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The Compassion of Christ


Ron Loge

You all know the expression: "It doesn't matter what you know, it's who you know." Well, I use a variant of this: "It doesn't matter what you know. It doesn't matter who you know. It matters who you fish with." There is another Montana variant: "It matters who you hunt with." And interestingly, that is how this sermon came about.

The seeds for today's sermon were planted last November at the conclusion of a wonderful pheasant hunting trip with my friend Pete Pappas. Let me explain. Pete and I trained together in the Internal Medicine residency program at the University of Washington a long time ago. Pete and his wife, Alexis, are Greek-Americans, active in their Greek Orthodox Church's ministries in Birmingham, Alabama, and they have a vacation home in Montana. Our visits together include a lot of theological discussions as they educate me about their beliefs and traditions. So last fall I mentioned that I was contemplating preparing a sermon on the compassion of Christ. Alexis pointedly asked, "When was it that you discovered the power of compassion in your medical career?"

That question caused me to reflect, and I told them this story:

My strongest memory of the gut feeling of compassion in my medical training came when I was an intern, and it became a watershed moment for me that provided guidance for the rest of my career. At the University Hospital, I had admitted and was caring for a man with an acute gallbladder attack. We were soon able to control the pain and infection. During this time, I became acquainted with both him and his wife. We called in the surgical team who removed his gallbladder, and he was recovering well under their care. Several days into his post-surgery recovery, I was paged to the surgical floor to help with a code blue, meaning a cardiac arrest. I ran up to the room where the surgery interns and residents were frantically working and saw that it was, in fact, our mutual patient with the gallbladder problem. He evidently had suffered a massive blood clot to his lungs. The situation was dire, and it was soon apparent that he could not be saved.

Feeling helpless in this hopeless situation, I felt overwhelming grief. But then I was suddenly struck with a deep visceral concern that this man's wife was probably alone and anxiously waiting for a report in the waiting room. I left the resuscitation team as there was nothing I could do to help. I found her alone and worried in the waiting room. I sat down and gently told her what had just happened and the bad news of her dear husband's death. I sat and listened and wept with her. Later we walked together into the hospital room, now empty of all the doctors and nurses, so she could be with him and say goodbye. That was my first experience like that. Several months later, I received a letter from her thanking me for the kindness of being with her at that heart-breaking, gut-wrenching moment as I was the only one of the entire team who talked to her. It was the first step in her healing.

For me it was a crucible event, the refining of a crucially important part of being a healer.

The lesson was that when that gut feeling of compassion was felt, I needed to act on it. To feel it, to drop what I was doing, and act. I learned over the years that compassion was key to patient care. But on the other side of the coin, looking back, I am sure my poorest moments as a physician were when I chose to seal off my emotions and avoid feeling compassion.

After hearing this story, Alexis brightened and with a big smile said, "Well then, you need to have your sermon be about "splagchna." Puzzled, I asked, "What is that." Pete told me to think of what that Greek word sounds like, and I asked, "You mean like splanchnic circulation. "Exactly" he said. "Think of the spleen which has the same word derivation." In medical terms, splanchnic circulation refers to the blood circulation in the guts, spleen and liver. In ancient times these organs and the heart were felt to be the seat of our deepest feelings and could be felt in them. That is where we get the expression "a gut feeling" and references to the heart as the emotional center. That is where we get the term heartache.

Also, in the Hebrew speaking world, these organs were felt to be the source of kindness and benevolence. Alexis said that in the Greek biblical text whenever Jesus felt deep compassion, it was the Greek word splagchna that was used in the text to name those feelings. "You need to preach about splagchna," she urged me.

So here we are thanks to Pete and Alexis and their Greek Orthodox faith.

You may be wondering how the Greek language, or a Greek word relates to us today. Putting the language of the Bible in perspective, the Old Testament was recorded mostly in Hebrew and some parts in Aramaic, the Semitic local language in Israel. However, the New Testament was written largely in Greek. Greek was the language of learning even in the Holy Land whereas Aramaic and Hebrew were the common spoken and religious languages. Our modern translations come from an understanding of the colloquial Greek at the time of Jesus. So, it behooves us to appreciate the meaning of some of the Greek words that were written down those decades after Jesus' time on earth and became the canon of the New Testament.

Here is the word of the day: Σπλάγχνα

That's spelled sigma pi lambda alpha gamma chi nu alpha. SPLAGCHNA.

Now repeat after me: splangk -na. Now together we have had our first lesson in Greek.

We are going to study the importance of this word in the work and life of Jesus – splagchna. This was Jesus' calling card - deep-seated compassion.

Compassion is mentioned often in the Hebrew Old Testament and refers to God's love, empathy and sympathy. Compassion is rooted in the very nature of God. Christian compassion, more particularly, finds its mooring in the compassion of Christ. Jesus took the compassion of God as revealed in the Old Testament into action and took it to humanity. As disciples we are asked to do the same.

