“Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.”
After a childhood of working with Lego’s, helping my grandfather restore tractors, and tearing apart anything mechanical I could get my hands on, I headed to college pre-enrolled in the engineering program. During freshman orientation, I met with a guidance counselor, surveyed the unending stream of math classes that the next four years would hold, and promptly became “undecided” in my course of study. It was part of realizing that while I loved the imaginative work of creating things, I was clearly a word person, not a numbers person. That realization helped me find my way through college and into seminary where I was immersed in the word-filled world of scripture.
There are a lot of fantastic Hebrew (the Old Testament language) and Greek (the New Testament language) words that tell us the story of God’s design and desires for the world, but the Greek verb for “having compassion” is by far my favorite bible word. The best transliteration is probably, splangx-knee-so-my. Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it? The root is the noun “splangx,” which is the word for the spleen (or kidney, or uterus, or the lower abdomen in general. Ancient physiology wasn’t always very precise).
Specific organs aside, the point is that compassion isn’t something experienced in the head or even the heart. Compassion is that thing that hits you in the gut. It’s what you feel when you first see the picture of a small Syrian boy covered in dust and blood and sitting in shock as his city is torn apart. It’s the pit that forms in your stomach as you watch elderly neighbors evacuated through flood waters in Houston. It’s that parental sucker punch that hits you when you hear a cry of pain on the playground and immediately recognize it as your child’s voice.
That compassion-from-the-gut word is unique to the gospels. In every case, it describes what motivated Jesus to do Jesus things, with the exception of three stories that Jesus tells where compassion motivates the characters. We’ll take a look at those stories in future posts.
I marvel its use in chapter 14 of Matthew. If you read from the start of the chapter you get the story of Herod Antipas beheading John the Baptist. When word reaches Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee that his cousin and mentor is dead, all he wants to do is get away. Matthew paints a picture of an intensely human Jesus who just wants to be by himself to grieve. Ever known that feeling?
Unfortunately, the crowds aren’t on the same page. When Jesus lands in what he hoped would be a deserted place they’re waiting for him. While I can imagine being mighty annoyed at this point, we’re told that Jesus is moved by compassion to heal and feed the people. Immediately afterward he sends his disciples off on a boat and again tries to get away up a mountain by himself, only to be drawn back into action by the sight of his friends battered by waves.
This is the thing about gospel compassion. It compels to action. Every time the word pops up it involves the transformation of something frightening, painful, or dangerous because Jesus, or a character in one of his parables, had their gut wrenched by someone and they couldn’t help but do whatever they could to respond with compassionate action.
It makes me wonder how we can cultivate such compassion in a world that desperately needs it! Far too often we come in contact with things that hit us in the gut but respond with little more than a retweet or a “like” on Facebook. Yet it’s precisely when that gut felt empathy translates into concrete action that we find ourselves sharing what we might call the sacred spleen of Jesus! We may not have every ability Jesus brought to his ministry, but if we share the impulse to be near those who suffer, and the conviction to act when we experience compassion, we too can bring transformation. What does cultivating compassion look like in your life right now?