adam and Eve had sinned, and that all mankind after them suffers the consequences of that sin, God has not withheld His compassion and mercy and love from His creation.
For example, we see in the Old Testament again further evidence of God’s compassion toward His people in the very relationship He has with the people of Israel. God’s steadfast love and mercy toward the people of Israel is manifested by the covenant He establishes with them. This is a covenant of love, a relationship which entails obligations and mutual service. The covenant established between God and Israel is by no means one-sided. On the contrary, the covenant requires action on the part of both parties, wherein each party has responsibilities to the other; responsibilities which have their foundation in love.
Israel was God’s chosen people and because of this, the Israelites strongly believed that because of their covenant relationship with God they could expect His kindness and readiness to help them in times of need. At the same time, God expected Israel to love Him with all their heart. In this covenant relationship between God and Israel, God leads, guides, provides for, and protects His people. All these acts of God toward His people are acts of love. The covenantal love of God is joined together with His compassion. God’s compassion shown to Israel is more of a practical nature than an emotional one. In the covenant relationship between God and His people Israel, God’s loving kindness is manifested by the sympathy He shows for their distress and the desire to alleviate their suffering. “And the Lord said, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of My people which are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters.’”(Exodus 3:7)
The compassion shone by God to His people resulted in the understanding that the Israelites were to treat others - family members, friends and even strangers – with the same compassion which God showed to them. We see examples of this in Isaiah 1:17; Proverbs 19:17; and Micah 6:8.
In the Old Testament, compassion is an expected duty among the people of Israel. It is a defining characteristic of Israel as the chosen people of God - a holy nation, a people set apart – and is primarily set in the context of family relationships. But compassion wasn’t something just to be shared among family members; it was a duty of each family member to show mercy and compassion to those outside the family unit as well. Again, we see the practice of compassion on a more practical level rather than on the emotional level. It is a duty, but it is a duty nevertheless motivated by love.
Showing compassion to another is part of the broader duty of keeping God’s commandments. One of the Ten Commandments says that we are to love our neighbor. The compassion that causes an individual to help the poor, the marginalized, the homeless, and the sick; to protect the vulnerable and the weak among us; and to promote justice and maintain peace is not limited in the Old Testament just to the people of Israel. It finds its perfection in the God-man Jesus Christ, Who showed compassion to all people, Jew and Gentile alike. With its perfection in Christ, compassion becomes one of the cardinal virtues expected of the people of God in the New Testament and the New Covenant made between God and His people through and in Jesus Christ.
In Jesus Christ, all the fullness of God dwells (Colossians 1:19). Therefore, Christ demonstrates fully by His life on earth the indescribable and limitless compassion and steadfast love of God. Because compassion is a characteristic of God Himself, we who are His children by baptism and adoption must also have compassion as one of our character traits.
Jesus clearly showed compassion in the way He treated people from every walk of life. It made no difference whether a person was rich or poor; slave or freeman; prostitute or person of virtue; Jew or Gentile; believer or non-believer. Jesus did not deal with God’s chosen people, the Jews, exclusively, but rather He dealt with all people without exception, even to the point of loving one’s enemies (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 10:30-37).
Too often today, when we use the word compassion, we do so in the context of speaking about the poor and the marginalized. But a significant aspect of Christ’s ministry is to those who are suffering. This raises the question, “Who are those who suffer?” Is it just the poor who suffer? Is it just the homeless? Are not those who are unemployed and having trouble paying their bills the suffering as well? Is not a person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol a person who suffers? What about a person who suffers from depression or some other clinical or chronic illness or disease? Are these not the suffering too?
Jesus’ model of ministry focused on God’s concern for the overall physical, social, and spiritual needs of all people, not just a certain group or class of people. God’s love is not exclusive, but inclusive. His compassion is given not just to this or that group of people but to everyone who is in need and chooses to accept what He has to offer. What is truly amazing about Jesus’s earthly ministry is the way He delivered His message so that people of all walks of life could easily understand and receive it. Yet, no matter how He delivered the message, the end result of the message was always the same…that we must be servants to one another.
During His earthly ministry, Jesus called all people to love unconditionally, to be kind and compassionate, to forgive without reservation, to give without measure, and to be servants of one another in joy and charity. The uniqueness of Jesus’s ministry lies not in the actions of a mere human being, but in the actions of God Himself. In the person of Jesus Christ, we see how God truly loves His people and has a genuine concern for them. God considers all people worthy of respect and compassion because of who and what they are – beings created in His image and likeness.
