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Be compassionate

30 November, 1999

Jesus seems to have deliberately provoked conflict with the dominant social vision represented by the religious authorities by his compassionate healings on the Sabbath and his table-fellowship with outcasts. James Mc Polin SJ tells the story.

Marcus Borg, a well-known writer on the Bible, has pointed out in his books that a core value in the Bible is compassion. It is also a focal point around which an image of Jesus may be formed. Constantly we read about Jesus’ compassion in word and action. Besides, he invites us to imitate the compassion of God (Lk. 6:36).

What God is like
Compassion is a particularly important word in the gospels. The stories told about Jesus speak of him as having compassion and of his being moved with compassion. Also, the word is a summary of his teaching about God and human behaviour: ‘Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate’ – these words combine in a single verse the two aspects of compassion.
Compassion brings together our image of God, what God is like and how we are to live.

Womb feelings
In Hebrew, the word usually translated as compassion means ‘womb’: it denotes the love of a mother for the child of her womb. It refers to a range of feelings including goodness, tenderness, patience and understanding. It expresses the tender aspect of God’s love.

Compassion is both a feeling and a way of being flowing from that feeling. Compassion means to ‘feel with’. Thus it means feeling the feelings of someone else at a level somewhere below the level of the head. It is associated with feeling the suffering of somebody else, and being moved by that suffering to do something.
Victims of injustice
The feeling of compassion leads to being compassionate. To be compassionate is to feel for somebody as a mother feels for the children of her womb.

It also has connotations of life-giving and nourishment. In the Hebrew Bible, God is often spoken of as compassionate. God feels for and cares for the children of God’s womb and God is angered when the children of God’s womb are the victims of injustice.

Abraham Heschel, the great Jewish scholar, points out that the anger of the prophets at the injustices suffered by the people is based on their compassion and that the person who has no anger has no compassion.

Compassion or mercy?
Quite often the Hebrew words for compassionate and compassion and are translated as merciful and mercy. But compassion is quite different from mercy. Mercy presumes a situation of wrong-doing.

One is merciful to somebody who has done wrong and showing mercy is often associated with contexts of guilt.

Besides, the language of mercy commonly presumes a power relationship of superior to inferior – one is merciful to somebody over whom one has power. But compassion does not include these two aspects implied by mercy.

Somebody has written that mercy wears a human face, and compassion a human heart.

Conflict and compassion
Many of the conflicts of Jesus in the gospels arise because of his compassion.

These controversies of Jesus with the Pharisees were a conflict between his compassion and their quest for holiness or purity. The central conflict in the ministry of Jesus was between two different social visions. The dominant social vision represented by the religious authorities was centred on holiness or purity.
Holiness and compassion
Holiness meant separation from all that was unclean and observance of laws concerning purity and the sabbath. The sabbath controversies are another manifestation of the conflict between holiness and compassion.

Jesus represented a politics of compassion; the Jewish religious authorities represented a politics of ritual purity or holiness. The gospels clearly attest the presence of sabbath controversy in the ministry of Jesus. Besides, Jesus deliberately chose the sabbath as an issue over which to do battle.

The four gospels consistently affirm that Jesus, not the afflicted, took the initiative in healings on the sabbath. That he did not wait until the day after the sabbath suggests deliberate provocation. Jesus, not his opponents, chose to make the sabbath an issue.

According to Mark, the afflicted expected to wait until the sabbath was over: ‘That evening, at sundown (i.e. when the sabbath had ended) they brought to him all who were sick’ (1:32-34). On the other hand, the afflicted always took the initiative on days other than the sabbath.

Compassion and healing
The story highlights Jesus’ compassion towards a suffering woman. He takes the initiative, defending his healing of her on the sabbath against the religious authorities. With the courage characteristic of his compassion, he defends her against these male religious leaders who are supporting such dehumanising laws about sabbath observance.

He calls her ‘a daughter of Abraham’, that is, a true member of God’s people, who should be treated as such, instead of being valued even less than a donkey or ox.

Compassion triumphs over sabbath prescriptions once again.

Compassion and table-fellowship
In addition, Jesus’ attitude towards sharing meals with others (called table-fellowship) clearly shows how compassion was to take precedence over the laws of purity and holiness.

Pharisees (and others) would not eat with somebody who was ‘impure’.

They would not share a meal with an ‘outcast’. The gospels state frequently that Jesus ate with ‘tax collectors and sinners.’ This practice differentiated Jesus more than any other from both his contemporaries and even from the prophets before him.

Sinners were his companions at table and the ostracised tax collectors and prostitutes were his friends.

Sometimes Jesus’ parables are replies to the Pharisees who are condemning him for eating with tax-collectors and sinners.

Meaning of shared meals
Table-fellowship, that is sharing a meal with somebody, had a significance in Jesus’ social world that it is difficult for us to imagine today. It was not a casual act.
In a general way, sharing a meal represented mutual acceptance. In the time of Jesus, sitting at table with another was an expression of intimacy and fellowship. To invite people to a meal honoured them and expressed both trust and acceptance. Refusal to share a meal symbolised disapproval and rejection.

Those excluded
The Pharisees (who often were good-living, religious people) refused table-fellowship to all whom they considered ‘impure’, that is, sinners and outcasts.

These included certain social groupings such as tax-collectors, gamblers, usurers, shepherds, those guilty of flagrant immorality e.g. extortioners, prostitutes, adulterers, murderers, idolators and those who did not observe the Torah (i.e. the Jewish law) according to the Pharisees’ understanding of it. All these were considered ‘impure’ and excluded from table-fellowship. 

One of Jesus’ most characteristic activities was an inclusive and open table. His practice of eating and drinking with sinners and tax-collectors drew attack from his opponents. Jesus did not simply accept the central role of table-fellowship but used it as a weapon. His teaching shows an awareness of the centrality of table-fellowship and his action was deliberately provocative. But more positively, it expressed the depth and all-inclusiveness of his compassion.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (July 2002), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

The image is of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus.


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