There are scholars who argue the entirety of Jesus' ministry can be summarized in this one word: splagchna, the noun, or the verb splanchnizomai meaning to feel compassion. These words were used six times in the Gospels when describing situations Jesus entered into or in His parables. When Jesus felt compassion, it moved Him to meet the needs of people. He didn't create distance with broken people – He created connection. Compassion is the greatest motivator for changing a person's life. And the compassion of Christ did exactly that.

Today we think of compassion as a deeply felt emotion. But let's be clear, it is not necessarily just feeling sorry for someone but going a step further and having a deep, abiding affection for them and their plight in life. When we feel compassionate, we look beyond the surface and into the heart of the person. It conveys so much more than mere sympathy. Compassion is a practical response that meets a dire need. It starts with emotion and finishes with effective action.

Jesus was drawn to the hopeless, the aimless, the leaderless and the dejected, rejected and infected. His compassion led him to action – to guide, to nourish, to comfort, and to strengthen. Jesus responded to these people not with rejection but with compassion and action. – teaching, preaching, healing, and praying – and he challenges us to do the same.

Let's dig into this compassion of Christ.

When we look at the life of Jesus on Earth, we know that service was an integral part of it. Everywhere He went, He made people aware of God's love by personally helping them. What motivated Him to do these things? It was splagchna.

Splagchna is the word used in the Greek text of Luke 10:33, which is part of the parable of the Good Samaritan: "Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt splagchna for him." compassion

Compassion produced action. The parable of the Samaritan shows how the Samaritan stopped, helped, and provided. He wasn't afraid of a stranger nor was he afraid to get his hands dirty. That is the point Jesus was making. Splagchna moved the Samaritan to serve. Empathy, sympathy and kindness may be positive emotions in such a case, but compassion makes things happen.

Com – passion means to suffer-with.

John 11: 35 is the shortest verse in the Bible, "Jesus wept," and demonstrates this meaning of suffering-with. John 11:1–45 concerns the death and resurrection of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha and a friend of Jesus. When Jesus arrived and gathered with the sisters and others mourning Lazarus’s death, he was deeply moved by their wailing and grief. When Jesus wept, he did not weep over the death itself since He knew Lazarus would soon be raised. Yet, He could not help but weep when confronted with the wailing and sobbing of Mary, Martha, and the other mourners. The original Greek language indicates that our Lord wept “silent tears” or tears of compassion for His friends. He suffered-with and demonstrated his com-passion.

-Here are other examples. We could call these: "Jesus's greatest hits":

Jesus' compassion for 2 blind men brought their sight back in Matthew 20:34

-Jesus had compassion for a large crowd whom he said were as sheep without a shepherd and brought healing to their sick and food for their bodies in Matthew 9:36

And it was what Jesus felt when He healed a man with leprosy in Mark 1:41: "Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him. 'I am willing," Jesus said. 'Be healed!'" Think about that. Lepers were the ultimate outcasts and untouchables because of their disease which we now know is a contagious, destructive infection. No one touched lepers, but moved with compassion, Jesus did.

-Jesus' compassion for a widow mourning the death of her son brought life back into his body. Luke 7:13 "When the Lord saw her, he was moved with compassion for her and said to her, "Do not weep."

In the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15: it says," So the son set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with “splagchna" or compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him." This was a deep visceral feeling of love. We would say he felt that love in his heart or in his guts. And of course, the father in this parable represents our loving, forgiving, and compassionate God.

Compassion provided food, raised the dead, restored lives, healed the sick and brought hope and direction for those who were like sheep without a shepherd.

What moved Jesus to compassion must move us to compassion and action. Jesus' mission is the church's mission, every Christian's mission. I am thankful for many of you here who have countless times shown all of us what splagchna looks like in the real world.

Ah, but it is not just a question of what does compassion looks like – rather what does it feel like? Splagchna is an unmistakable feeling. You recognize it when it is there. You not only feel the emotion of love, or empathy or sorrow or pity, you mind is triggered to go into action to try to do something to help. You feel driven.

And feeling God's compassion for others can help us serve in ways we never thought possible. I know that God has led First Presbyterian Church to serve in many ways. Building on the compassionate nurture demonstrated by Joyce Baker and Cathy Cottom, we have developed a Pastoral Care mission and team to serve the needs of the homebound, ill, hurting, and lonely in our congregation. We helped guide our most vulnerable through the Covid pandemic. We are now bringing worship and communion monthly to homebound and BeeHive assisted living residents.

