Whilst all the world’s great religions attest to God’s compassionate nature, Christianity is the one most rooted in this Divine attribute, one explored through the Hebrew scriptures which nurtured Jesus’ own awareness of God. God’s relationship with the world and with all people is defined by love and compassion – and we too are called on to act with this gift that can transform the world.
Throughout the Old Testament there are references to the compassionate nature of God. Just as the story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) shows that God did not require the shedding of human blood so eventually we see, in the Passion and Death of Jesus, how God allows His own blood to be spilled out of the immensity of His merciful and compassionate love for the human race. Indeed, mercy has been called the ‘greatest of all the virtues’ (1) . It is ‘an act of tolerance where kindness and forgiveness reign. When we make the compassionate choice, we enhance the dignity of each individual, which is the very essence of loving them.’ (Felice Leonardo Buscaglia)
It was out of compassion for us that God entered creation in the Incarnation.
Jesu, thou art all compassion! is a statement of the deepest aspect of God’s being. God is compassion and love. Indeed, mercy has been called the ‘greatest of all the virtues’ (1). It is ‘an act of tolerance where kindness and forgiveness reign. When we make the compassionate choice, we enhance the dignity of each individual, which is the very essence of loving them.’ (Felice Leonardo Buscaglia)
Jesus exemplified compassion. When He saw His friends weeping at the grave of Lazarus, He felt compassion for them and wept alongside them (John 11: 33-35). Moved with compassion for the suffering of others, Jesus healed the large crowds who came to Him (Matthew 14:14) as well as individuals who sought His healing (Mark 1: 40-41). When a Pharisee asked Jesus “What is the greatest Commandment?” (Matthew 22: 34-40) He quoted the Shema (Deut 6:4/5): “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” adding words from Leviticus: “and your neighbour as yourself.” (19:18)
The Pharisee had asked Him which single command of God is the greatest, but Jesus provided two, stating not only what we are to do, but also how to do it. To love our neighbour as ourselves is the natural result of our loving devotion toward God. And when asked: Who is my neighbour?” Jesus responded by telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), that hated foreigner who showed active compassion in the face of suffering. It is easy to become blind and deaf to this Commandment because it does not come naturally but, rather, to give attention to the lure of those life-diminishing forces that can be difficult to avoid. Equally, the Parable of the Return of the Prodigal Son, which some call the Parable of the Loving Father, attests to Jesus’ profound understanding of the compassionate nature of God.
The Bible is clear that compassion is an attribute of God and, therefore, is to be an attribute also of God’s people. (2) S. John, 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). Created in His image, we are to exemplify God’s traits, including compassion. From this it follows that “If anyone says, ‘I love God’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20) Yet, so often, people see the Bible as a means of reinforcing prejudice and oppression but as the American evangelical philosopher, Francis Schaffer, said: “Biblical orthodoxy without compassion is surely the ugliest thing in the world.”
Of course, to seek to live with compassion is not easy. It does not mean that one ignores pain and suffering. It is not the same as kindness or simply being sympathetic. Rather it involves desiring to be open to the world and meeting it with love in action.
‘As well as the ‘inward’ movement of prayer and piety, discipleship involves an ‘outward’ movement of social engagement, transformation, compassion and evangelism. Both movements are part of the “unforced rhythms of grace”. Both are necessary if we are to ‘keep company with Christ and to learn to live freely and lightly’. As we learn the unforced rhythms of grace, we develop ways to follow Jesus in the midst of life. As part of the ‘outward movement’ of Christian spirituality,acts of compassion includes responding to the needs of others.’ (Discipleship: The Methodist Church)
So in His Life and Death, Passion and Resurrection Jesus reveals the full extent of love: ‘Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ (John 13: 1ff)
(1) St. Thomas Aquinas, quoted in Evangelii Gaudium (37): Pope Francis
(2) “What does the Bible say about compassion?” (Got Questions Ministries)