The theme of this week’s Saving Jesus class was “Jesus’ ministry of compassion”, but the most fruitful part of the class was the discussion period, when our minister asked us to talk about the greatest acts of compassion we’d experienced or witnessed. This invitation was met with a silent, reflective period that gave rise to a further question: why was it so hard to come up with examples of spectacular compassion? Probably because true compassion doesn’t call attention to itself. Jesus had some harsh words for the Pharisees who made a big show of their alms-giving.
Com-passion literally means “together-suffering”; the central fact for you in this moment is the other person’s pain, not your need to be a helper or even your unselfish impulse to solve her problems. In its purest form, it means gratuitously descending into a place of suffering and helplessness, simply in order to be present with someone else who didn’t choose to be in that same place.
Jesus’ ministry of compassion, then, can be seen to go beyond the earthly works of mercy that were the sole focus of this week’s video. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16, KJV)
This series is at its best when it reminds us of the difference between God’s kingdom and Caesar’s. One of the obstacles to compassion is our fear of powerlessness. As one of the class participants said, we’re afraid to acknowledge the other’s suffering because it reminds us of our own. In a situation of oppression, moreover, compassion looks like a luxury we can’t afford. On the DVD, Prof. Luther Smith argued that Jesus gave oppressed people the key to a spiritual power greater than any political force that was exercised against them. Whatever their worldly situation, they always had the freedom to wield God’s power of love, by seeing the oppressor as a fellow human being even when calling him to account for his sins.
For a modern-day, psychologically nuanced and safe model of compassion in abusive relationships, I recommend the Boundaries series by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, and the book Don’t Forgive Too Soon by Dennis, Sheila & Matthew Linn. Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance explores the interplay of compassion for self and others from a Buddhist perspective, but Christians will recognize many points of commonality.
I’ll be absent from next week’s class (no doubt to the delight of my minister) because I’ll be attending a reading of this book, but will try to borrow the DVD after hours so I can find out “Who Killed Jesus?” (Hint: It wasn’t Kristin Shepard.)