Lesson 2: Compassion in the Bible

The language scholars report there are a number of Hebrew words that can be translated as compassion, and beyond that, these same words are also expressed differently depending on the context. Often mercy is used, but also graciousness, healing, steadfast love, and loving-kindness. These frequently describe God and Jesus but, interestingly enough, seldom humans.

I also found my premonition that emphasis is placed on going beyond feeling to action was correct. The scholars claimed compassion and its synonyms were feelings of love expressed in helping or saving actions of grace.

In the Old Testament, these had to do with God’s actions towards people in the covenant. God fulfilled his promises even if they failed to do so. Compassion had an aspect of forbearing human weakness, even helplessness. In mercy, God withheld his wrath.

In the New Testament, compassion often led Jesus to help people outside the covenant. In fact, it is possible to read the four evangelists claiming Jesus’ compassion moved him to extend his mission beyond the Jewish people. It is a response to people harassed from lack of leadership, hungry from missing dinners when following him, suffering from sickness or injury, and grieving from the death of a child.

Jesus also used compassion to describe two of his most beloved characters in the parables. The gracious father expresses it when seeing his prodigal son returning home, and the Good Samaritan shows the same for the man beaten by robbers. Again, the latter is interested in being a characteristic of someone outside the covenant.

You see this breaking down of barriers in Colossians 3, one of the best descriptions of the Christian life. “There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another, and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

It’s pretty evident compassion is not something you command. Torah laws and Christian teachings are really guidance for those whose hearts have been transformed by experiencing God’s love.

The commentaries often explain this by observing the Hebrew word most constantly used is associated with the womb. They think this expresses feelings of kinship, such as the natural bonds we have with our father, mother, and siblings. I believe we should go deeper and see it involving the relationship of a woman and the child she carries. This is especially important to appreciate in our contemporary society, whose conflicts over abortion reflect the inability of our technological society to understand the mystery of a mother carrying a child.

Let me continue looking further at compassion in the Bible next week. I’ll try to take up Ira’s challenge to be more specific about the kinds of actions it calls for.

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