Let’s say your Bible falls open one fine morning to a verse smack-dab in the middle of Matthew’s Gospel: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself” (14:13). Heard what exactly? What had the man just learned that caused him to depart, solo and pronto, toward a lonely locale?
Jesus is sweating in the sun against the resistance of the oars. Little waves splash against the wood. Birds call to one another below billowy clouds. He rows with purpose toward a secluded shore, away from people and all their needs, occasionally stopping to mop his brow and take a drink. Look hard. It’s difficult to tell if the moisture on his face is from sweat or tears.
He needs to be alone.
This man is bearing a death, a gruesome murder. The news had only arrived that morning. “His disciples came and took the body and buried him; then they went and told Jesus” (14:12).
We don’t know the exact relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. Their moms (Elizabeth and Mary) were kin so it’s likely the two boys sometimes played together as kids. Who could begrudge Jesus’ time away upon hearing news of a headless cousin killed for speaking the truth?
So yes, look hard. Watch the man row and probably weep as he retreats to this deserted place. He needs this getaway. Jesus was not a divine robot.
I choose daily which events get past my “compassion fence,” erected each morning to simply survive the daily news.
We aren’t privy to Jesus’ immediate reaction when he finally sees the far shore toward which he’s rowing. Waiting for him on the beach? Five thousand needy souls who know nothing of his deep grief or his understandable desire to get away. Can you imagine this exact moment of recognition? Did Jesus drop his head in exhaustion and remain offshore in his boat, paddling around awhile? Was he at all irked? I (you) might have yelled, “Do you have any idea what I’m going through right now?!”
Instead, he looks at the huge crowd with “compassion” (14:14).
Sometimes I wonder about the most impressive miracle that day. Was it Jesus amazingly feeding a massive crowd with a few fish and chips? Or Jesus somehow tending to so many needs under the sad circumstance of a recent murder?
A confession from one of Jesus’ disciples: I choose daily which events get past my “compassion fence,” erected each morning to simply survive the daily news. Horrible stuff indeed makes it through emotional defenses and takes up space and concern in my heart with accompanying action. Other tragic news is quickly forgotten.
We should be grateful for this tragedy filter. Without it, we might all resemble Jeremiah, “the weeping prophet,” who felt regional woe and human folly more acutely than most and could not stop crying.
I’ve come to believe, however, that it’s important to examine this compassion fence—why it’s there and how to move it.
The Latin roots of the word compassion mean “to suffer with.” Compassion is different from sadness. Discovering someone in one of life’s inevitable and deep holes, a compassionate person climbs down into the hole and shares the sufferer’s plight rather than merely feeling sadness from a distance. Job’s three friends—at least initially, before offering unhelpful explanations—got this right: “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13).
The Greek roots of compassion are a bit more graphic, derived from the fun-sounding splanchnizomai—to have one’s guts so moved by an event that you feel it palpably in the very pit of your stomach. The “splanchnic” refers to our internal organs. (Remember that when you appear on Jeopardy!) I taught the Greek verb in a children’s sermon once. The kids loved learning about the word and saying it.
The word “compassion” is rare in the Gospels but does appear at key times, including the parables of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son. The unexpected benevolence from a generous roadside enemy (Luke 10:33) and the surprising largesse from a joyful, party-throwing father (Luke 15:20) both illustrate the word “compassion” beautifully.
I once taught a Sunday school class about suffering and God’s seeming silence in the face of so much of it. The Bible certainly rails at the divine allowance of suffering with witnesses ranging from the soul-bearing honesty of the psalmist to the sassy insolence of two sisters who let Jesus have it on the road to Bethany after the death of their brother Lazarus (John 11:21, 32). Pay attention to places in Scripture when someone gets lippy with the Lord. There’s often a powerful truth hiding behind honest emotion.
There was a kind woman in that class, usually silent as others weighed in. One Sunday she said, “If you think about it, without suffering in the world there would be no compassion. It would not exist, no need for it. I don’t know why God allows suffering, but I do know we’d all be something less than human without the capacity to react with compassion.”
Compassion isn’t something we generate valiantly on our best days but a gift.
It took me a long time to see that compassion is a gift we’re given by the Spirit to respond to suffering in the world. Compassion isn’t something we generate valiantly on our best days but a gift—how the baptized are “clothed” after dying and rising in Christ. “You were buried with him in baptism” (Colossians 2:12). “You have died, and your life is hidden in Christ with God” (Colossians 3:3).
“God’s chosen ones” are then clothed with “compassion (first on the list!), kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).
There’s a lot in this old letter about putting on a new set of clothes, gifted from beyond our best efforts. The worship garments donned on baptism days in the Sunday liturgy have their origin and symbolism in something far more powerful than a family heirloom passed down. Here we receive the very spiritual tools to “suffer with” another human being.
We the baptized follow Jesus, but Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy). Imagine him rowing across that lake so long ago, trying to get away for a while after the gruesome death of someone he loved. And now imagine all those needy folk waiting for him, wanting something. Thousands of people. I wouldn’t blame the man if he rowed the other way.
Matthew reports it all so nonchalantly: “He had compassion for them.” I want to yell “How?” toward the heavens.
Jesus knew that “he had come from God and was going to God” (John 13:3). He embraced this radical understanding of himself long before psychologist Abraham Maslow established “identity” in his helpful hierarchy of needs.
All of us have limits. We are “little Christs,” said Martin Luther. Remember the diminutive.
But I’ve come to believe that our ministry fences can move over time. They move when we realize the radical nature of our own baptismal identity—where we’ve come from, where we are going. Clothed with compassion by the one who calls us to “suffer with” one another here in the in-between.