Compassion and Jesus Christ
This was originally an academic paper titled “Compassion: Looking to Jesus as our Example” and it was written for Engaging Faith and Life. The paper has been reformatted, but all copyright and plagiarism rules still apply. Please contact Austin if you wish to disseminate.
“We are to be an example of Christ!” Christians exclaim boldly because they want to be practical in their theology. Sure, Christians are to be following Christ’s example – no reasonable Christian would deny such a thing. Quite often, Jesus had compassion (and currently still does). What does compassion look like? What exactly is it? Using the Gospels, compassion is having such a deep sympathy for someone that action follows to improve the situation.
A quick read of the four Gospels reveals an attribute of Jesus – compassion. Empathy is certainly manifested through what Jesus did while physically on this Earth, but ironically, it is hardly mentioned in the New Testament! The lemma for compassion —splagchnizomai (σπλαγχνίζομαι) — is only used 12 times in the Greek New Testament. The only use of splanchnizomai within the New Testament is in the Synoptic Gospels, where Christ’s earthly ministry was recorded. That means, out of those 12 times, there are bound to be repeats.
A majority of the time, when splanchnizomai and Jesus are together, mercy precedes the action. For example:
He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9:36, NASB).
He felt compassion for her, and said to her, “Do not weep.” (Luke 7:13, NASB)
Not only did Jesus have compassion, but when He told crowds His parables, the moral characters of the stories emulated Him. An example would be Matt 18:27, the parable of the unforgiving servant. The lord of the slave in this parable “felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.” (NASB)
Another well-known parable on pity would be the Parable of the Good Samaritan. When the man was laying on the side of the road, a Samaritan passed by him, and “felt compassion.” Pity led the Samaritan to clean the man, bandage him, and to give him lodging until he was better.
One final example would be the Parable of the Prodigal Son. When the son was returning back to his father, the father saw him, he had care for him, and ran to him to embrace him. Compassion is not simply action, it is also a state of being.
State of Being
“Compassion is not simply action, it is also a state of being.“
— Austin Hess
To Jesus, sympathy was not only work, it was something internal, it was feeling, emotion. An example of this would be when Jesus fed the 4,000. He says, “I feel compassion for the people” (Mark 8:2, NASB). Sure, works followed His concern, but that does not change the fact that He feels compassion. Plus, His pity is always present with Him. As Jesus was getting ready to enter Jerusalem before His crucifixion, there were two blind men waiting outside. When they told Jesus that they wanted their eyes to be opened, he was “moved with compassion” (Matt 20:34, NASB).
“[Jesus] will not fail to show compassion when people need it most.“
— Austin Hess
There is one more instance that should be covered. In Mark 9:14-29, Mark records the account of a miraculous resurrection.
Jesus and His disciples are returning back from the mountain and they come upon the scene of a large crowd and scribes arguing over a demon possessed boy. After describing the situation with the boy, the father pleads with the Lord to take pity and help. After this plea, the Lord casts the demon out of the boy and he is healed! In this case, instead of the Lord doing the initiating, the father did by making his plea to take pity on the boy.
There is no apparent reason as to why the Lord was not first moved with empathy, or why the man had to ask for pity and having the man ask for pity. As stated before, Christ is filled with mercy always — He is compassion — but maybe He had the man ask so that he could be moved to a humble state of submission and realize that He is the Great Physician.
It is important to note that this is the only instance that someone pleaded for Jesus’ compassion. It is not like Christ was slow to act, it happened according to His will. This is a powerful testimony of Jesus because it shows that in all those other instances, Jesus was the initiator. He felt kindness then did the work. He will not fail to show compassion when people need it most.
Now that sympathy has been looked at in the Gospels, what does this mean for the Christian? For starters, action always follows compassion. This is not to say that we “by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God.” (WCF 16.5) However, works coming from pity is a sure sign of faith. (WCF 16.2) This is a way Christians can fulfill one of the greatest commandments, to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31, NASB).
Second, Christians should not forget to teach others about charity. As important as it is to know empathy and show empathy, it is equally important to teach others about pity so they may understand it more. This will allow them to better exhibit Christ.
Third, Christians should always be in the state of mercy. Having a bad day does not negate the continual concern that should be showing. Christ did not stop showing compassion when He was handed over to the authorities to be abused and to die on the cross for sin, He even showed mercy then.
Finally, Christians should always remember to cry out to God when in need of compassion. God answers all cries, all groans, all prayers. They should be confident in the fact that God will show compassion when it is needed. In the end, compassion is so much more than a few simple actions to do, it is a constant state of being.