The compassionate pastor

Compassion, it has been said, is “the cardinal virtue of the Christian pastoral tradition”.   Christian pastors by definition are compassionate people – and rightly so because we follow Jesus, the compassionate pastor by excellence.

I find it significant that in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark we read time and again not so much of the love as the compassion of Jesus (see Matt 9.36; 14.14//Mk 6.34; 15.32//Mark 8.2; 20.34; Mark 1.41). His compassion was ‘visceral’ – it involved a ‘gut response’ – literally “his bowels were churned up”. Today we associate the heart with the seat of emotion – but the ancient Greeks tended to locate the emotion of love and compassion to the bowels. So we can say that when Jesus had compassion he ‘experienced inward pain. It is difficult to find the right English word to express the full emotional force of the underlying metaphor. RT France suggests “his heart went out” to people in need; Eugene Peterson says “his heart broke”. Personally I like the term ‘compassion’: the English word ‘compassion’ is derived from two Latin words, ‘cum’ (with) and passio (‘suffering’) – so compassion is ‘suffering with’. In other words “Jesus hurts when he sees people, he ‘feels for them, they ‘grab him down deeply, they ‘reach him’”

The NRSV and the GNB speak of Jesus having ‘pity’. But Oliver Davies takes issue with such a translation. Compassion he says needs to be distinguished from ‘pity’, for while we may pity someone, we may not choose to help him; it needs to be distinguished from ‘mercy’, for that implies a power relationship; it needs too to be distinguished from ‘empathy’, for that is merely a cognitive state where the emphasis is on feeling. Rather, says Davies, there are three elements to compassion: when we are compassionate, we perceive another’s suffering, we are moved by it, and we seek to come to its aid. The on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia makes a similar point:

Compassion is the emotion that we feel in response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help…. More involved than simple empathy, compassion commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering.

That was certainly true of Jesus; his compassion always moved him to action. So, for instance, Mark tells us that when a leper came to Jesus, “moved with compassion [Jesus] stretched out his hand” and healed him (Mark 1.41).

Interestingly, it is possible that Mark in his account of the healing of the man with leprosy does not refer to compassion at all. For a few manuscripts have an alternative wording: so the REB translates Mk 1.41 as: “Jesus was moved to anger”. There has been much scholarly debate as to which of the two ‘readings’ is correct: some argue that the original reading is “moved to anger”, simply because it is the more difficult reading. If so, then why was Jesus angry? Was it because of the awfulness of the disease? Or was it because Jesus was angry to see the way in which the disease had so badly mutilated and disfigured this man? But some might say that this is a pointless debate. Margaret Magdalen for instance writes:

Anger is the flip-side of compassion and the lack of one would indicate a lack of the other. At times the strength of our compassion is in direct relation to the extent of our anger. The ‘sap’ rises equally to become one’s energy.

I find the link between compassion and anger of interest. Walter Brueggemann claimed that where in the Scriptures people were in need “the hurt had to be taken seriously, that the hurt was not to be to be accepted as normal and natural but was an abnormal and unacceptable condition of humanness”. In other words compassion “is the fruit of harnessed rage at the manifest evils of society and the sheer weight of human misery”. This in turn reminds me of John Swinton’s Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil, where he argues that:

… the task of the church is not to attempt to explain evil and suffering, but rather to offer modes of embodied resistance such as listening to silence… that provide crucial and countercultural ways of encountering and dealing with evil.

One other thought. Compassion is not just the basis for pastoral care – it is also the basis for mission. So Bruner, commentating on the “compassion” of Jesus for the crowd “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 10.36) wrote:

Mission is not motivated by Jesus’ disgust for people because they are such sinners, nor even by an imperial sense that he has a right to people (which, properly understood, he has). Mission is motivated by the more appealing fact of Jesus’ compassion for helpless people…. When sin is stressed inordinately as a source of mission, compassion is smothered rather than stoked. When Jesus looks out over the world, it is first of all people’s ‘helplessness’ that he sees; it is their depression, oppression, and suppression that affects him most. He sees people as a massa confusionis before he sees then as a massa perditionis (though he does also see them as perishing: see 10.6). People need nothing so much as they need a really good shepherd, a finally good pastor.

There indeed is a challenge for every pastor.

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