“Be Compassionate Just as Your Father is Compassionate” (Luke 6:36)
During last spring’s Lenten and Easter seasons we sisters read, pondered, and reflected upon a book titled Compassion.1 Although it was written in 1982, the themes are timely, given our current political and ecclesial climates. “Compassion acts” is the third line of the community vision statement. Let us unpack what that might mean.
Compassion is not easily understood or lived because of its associations with “a general kindness or tenderheartedness” as contrasted with its root meaning “to suffer with,” i.e., “to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish” of another . Often compassion in our culture is associated with being “naïve, romantic or…unrealistic” . Moreover, compassion can be confused with pity. In the words of novelist Louise Penny,2 these two concepts are “near enemies” of each other: “Compassion involves empathy. You see the stricken person as an equal. Pity doesn’t. If you pity someone you feel superior…[Pity] looks like compassion, acts like compassion, but is actually [its] opposite. And as long as pity’s in place there’s not room for compassion. It destroys, squeezes out, the nobler emotions” [197-8].
On the other hand, biblical compassion translates two different Greek words. ΣΠλαγχνίξμαί [splagchnizōmai] means literally “to feel deep in the bowels,” like a gut reaction, from which comes the sense to be moved to show mercy. Jesus’ heart welled up with compassion [splagchnizōmai] when he encountered persons afflicted with disease of all kinds. The second word is οίκτιρμὁς [oiktirmὁs] a variant of which is used in Luke 6:36. Jesus’ directive in Luke’s gospel, “Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate,” comes at the end of his section on love of enemies (Lk 6:27-26) and before the section on not judging others (Lk 6:37-38). Thus “Jesus’ teaching on the love of one’s enemies (Lk 6:27-36)…has as its source of motivation God’s graciousness and compassion for all humanity (Lk 6:35-36) and Jesus’ teaching on the love of one’s neighbor (Lk 6:37-42) that is characterized by forgiveness and generosity.”3
This call to manifest God’s capacity to be generous and forgive seems beyond our human capacity, particularly when hurts and suffering leave us overwhelmed and discouraged. I am reminded of Sr. Joan Mueller’s insight that even Jesus, having been nailed to the cross, does not say, “I forgive them,” but “Father, forgive them” (Lk 23:34), giving us a model for us to ask for the grace of the One “who alone is able to forgive.”4 If Jesus in the midst of his agony had to beg God to do the forgiving, who am I to think I can do this by myself? I must ask for the grace even to be willing to forgive. That willingness may take some time for my own heart to be healed of the pain, either my own or that inflicted on a loved one. That willingness is not so much a feeling as it is an act of calling on God to bring about the necessary compassion from which can flow mercy and forgiveness toward another.
When one reads the parallel verse to Luke 6:36 in Matthew 5:48, one encounters a different directive, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word for perfect in Greek is τελεiος [teleios], a word rarely used in the gospels. This verse is composed of a fusion of two biblical texts and Hebrew words from the First Testament: Dt. 18:13 reads τāμιν [tamin], meaning “‘blameless’ instead of ‘perfect’” and qĕdōŝîm [qedosim] from Lev 19:2 meaning “holy.”5 In Greek thought as indicated in Matthew’s verse, there is a call to conform “to the divine ideal,” whereas the Lukan verse “emphasizes covenant fidelity and steadfast love.”6
As a child the ideal of being perfectly behaved in church, school and elsewhere conjured up the struggle in perfectionism, without much room for being a vulnerable, human being subject to frailty and failure. Madeleine L’Engle’s commentary on the Matthean verse has been quite helpful to reading the verse with compassionate understanding.
What about the mandate to be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect? The word perfect comes from the Latin and means to do thoroughly. So, if we understand the word that way, we might say that it means to be human, perfectly human, and perhaps that is what we are meant to understand by this command, which is on the surface a contradiction to Jesus’ emphasis that only his Father was good, only his Father was perfect. We human beings are to be human — to be perfectly human, not indefectible or impeccable or faultless or super human, but complete, right, with integrity undivided.7
In conclusion, compassion is a deep Christian act, one that takes years to be cultivated by the grace of the Divine One, who plants its seeds in our hearts, minds, wills, and behaviors. As the love of God grows in us, overcoming the weeds of destructive thoughts and attitudes, and nurturing the healing of areas of pain and suffering, so we are able to “suffer with” the pains of others without pity, naivety and avoidance. Let us pray for that grace:
O God of infinite compassion, your Son willingly died for us on a cross and cried out in his agony, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” He yielded his Spirit as surely as he surrendered even his own capacity to forgive others to you, the one alone who could forgive such a painful death and turn it into new life. Come visit the areas of pain in ourselves, in our loved ones, in all who suffer from abandonment, terror, terrible situations of violence and betrayal, separation, and deep anxieties, with your tender mercy and healing balm of love. May we trust that you hear and answer this prayer in your own timing and rhythm of compassionate healing, as we ask in Jesus’ loving name. Amen.
1 Donald P. McNeill, Douglas A. Morrison, Henri J.M. Nouwen, COMPASSION: A Reflection on the Christian Life (Garden City, NY: Image Books, Doubleday & Company, 1982). Pages from this work will be indicated in brackets.
2 Louise Penny, The Cruelest Month: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel (New York: Minotaur Books, 2007).
3 New American Bible, http://usccb.org/bible/luke/6, FN to Luke 6:20-49.
4 Joan Mueller, OSF, Is Forgiveness Possible? (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998) 39.
5 Benedict T. Viviano, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall 1990) section 42:35, p. 644.
7 MadeleineL’EnglewithCaroleF.Chase, GlimpsesofGrace:Daily Thoughts and Reflections (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) 294-295.