The compassion of Christ carries within it the qualities of tenderness and affection. Compassion flows from the heart of Christ in unimpeded abundance. Compassion is a fundamental and distinctive quality of God. “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful” (Psalm 115:5) and “Blessed be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; the Father of all mercies and the God of all consolation…” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
The compassion of Christ knows no limits; it is boundless. Christ cares nothing about a person’s station in life. He doesn’t care where we came from, where we are, or what we do for a living. He cares only about us. He shows us all deep love and profound compassion, despite our weaknesses and utter sinfulness. To those who seek Him with a sincere heart, He opens His arms and welcomes and embraces them with a unfailing love that defies all human description.
In the Gospel of St. Luke we are told the story of an encounter Jesus had with a lawyer. If you remember, a lawyer asks Jesus the question, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” After some back and forth, Jesus finally tells the man, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer, in typical lawyerly fashion, asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus then proceeds to tell the story of the Good Samaritan.
Why did Jesus tell the story of the Good Samaritan? In order to answer this question, we must first look at the society and times in which Jesus lived. During Jesus’ time, there were definite rules regarding how the Jews should treat outsiders, namely Gentiles and Samaritans. There were also set rules about how the priests and elders should relate to others, about how men should treat women, about what a person could do and not do on the Sabbath, etc. Such rules ultimately ended up segregating people into specific groups or classes. It also allowed some of these groups to establish themselves in positions of power and privilege, which resulted in a disconnect with and mistreatment of those groups which were considered inferior or lacking in some way.
During the time in which Jesus lived, the command to love one’s neighbor was actually a religious obligation (Leviticus 19:18), so the lawyer who posed the question to Jesus did so to find out exactly who he was to consider as his neighbor in order to fulfill his religious duty. But Jesus wasn’t going to be baited. On the contrary, Jesus took the opportunity to make clear that one’s neighbor was every person the lawyer came into contact with, regardless of whether or not that person was of his tribe or class.
Christ’s response to the lawyer’s question made no distinction between persons nor did it consider a person’s ethnic or social background as being a deciding factor as to who is worthy of one’s compassion, mercy and love. The Lord’s message was indeed very clear – you cannot love God and not love those whom God loves. And we can even stretch that further by saying that you cannot call yourself a Christian if you do not live exactly and fully as Christ lived.
It stands to reason that if we love God, then we must love our neighbor. It is also true that if we love our neighbor, then we love God; for love of our neighbor is borne out of our love for God. There can be no separation or distinction between our relationship with God and our relationship with one another because they are intertwined together in the person of Jesus Christ.
Because the fullness of God is in Jesus, then it stands to reason that Jesus is truly God. And because Jesus lived among us, then we must say with all certainty that we have seen the face of God. Many of our kind knew Him personally, have walked with Him, have eaten with Him, and have touched Him. Their personal experiences of God on earth have been handed down to us through the ages, even to this day. Jesus Christ is not some mere historical personage. No, He is more than that. He is God Himself, the compassionate and all-merciful One.
While He was among us on earth, we saw Jesus do many wonderful things. We watched as He ministered to those in need: comforting the bereaved, healing the sick, caring for the oppressed and down-trodden. Whatever their problem was, Jesus cared for them unconditionally. But these were not the doings of just a human being, but they were also the doings of God Himself.
In Jesus Christ, we are able to experience the love and compassion of God in real and tangible ways. And that life which He lived on earth is still with us today, continued in the Church which He established by His Blood. It is the Church’s responsibility to minister to all people without exception or partiality. Our mandate is not only to care for and comfort the poor and the marginalized, but those who are suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction, unemployment, and depression; or who are divorced, forgotten or abandoned. In short, the Church is to care for all those who suffer or are in need in any way.
Sadly, however, we can look at the Church and see that there is a general lack of compassion and mercy in the body of believers, a society which is called to be a “holy nation, a people set apart.” This lack of compassion does not come from Christ, Who is the Head of the Church but rather from the fact that many within this holy nation we call the Church do not even know Christ other than by name and a few historical facts. Most believers do not intimately know Him or the more detailed elements of His life, which are easily learned by reading Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels, and the writings of the holy Fathers.
Rather than fully embracing Christ and making His life ours many of us have embraced indifference and a self-serving life. We are more concerned with looking out for ourselves than for others. And, if we do give attention to others in need, it is only to the extent we are comfortable and not inconvenienced. Many of us will never step outside our comfort zone. For example, many people will involve themselves in some kind of charitable work during the holiday season or during a crisis or disaster, but in the life of Christ this is not enough.
