Asheville, June 2020. Photo by David Eck

During this time of pandemic and protest, there is one behavior we should all strive to embody: compassion. It’s an attribute that is definitely in short supply on social media. It’s a characteristic that is seldom displayed as we interact with others in this polarized and divided nation.

During my Pentecost sermon, I said that the new mission of the Church is to help our nation recover its humanity. Teaching and modeling compassion will go a long way in helping us to achieve this goal. As followers of Jesus, we need to model his behavior, and the way he interacted with others. While church-going folk often speak about the importance of loving our neighbors, compassion is the kind of love that moves us from emotion to action. It is made for the difficult times we live in.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus looked over the crowds, whom Matthew describes as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” This sounds like an accurate description of what most of us are feeling these days. To put a few more adjectives next to these, The Message says “confused and aimless.” The Voice says, “deeply distraught, malaised, and heart-broken.” That should do it!

I wish I could ask for a show of hands to see how many people feel this way, But I have the sneaking suspicion that one of these adjectives fits everyone who is watching this video.

However, what is more important than describing the feeling is how it affects Jesus. Matthew says that “he had compassion for the harassed and helpless.” What I’d like to do is explore this word in both its Hebrew and Greek origins, so we can understand what compassion looks like, sounds like, and feels like as we show it to others.

Let’s start with the Hebrew. According to Walter Brueggemann, One of the most renowned Old Testament scholars of our time, There are two Hebrew words which are translated into English as “compassion.”

The first is RIHAM, which is cognitively linked to the term for “womb,” REHEM. RIHAM is most often translated as “mercy.” It is heart-centered and means “to love deeply, to have tender affection for.”

RIHAM is, in essence, a term of parental affection. The Hebrew Bible only uses this word when describing the nature and character of God. Brueggeman says that RIHAM speaks of God’s “covenantal solidarity” with us, which is a powerful way of understanding this word.

RIHAM appears in a familiar description of God that is repeated throughout the Hebrew Bible. Psalm 103:8, and other places, says that God is “merciful (RIHAM) and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

This leads us to the second word for compassion, which is translated in this verse as “steadfast love.” According to Brueggeman, HESED is also translated as “mercy, lovingkindness and goodness.” Brueggemann translates it as “tenacious solidarity” which I think is a beautiful way of describing what compassion looks like, sounds like, and feels like.

Like RIHAM, HESED is only used in the Hebrew Bible when describing the nature and character of God. Jeremiah 33:11 says, “Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love (HESED) endures forever!”

So we can see that showing compassion for others, means “to love deeply, to have tender affection for, and to stand in “tenacious solidarity” with them. This is not feeling sorry for someone or having pity on a poor, unfortunate soul. compassion moves us from emotion to action.

It’s what we need at this moment in our nation’s history as white people, who may have never attended a protest in their lives, have been moved to do so in order to stand in “tenacious solidarity” with our black siblings. Compassion will be needed to help us move from anger and outrage to changing oppressive systems for the better.

Your pastor has written to several community leaders this past week and offered to lend a hand in any way they see fit. These include Council member Keith Young and police chief David Zach. I share this with you because I confess that while I’ve denounced white supremacy and racism in my sermons, it has not moved me to do something about it. I repent of my failure to put my words into actions. I repent of being a poor ally to my black and brown siblings.

However, this week COMPASSION has left me with no choice. I’m discerning where I can best use my skills, as both a pastor and a hospital chaplain, to change our city for the better. I pray that COMPASSION will move you to action as well. We all have different gifts and abilities, so discern how you can use your gifts to bring healing and justice to our city and our nation.

Moving on to the New Testament, the Greek word we translate as “compassion” is SPLAGCHNIZOMAI. Like its Hebrew equivalents, the Greek word for “compassion” is only used when describing the nature and character of Jesus. SPLAGCHNIZOMAI literally means “to be moved in one’s bowels.” Since the bowls were thought to be the place where the emotions of love and pity reside. In modern English, we would say we “feel it in our gut.” It affects us on a deep, visceral level.

SPLAGCHNIZOMAI means to have “sorrow and pity for one in distress, creating a desire to relieve.” It also moves us from emotion to action. Of all the words used to describe the nature and character of Jesus, this may be the most important one for our times.

It’s clear from the gospel story that we are called to mirror this behavior. After Jesus had compassion on the harassed and helpless, he said. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Perhaps this story is about more than winning souls for Christ, which is the typical interpretation. Perhaps it’s about sowing seed of compassion in the lives of those around us so that they will yield a beautiful harvest of lovingkindness, justice and mercy. Perhaps it’s about leading with our hearts, rather than leading with our  words of anger and judgment on social media.

The world desperately needs what we have to offer. The harassed and helpless desperately need what we have to offer. So, that’s our homework for this week. We need to increase our compassion. We need to commit ourselves to the work Jesus did, standing in tenacious solidarity with the “deeply distraught, and heart-broken.” Amen!

Copyright ©2020 by David Eck