Preached at the Church of S. John Chrysostom, Peckham on October 1st, 2017
Jesus said: “Be compassionate
as your Father is compassionate.” (Lk.6:36)
Sometimes I find is very hard to say “no”. I don’t think that’s unusual – there seem to be plenty of others whose first re-action, if asked to do something – is to say “yes” and then regret it afterwards. Are we all ‘people- pleasers’? Do we think saying ‘yes’ is the easy way out? I don’t know. But I do know that the parable Jesus told today resonates for me. Those two sons, the one who said ‘yes’ and then didn’t and the one who said ‘no’ and then did seem types that I, for one (and I guess many others) can relate to. Which was the best response? Why did Jesus tell the parable? What was He trying to say? What does it say to you? Perhaps we should have a conversation about it – you could get into groups and talk it through and then we could share our insights together afterwards….
And that would be the sort of thing that happened when Jesus told the story because that’s how Jesus taught. He taught through using ‘parables’, word-pictures that hang before our eyes inviting us to explore their meaning. Jesus rarely taught as we might understand the notion of ‘teaching’ – this is what the Church teaches, for example. Rather he taught about the kingdom, or Reign of God, by way of these many-layered word-pictures inviting people (as he did today) to consider their response. I’ll leave you to talk about it over coffee, or to ruminate on it as the week progresses. What I want to pick up on today is that phrase Jesus used, he “thought better of it”. Some translations say he “changed his mind”. Or we might say he “had a change of heart” and it’s that phrase I want to explore.
CONVERSION OF HEART
Jesus is all about helping us to change our hearts, to be converted from what is life-denying to what is life-affirming. I’m sure all of us, as we read the papers, listen to the news or hear of the terrible things happening in our society and neighbourhoods, would agree that people need to change. In particular I think of the terrible violence that many young people suffer – the knife crimes that occur, the fear that lurks streets and schools and the anger that seems to fill so many people’s heart – and it makes me wonder what can be done unless there is a change of heart.
And that won’t come because of pronouncements by the church or government but it will come if people like you help those you know – your children and grandchildren, for example – to reflect on what might help create a better world for them to live in. How can they be helped to change their hearts? How can I be helped to change mine? What example do I set? Have I closed my own heart to this matter of ‘inner conversion’? Are there areas of my life which are closed off from God – from the gospel of Christ? Am I so strong-willed that I won’t or can’t change? Is my heart a fertile place for the Word of God to grow, or is it a hard place?
Recently someone wrote to me about the way she realised her heart was growing harder. ‘About six years ago‘, she said, ‘I became troubled that my heart was becoming like stone, and I made a conscious choice to change this situation. I knew that only God could help me on this one, and He did.’ She went on to observe: ‘I’ve noticed that, as some people get older, they become increasingly bitter and resentful about what life hurls at them. They may even choose to have hatred running in their lives. It sort of energises them and keeps them going.’
Personally I had noticed something similar in some people’s attitudes towards those of other nationalities – and especially towards refugees and immigrants following Brexit. And I reflected on something the Holy Father wrote last year: “Jesus’ only judgement” he said, “is one filled with mercy and compassion.”
THE COMPASSION OF GOD
Whilst all the world’s great religions attest to God’s compassionate nature, Christianity is the one most rooted in this Divine attribute. God’s relationship with the world and with all people is defined by love and compassion – and we’re called to act with this gift that can transform the world. It was out of compassion for us that God entered creation in the Incarnation. We sing about it in one of our most popular hymns: Jesu, thou art all compassion! When He saw His friends weeping at the grave of Lazarus, He felt compassion for them and wept alongside them (Jn 11: 33-35). Moved with compassion for the suffering of others, He healed the large crowds who came to Him (Matt. 14:14) as well as individuals who sought His healing (Mk 1: 40-41).
And when a Pharisee asked Jesus “What’s the greatest Commandment?” (Matt. 22: 34-40) He replied: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind and your neighbour as yourself.” If only we had the courage to share those words with others! That would change a lot of hearts! Because when asked: Who is my neighbour?” Jesus responded by telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37),
The example of that hated foreigner who showed active compassion in the face of suffering is something I wish we could share with all young people. And old people, as well! It’s easy to become blind and deaf to this Commandment because it does not come naturally. Too often we give attention to the lure of those life-diminishing forces that can be difficult to avoid. The Bible is clear that compassion is an attribute of God and, therefore, is to be an attribute also of God’s people. For example, S. John, in his First Letter, asks: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need, but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (3:17).
But to seek to live with compassion isn’t easy. It’s not the same as kindness or being sympathetic. Rather it involves being open to the world and meeting it with love in action. So because this matter of re-making one’s heart, this need for continuous conversion of the heart, is hard I’ve created a new, online Spiritual Association of the Compassionate Hearts of Jesus and Mary to provide the means whereby members can ‘soften’ their hearts and develop a compassionate heart for the sake of the world. It offers many simple ways of doing this, many prayer-practices and reflections for meditation and has the approval of the Bishop of Southwark
COMPASSIONATE HEARTS OF JESUS AND MARY
Sometimes Anglicans speak in a rather smug and disparagingly way about the Hearts of Jesus and Mary – they don’t like images of the bright red Sacred Heart, crowned by the cross, surrounded by fire and encircled with the Crown of Thorns. Too explicit; too graphic – especially when Jesus is shown holding it out for our gaze. Yet it clearly touches and provokes a response in hearts that are simpler and unbiased. When, for example, during a recent school retreat a child was asked why Jesus’ heart should be shown outside His body he simply replied: “Because he loves us so much he can’t keep it in!”
But in the nineteenth century some Anglicans began to realise the importance of devotion to the hearts of Jesus and Mary. The first Franciscan community for men in the Church of England was dedicated to the Divine Compassion which is just another way of speaking of the Sacred Heart. One of its funding members, Fr. Andrew, wrote the hymn ‘O dearest Lord thy sacred head, with thorns was pierced for me’ which concludes with this verse:
O dearest Lord thy Sacred Heart
with spear was pierced for me;
O pour thy Spirit in my heart
That I may live for thee
In the end devotion to the Sacred Heart is simply about making my heart – the centre of my being – like Christ’s. Nurturing within myself His love and compassion. So the fact that the Sacred Heart has never had a place in the life of the Church of England is a cause for great sadness: it is our loss as is the fact that we give little attention to the heart Jesus’ Mother who, in one Orthodox tradition, is known as the ‘Softener of Evil Hearts’. The reality of the Divine Compassion is something we need to desire to flow in our hearts and be lived out in our lives. Perhaps we might ask ourselves what would it mean to have a heart like His? How can my heart become more “sacred”? How can Mary help me to soften my heart? For, in the end, the Sacred Heart is about understanding Jesus’s love for me and all people and inviting me to love others as He did.
So I invite you to consider joining the Association, it’s free and simply asks that you spend a little time each day quietly meditating on God’s compassionate love for you; find a means of expressing compassion and reflect on your practice that your heart might be more like the Heart of Jesus. If more people changed their hearts and lived out of the compassionate hearts of Jesus and Mary, wouldn’t the world be a better place?