Our team includes Cathy Cottom, Barb Malesich, Eric Hammer, Sandy Rice, Cathy Heller, Marie Hamilton, Pastors Triller and McCall and me. Phone calls, home visits, hospital visits and prayer are our currency. God has chosen these workers who are gifted with splagchna – people with deep compassion. Jesus said, "the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few." The harvest doesn't come to us. We go to the harvest -- by enacting Christian deeds of love. Word and deed – hand in hand.

As disciples of Christ, you and I, all of us, we are all serving in Pastoral Care.

While we should always pray for opportunities to be God's hands and feet, we can also remember the actions of the Good Samaritan and apply those when we see the need.

Compassion can be tuned in and perhaps, as I confessed to earlier, more easily it can be tuned out – the parable of the Good Samaritan provides an example with the travelers who saw the poor man at the side of the road and looked the other way. They may have had a modicum of sympathy or empathy with his plight, but it was the Samaritan, who in the parable was a stand-in for Jesus himself, had splagchna and acted.

As Pastor Triller has been preaching about restorative justice, I think you can see the link between justice and compassion. The parable of the good Samaritan is a case in point. However, on the dark side we recently have heard news reports about the man who put a chokehold on a noisy, mentally ill man in a New York subway to subdue him. The chokehold caused the mentally ill man to suffocate to death. Some media and national leaders, who will go unnamed, have defended this man's action and called him a "good Samaritan." Really? Is this action the same as the Samaritan in the parable? It seems that everyone needs to take time to study the words of Jesus and come to a true understanding of compassion as exemplified in this parable. Let's not confuse vigilante justice with the Good Samaritan and compassion. Where there is compassion there is an opportunity for restorative justice.

I am currently reading a novel by Abraham Verghese called, "The Covenant of Water." It takes place along the west coast of southern India where there is a large population of Christians whose community dates back to the Apostle Thomas' ministry 2000 years ago. In the novel there is a scene of a 9-year-old boy who after watching his mother, father, and baby sister all die of smallpox, leaves his shack, hungry and orphaned. He crosses the valley to a wealthy neighbor's estate. As he approaches the house, he hears a loud voice, "Don't you dare come closer. Go away before I unchain the dog." He then hears another voice, that of a servant woman hiding in the bushes who says, "Come, I have food to share." After eating, he asks, "I thought those people in that house were Christians. That is why I came here for help." The girl replied, “no one told them that Jesus died on a different cross, not the one hanging in their kitchen. They don't believe that Jesus died on their cross for our kind or people."

Listen to how this relates to the message in 1 John 3:17 – This is the splagchna translation from the King James: "But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother has need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?" A modern translation from the Message says: "If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear."

Let's be honest with ourselves, here is where is gets tough and where we are challenged by God's words.

For example, Charlene and I were recently in Salt Lake City and came across many people on street corners begging and probably homeless. Jesus reached out to these sorts of people. We talked about this in light of 1 John verse. It made us uncomfortable, indeed. How do we as individuals, who have some resources, meet the needs for all of these people who we see and the millions that we don't? It seems impossible to help all who are in need.

We who would follow Jesus do have ethical choices to make with regard to compassion. We can decide to acknowledge the feeling stirred up when we are confronted by suffering, or we can train ourselves to ignore these emotions. When we admit our feelings of compassion, we then can decide what can do in the most loving and merciful way to help given the circumstances.

Another example: several years ago, Charlene and I were moved by compassion to action by the presentation of Melissa and Charles Johnson about their mission work in Zimbabwe, Africa which helps the people in their mission community to maintain sustainable food production for themselves, improve their health infrastructure and at the same time prosper in their faith. We truly believe that our help drawn from compassion will make a difference, albeit small, for all of these children of God.

How can we find compassion? Love and compassion come from God. His love for us should be our motivation to love others the same. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 "if I do not have love, I am nothing."

Compassion involves the capacity to see one's own face mirrored in the face of another and to recognize there, upon closer examination, the very face of Christ.

"Inasmuch as you have had compassion for one of the least of my brothers and sisters, " Jesus said, "you have had compassion for me." Compassion, a humane instinct, is what our community, our country and our world desperately need. And so, in Christ's name, I urge you – I beg you – to cultivate compassion. And pass it on.

When we let God open our eyes to serving opportunities, we start to see the world as Jesus saw it: with compassion. The Holy Spirit guides us in Christ's compassion. Like the God's Kids choir sang last month and what we just sang: "Open the eyes of my heart Lord. I want to see you."

When you have the compassion of Christ, it changes your world view. There is no place for hate, for name calling, for demeaning and dehumanizing others who look different, act differently or come from someplace outside of our tight circle of comfort or from a different political ideology. It frees you to look for the face of Christ in your fellow man and not just those sitting in the pews around you. Like in the story from India, it was on the same cross and it was the same Jesus who died for all of us.

This week, do a good gut check. Tune in your awareness. Do you find yourself feeling splagchna, gut wrenching compassion? Will you tune it out or will you act?


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