Jesus and the Guts of Compassion

In my Bible reading yesterday morning, I came across one of my favorite passages in the Scriptures, Matthew 9:35-39. As Matthew recounts this story, he sets the context by telling his readers what Jesus was doing: (1) going everywhere he could (“all the towns and villages”), (2) teaching where they were already gathered (the synagogue), (3) preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and (4) healing every disease and every sickness. I think there’s something neat about those four in that it’s a great “practice what you preach” sandwich–the inner two describe his teaching and preaching ministry, and the outer two describe his on the ground, active seeking out of people and helping them in a holistic way. He taught and he healed, connecting the spiritual and physical realities of the gospel of the kingdom.

Rembrandt - Return of the Prodigal Son

My favorite part of the passage, though, sits in verse 36–“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion (ἐσπλαγχνίσθη) on them.” The verb translated “had compassion” is σπλαγχνίζομαι, defined as “have pity, feel sympathy”, and I have to say it has a nice, albeit harsh, ring to it: splanchnizomai. The noun form is σπλάγχνον (splanchnon), which literally means “the inward parts of a body, including esp. the viscera, inward parts, entrails” (BDAG, 938). Thus, the translation “had compassion” connects a deep, heartfelt emotion that goes all the way down to your guts. Jesus really felt it for these folks. They were harassed and helpless, and he was moved in his most inward parts to love them.

Following the trail in a dictionary a little bit further, I found that there are two other key stories where this verb shows up: The Parable of the Prodigal Son and The Good Samaritan story. In the story of the prodigal son, the father–betrayed, spat on, and rejected by the younger son–has this response to his wayward son’s return:

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion (ἐσπλαγχνίσθη) for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20 NIV)

All he needed was to see him, and his guts were moved, he ran, and he welcomed him home.

Then, there’s the Good Samaritan seeing the injured man in Luke 10:33 (ESV): “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion (ἐσπλαγχνίσθη).” But he didn’t just feel bad for him, he did something about it–he tended to his wounds, brought him to an inn, and paid for his stay. As Hans-Helmut Esser notes,

In the parable of the good Samaritan (Lk. 10:30–37) splanchnizomai in v. 33 expresses the attitude of complete willingness to use all means, time, strength, and life, for saving at the crucial moment. It contrasts with the passing by on the other side (vv. 31, 32). Since seeing and being prepared to help are one, it sets in motion as with Jesus himself, a whole chain of events which together are called eleos (v. 37a). Humanity and neighbourliness are not qualities but action (v. 37f.).

Hans-Helmut Esser, s.v. “σπλάγχνα, σπλάγχνον,” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 2:600, boldface added.

I’ve heard it said that compassion without action is not compassion at all, but sympathy. Jesus demonstrates to us that real compassion involves active participation in addressing the needs of the hurting.

Humanity and neighborliness are not qualities but action. That takes guts.

2 comments to Jesus and the Guts of Compassion

  • Hi Ron. Thanks for your good wishes for my fmliay and I. The Lord blessed us with a healthy baby boy, to complement our three beautiful little girls, so thanks for the kind thought.In response to your questions. Would it be appropriate Mark for a minister not to marry you because you have/had/will lust after other women in your life time?If I tell the minister that my intention in this marriage is to lust after other women after I am married and thats just who I am, I would hope this minister would not perform the marriage ceremony. Especially, if he is marrying one of Gods daughters. If this man confesses past sins of lust and that particular sin is a stronghold for him, I would hope the marriage would be at best delayed, hopefully cancelled, and that he be put with a group of godly Christian men, and begin a redemptive process. Romans 3 would jive with that. If that is successful, then maybe then he is ready to be married in the church.Who are we are to say what is and isn’t righteous? Our own lacking interpretation?Scripture is the answer to that. It is very, very clear for those that love Him.Why do we think homos and heteros are different? What gives us the right?We arent different, in this way. We are all sinners. We are equal in that regard, and if we are true Christians who love Jesus and have changed hearts, by the preaching of the Word, we will be convicted of our sin do a 180 to God. We will repent of all depravity and depraved lifestyles. If a guy is having hetero sex outside of marriage, downloading porn, having homo sex, lying, stealing gossiping etc. and not turning from it by the grace of God, then hes not a Christian. He may be hanging out with Christians, but hes not one. And if he is a Christian, then he will not want to marry anyone of the same sex, because Jesus is too precious in his/her sight.Why are we so hell bent on keeping people in and out? For what sins we believe to be sins are we not called to let the weeds grow with the wheat?I guess define in or out. My thoughts are, the church doors should be open for anyone. Practically, pedophiles I would not allow to mingle in the church on Sunday along with some other dangerous people. Homosexuals would be very welcome. They would be seekers. If they then wanted to be baptized, married or made a member, they would need to repent of that lifestyle. God hates it, destroyed a whole town over it in the Old Testament, and so we should not affirm it either. If at that point, they decided to leave, Im guessing they could join at whatever church you guys go to. But make sure you let the pedophiles do ministry with your kids, because who are we to judge. Its just such a heart issue. God is the judge, for sure. But man, you guys dont sound like you know the God of the Bible or love Jesus very much. These things are really weird for Christians to even debate with one another. With non-Christians, sure, but not among believers. Getting kinda of depressing I think. Wondering when to shake the dust off my feet here.

  • Jason –
    I have no idea whether you will receive or read this – but I just wanted to say thanks for the well written article on Jesus’ compassion. I found your blog this weekend as I was working on my sermon for a small Lutheran congregation in Pembroke Pines FL (near Ft Lauderdale). I was intrigued enough to kick the tires after the weekend and see who you were. It seems like this site is not active anymore, and that seems a shame, but hope you are writing and caring for God’s world in some other place and way. Just wanted to let you know that this spiritual cousin on the other side of your home continent was blessed to read what you wrote, by what seems like it was a vibrant spiritual community, and an intriguing name for a blog site. Peace – Andreas+

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