But I say to you listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. … Do to others as you would have them do to you. … Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. (Luke 6:27-28, 31, 36-38)
Compassion is the final characteristic of Father in the parable of the Man Who had Two Sons. Previously I explored the concepts of forgiveness and welcome, so now, as we are within a day of the Feast of the Incarnation, it is time to explore mercy or compassion, oiktirmon for those who study Greek. From Latin, compassion means “with feeling.” “God’s compassion is described by Jesus not simply to show me how willing God is to feel for me, or to forgive me my sins and offer me new life and happiness, but to invite me to become like God and to show the same compassion to others as he is showing to me.” (Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, page 123) He goes on to say that whether we are the younger or older sibling we are beloved children of a compassionate God, and heirs; and if heirs, then our lives are to reflect the compassion of the One who loves us so much that we too stretch out our hands in blessing to receive those who God brings to us, regardless of how they feel or think about us.
To be a compassionate person is to be willing to give away our lives, to become witnesses to the love of God in our own lives. In New Testament Greek, the word we translate witness is actually martyr. We tend to think of martyrs as those who have died bodily while defending the faith. We hear of the first martyr, St. Stephen, and his brutal death at the hands of the people of Jerusalem just outside the walls of the city. There are myriad other stories through history down to the present that tell of those who were willing to lay aside their earthly life for their life in Christ. But we are all called to be witnesses—a legal term that means we can only speak of what we have seen and know personally—of the love and compassion of God that has been offered to us personally and corporately.
The parable of the prodigious father gives to Jesus’ hearers an example of the generosity of God to welcome home the wayward child, receiving and blessing and offering a place in the family. The father ignores conventional wisdom that says, “Wait and see if the repentance is legitimate before you bring him into the family again.” No, as soon as the parent sees the lost child, the one who was as dead to the family, he runs out to greet the child and adorns the wastrel with a robe, a ring, and sandals. It would be a powerful story if it concluded with the preparation for the feast, but the story continues. The obedient older child becomes enraged as soon as the music and dancing and feasting are discovered. “I have been like a slave, never once wandering away from the norms and rules of the family, and no one ever gave me a feast.” Jealousy, self-pity, self-righteousness, competitiveness: all these speak to the basest levels of the human heart; but God’s compassion also overcomes these sins which separate as surely as the distant country and invites this child to come to the party too. There is no need for competition, as “all I have is yours.”
There is more than enough in the economy of God to proclaim abundance. Scarcity posits that the only way for me to get what I need is for someone else to lack what they need; fear and greed becomes the motivating factors in that scenario. A century and a half ago, Charles Dickens penned his famous tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, arguably the most famous miser and misanthrope in the English language. Through a series of visions of past, present, and future Scrooge is transformed from “Bah, humbug!” to “Merry Christmas everyone!” He discovers that there is more to life than simply amassing wealth for himself. He suddenly finds that generosity, which I believe to be at the root of compassion, gives him greater joy than he ever imagined possible.
Tomorrow night most of us will be at a worship service where we will sing Christmas carols, hear the overwhelming story of God’s compassion in coming to live among humanity, and remember that we have been given a gift that exceeds the capacity of the human heart to fully grasp. We will likely either hear or say, “I wish we could carry the spirit of Christmas all year.” I think we would all love to keep the warmth and closeness that is available as we kneel and sing “Silent Night.” And yet for many, this Christmas will bring heartache that is almost unbearable from a recent loss and grief that seems unbearable. The best we can do is hold those who are broken-hearted either in our arms or in our hearts and remember that in God’s heart we are united with those who are not with us, for nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
In the weeks and months ahead, we in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth will have more than ample opportunities to express the forgiveness of God, the welcome of God, and the compassion of God as we move toward reconciliation and reunion with those from whom we have been separated. Litigation may drag on for a long time, but we can choose to become like the one whose name we bear and offer Christ’s hand for blessing even, perhaps especially, to those from whom we have been estranged. As God was willing to come among us as a vulnerable infant, to take on human flesh, to suffer and die as one of us, so we are called to proclaim God’s kingdom in and through our own lives, reaching out, offering, and showing God’s mercy and compassion at every opportunity.
Thank you for struggling through this parable with me over this Advent; thank you for your comments and prayers. My life has been changed through the study of the books by Nouwen and Keller, and I will never again hear the parable of the Man Who Had Two Sons again with the same simplistic ears. May God richly bless you during the season of Christmas and Epiphany and throughout the coming year. May the insights you have gained this year make you a witness to God’s forgiveness, welcome and compassion to all you meet.