Living a truly Christ-like life means that compassion must be in our hearts each and every day. Compassion is the heart of Christ and therefore it must be our heart also. We must live compassion and mercy every day of our lives. Christ’s compassion knows no limits or boundaries. As Christians, our compassion must know no limits or boundaries as well.
We are called to live a life of mercy and compassion because of the mercy and compassion God extends to us every day through Jesus Christ. God expects us to be like Him in every way. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, we hear Jesus say to us, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). What this means is that we are to be like God in every way. In fact, our primary purpose in this world is to be a reflection of the character of God.
It is interesting to note that the word “perfect” also means “complete” and “mature.” In the context in which Jesus used it when He said, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”, the word perfect can be taken to mean complete. Therefore, we can say that Christ expects that our compassion and mercy will be complete and full just as God’s mercy and compassion toward us is complete and full.
The Lord expects us to walk in compassion, mercy and love every day of our lives. Yet, many of us pick and choose who we want to love and how we love them; who we want to show compassion toward and be merciful to, and when. In this regard, I am as guilty as anyone else. But we can all overcome this by making sure we stay grounded in Christ.
Living in Christ is a continual spiritual journey. It is a journey during which a little of our old self dies more and more each day and Christ becomes more alive in us. As sin dies within us, the Light of Christ burns brighter in us and we become more God-like. As Christ becomes more alive in us compassion and mercy become more and more our character traits.
Jesus tells us in the Gospel of St. Luke: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Do not judge others, and you will not be judged; do not condemn others, and you will not be condemned; forgive others, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Your gift will return to you in good measure – pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. For the measure you give, will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 636-38). Jesus is not speaking here of money, but of compassion and mercy. These are more important to God than money. God has no concern or interest for money except as a way to provide and sustain His children in this world, where money is needed for the basic necessities of life as we know it.
As Christians, we are called to a better way of living. As Christians, we have been established as a holy nation, a people set apart. As Christians, we are called to be leaders and examples of moral excellence to our fellow men. Our mandate is clear: don’t be selfish; don’t be arrogant; and don’t try to impress others. Be humble, seeing others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others too. (Philippians 2:3-4).
You must have a heart of compassion like Christ. Compassion is the heart of Christ. It is a characteristic of God. Showing compassion and love for those who are suffering or hurting in any way accompanied by a sincere desire to help alleviate their suffering and pain is what it means to have the heart of Christ within us.
As much as compassion, mercy and love must be fully within each of us, these same characteristics must reside in the heart of the Church. If any one or all of these virtues is absent from the Church, the Church ceases to be the mystical body of Christ and becomes nothing more than another human institution. The Church can only be the body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, if it possesses within itself, all that Christ is.
The Church will not make a difference in this world, will not change lives for the better, and will not positively influence the people of God, believers and non-believers alike, if it does not have the heart of Christ. The Church must always be of the mind and heart of Christ.
As individual Christians too, we cannot be mediocre in our compassion, mercy and love. For if we are lukewarm in the practice of these then Jesus will vomit us out of His mouth. Nothing less than living a full life in Christ will save us from being rejected by Him on the awesome Day of Judgment.
Compassion is the heart of Christ. It requires humility and unselfish giving. One cannot be selfish and compassionate at the same time. When God showed us His compassion and mercy, we were saved. He washed away our sins and gave us new birth and life through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Since we are created in the image and likeness of God, we must, therefore, clothe ourselves with the same tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility and patience that He possesses. We must make allowances for one another’s faults and shortcomings. We must forgive everyone who offends us and wounds us without exception, no matter how much we have been hurt. This may be hard to do, but it can be done if we look to Christ and draw our strength from Him.
We must be able to set aside our own personal pride and feelings in order to truly be compassionate. This requires humility on our part. It’s very easy to hold a grudge and be unforgiving. It’s a lot harder to let go of the anger, resentment and hurt that we feel and forgive those who have wronged us. God knows this, but He makes available to us the grace that we need to do what is right. So, whatever you say or whatever you do, always remember that you will be judged according to the same standards by which you judge others. There will be no mercy for those who do not show mercy to others, but if you have been merciful in your dealings with others, especially when it comes to their sins and transgressions against you, God will be merciful when He judges you.
In all things, we must be of Christ. If we act contrary to what we profess, then what we profess is a lie. In other words, we cannot say that we are Christians if we do not live the life of Christ and bear faithful witness to that life in real and tangible ways. Our hearts must be the heart of God. When our heart is God’s heart, compassion and love will flow abundantly from us; and we shall find life at its best and build a legacy which is worth leaving to those who come after us.