Luke 6: 32-35-- “If you love those who love you, what grace is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what grace is that to you? For even sinners do the same. . . .But love your enemies, and do good . . . expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.”
The Extent of Compassion
One of my sisters lost a bracelet last week. It was special to her because the names of her children were engraved in the design. So losing the bracelet felt like losing a symbol of her love for her children. I sympathized with my sister when I heard the news. And doesn’t your heart go out to her, as well?
Isn’t that interesting? You have never met my youngest sister or her children, and yet you feel sorry for the loss of a stranger. You can put yourself into her position and imagine how you would feel in a similar situation if you lost something precious to you. And that’s just for losing a mother’s bracelet. Imagine how you would feel if a mother lost a child.
The imagination is an amazing skill, It allows us to place ourselves in someone else’s life story and to reflect on how we would react in a similar situation. This ability to imagine the hardship faced by others can inspire a sense of compassion in us.
The literal meaning of the word “compassion” means “to suffer with.” When we feel compassion for someone else we are imaging their pain, their suffering, and we hurt for them.
I think this capacity to imagine is one of the reasons why the stories from Chapter Two of The Story unsettle us so much. We can picture the scenes described and our compassion goes out to the women and children in these chapters of Genesis.
Our compassion is not with Jacob, who sends his children towards an uncertain future. Jacob betrayed his brother Esau, fled to live with an uncle, wore out his welcome there, and now is going home to ask his brother’s forgiveness.
On the way back home Jacob gets word that Esau is heading towards him with 400 men. This does not sound like a welcoming party. Jacob thinks fast. He decides to butter up Esau with a gift and sends servants out to meet Esau with herds of goats, sheep, camels, cattle, and donkeys. Maybe that will put Esau in a better, more forgiving frame of mind when the brothers are once again face to face.
That night, after the servants and livestock depart, Jacob sends his sons and their mothers across the stream with all that he owns. They spend the night on one side of the stream, the side closest to the approaching Esau, while Jacob spends the night on the opposite side the stream.
It’s a clever strategy if you are planning a quick getaway. If Jacob sees his brother attack the camp, he can flee. It would be awhile before anyone realized that Jacob wasn’t in one of the tents, and crossing the stream would slow them down, Jacob might just have a chance to escape. It’s a shrewd plan, selfish, but shrewd.
Too bad Jacob gets injured in that wrestling match with God. His limp makes it impossible for Jacob to beat a hasty retreat. There goes Plan A. The only option left to him is to throw himself on brother’s mercy.
Now Jacob never showed Esau any mercy, not when he tricked Esau got of his birth right, not when he impersonated Esau and stole his brother’s blessing. So Jacob has no reason to believe that Esau will be compassionate.
As Esau and the 400 men with him draw closer, Jacob limps forward, he will not use his sons and wives as a human shield, he places himself between his family and the potential threat.
The scene has a happy ending. Esau is delighted to see his brother. He hugs him and kisses him. Jacob doesn’t deserve forgiveness, nonetheless, Esau does not hold a grudge.
The ending to the Abraham and Isaac scene also ends better than expected, but I can’t say the ending leaves me feeling happy. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is too disturbing. Our compassion is not with Abraham.
Reminding myself that Abraham trusted in God and believed that God had the power to raise Isaac from the dead helps a little. But not much. Abraham’s actions are just too unnatural. Parental instincts compel us to protect our children from harm, not lead them into it.
A parent loses a child, and we ache for them. Normally. But if the parent is somehow to blame for the child’s death, if the parent was reckless or irresponsible, then it’s not as easy to feel compassion. I’m thinking of the parents who are so sleep deprived, they forget and leave their baby in the car seat. We kind of sort of feel compassion for them. But the parent who has a child in the car and crashes it because they were driving drunk? No. Our compassion usually doesn’t extend that far.
The Good News is that Christ’s compassion does extend that far, and with his help so can ours if we invite him to work within us and increase our capacity to care.
I recommend starting with the easy cases and slowly build towards the more difficult. Start your prayer by remembering that like Abraham, God also offered up a son, although Jesus was not spared as was Isaac. Out of compassion for the world, Jesus suffered death on the cross, trusting that his father did indeed have the power to raise him from the dead.
In the next part of your prayer, extend a feeling of compassion to the parent who lost a child due to an accident or illness. Let your imagination allow you to think how you would feel if your child had died.
Then see if you can extend compassion a little farther, to the parents who bear some blame in the death of their child.
Finally, pray for the parents, who put their child in harm’s way. Try to think of extending Christ’s compassion to them if you find it difficult to imagine ever feeling compassion for such a father or mother.
As we read further in The Story, we are going to encounter more and more characters who will test the extent of our compassion. We will wonder how can God keep giving these people chance after chance? How can God be so patient? I hope that these stories will serve to assure us that if God can have patience with these characters, then surely God will be patient with us as we grow in faith and become more and more compassionate.
I am convinced that this is where faith in Christ is leading us-- to impossible acts of compassion, impossible by human standards, but not for God. We don’t need God’s grace to enable us to love the kind, the innocent, or the victim. That’s easy. To feel compassion for the cruel, the guilty, or the abusive? When we attempt that we are forced to face our limited capacity to love our neighbors. We must admit our dependence on God.
Think of extending compassion as a way to strengthen your faith. If God expects you to feel sorry for the undeserving, he will have to soften your hearts. And then, when the miracle happens and you feel your hearts soften, even if it’s just a little at first, that increase in your capacity to feel compassion will serve as evidence that God is still at work in the world and is at work in you.
Adopt a God-sized challenge this week. Something that you can only accomplish if you have divine assistance. Accept a God-inspired prayer request this week. Something that pushes you to love the unloveable. Seek out an only-by-the-grace-of-God task this week. Something that creates an opening in you so that grace can make up for what you lack. Then you will grow to become compassionate, as compassionate as your Father in heaven.