Compassion as a principle of action

Tags: Compassion, Historical Jesus, Jesus, Pagola

The research on Jesus reaches a fairly widespread conclusion. Jesus of Nazareth was a man, perhaps the only one, who lived and communicated a sane experience of God, without distorting it with the fears, ambition and fantasies which different religions ordinarily project on to the divinity.

Jesus never speaks of God as indifferent or distant, uninvolved with the life of human beings or interested only in his honor, his glory and his rights. At the heart of his experience we do not find the image of a lawgiver God who wants to govern the world through laws, while threatening his creatures with terrible punishments or winning them over with wonderful rewards. Neither does he experience God as a righteous being annoyed and angry at the sight of our sins.


Parables of God’s Compassion

For Jesus, God is Compassion, “bowels”, or as he would say “rahamim” in the language of his choice. Compassion is the nature of God, his first reaction towards his children, the fundamental source of his action. God feels for his creatures what a mother feels for the child in her womb. God carries us in his “womb”. The most beautiful and touching parables that every left the lips of Jesus and which he undoubtedly most worked on in his heart were those he told to get all to perceive the incredible compassion of God. The most captivating, perhaps, is the parable of the “Good Father”.


The parable of the Good Father

Those who heard it for the first time were no doubt amazed. It was not what they were accustomed to hear from the scribes or the priests of the temple. Is it possible that God is like this? Like a father who does not keep his inheritance for himself, who is not obsessed by the proper moral behavior of his children, who cuts short the guilty acknowledgement of the prodigal son to spare him further humiliation, who breaking the norms for what is just and right, seeks an honorable and happy life for all?

Could this be the best metaphor for God: a father who moved to the depths of his being welcomes the lost, beseeching those who observe his commandments to welcome them with the same compassion? Could God be a father who wants to direct history towards a final feast where at last life will be celebrated and the liberation achieved of all that enslaves and demeans the human being? Jesus speaks of a rich banquet, of music and dancing, of lost people who have left a dishonorable life, of brothers invited to join them. Will this be the ultimate secret of life?


Parable of the owner of a vineyard

Jesus also told an amazing and shocking parable about the owner of a vineyard who wanted work and bread for all. This man hired different groups of workers: the first at six in the morning, then about nine, later at twelve mid-day, at three in the afternoon and even at five when there was only an hour of the working day left.

Surprisingly he paid all of them a denarius, which was needed to live on for a day. This man does not think of the merits of one or the other, but whether all will have enough for dinner with their families. When the workers who came first protest, this is his reply: “Can I not do what I want with what is mine? Or are you jealous because I am generous”?

There had to be general confusion about what Jesus was suggesting. Is it that for God merits don’t count? Does God not work with the standards that work for us? Does not this way of understanding the goodness of God break down all our religious structures? Is it true that rather than weighing our merits he is thinking about how to meet our needs? If this is true it would be great news.


The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

There was another disconcerting parable that remained imprinted in the memory of his disciples about a Pharisee and a tax collector. They went up to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stands up confidently to do so. His conscience does not accuse him of anything. He fulfills the law faithfully and even goes beyond its demands. He is not a hypocrite. He speaks the truth.

So he gives thanks to God. If this man is not a saint, who can be one? He is certain that he can count with the blessing of God. The tax collector on the other hand, retires to a corner and he does not dare even to lift his eyes from the floor. He knows he is a sinner, and he knows too that he cannot change his life. He cannot give up his job, nor can he return what he has stolen. So he does not promise anything. All that remains for him is to abandon himself to the mercy of God. “Oh God, be merciful to me a sinner”. Nobody would want to be in his place. God cannot approve his behavior.

Unexpectedly Jesus concludes the parable with this statement: “I tell you that this tax collector went down to his house justified and not that Pharisee”. Jesus takes everyone by surprise. Suddenly he opens up to them a new world which demolishes all religious patterns of thought.

How can he speak of a God who does not recognize the pious, and, on the contrary, gives his blessing to the sinner who abandons himself to his mercy? Is it true that in the end what matters is not the religious life of the one but the unfathomable mercy of God? Is it true that what has the last word is not the Law that judges our lives but the compassion of God who hears our prayer?


Alternative of Jesus to a discriminatory and exclusive society

This experience of a compassionate God was the point of departure of the revolutionary work of Jesus which led him to introduce into history a new principle of action: compassion. The religious and socio-political organization of the Jewish people took off from a radical demand that can be stated thus: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy”. The people had to imitate the Holy God of the Temple who rejects the pagans, sinners and the impure, and blesses the chosen people, the just and the pure.

This imitation of the holiness of God understood as the separation of the “not-holy, the “impure”, gave birth to a discriminatory and exclusive society. The Jewish people sought their identity by excluding the pagan and impure nations. The priests of the Temple enjoyed a level of purity superior to that of the rest of the people. Those who observe the Law enjoy the blessing of God while sinners are the object of his anger. Men belong to a superior level of sanctity to that of women who are always tainted with suspicion of impurity because of menstruation and childbirth. Those who are healthy are closer to God than lepers, the blind or the crippled who are excluded from access to the Temple.

Jesus introduces into this society an alternative which changes everything: “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate”. The compassion of God and not holiness is the principle or “ethos” which has to inspire human action. Jesus does not deny the holiness of God, but what qualifies that holiness is not the separation of the impure, the rejection of what is not holy. God is holy and great not because he excludes the pagans, sinners, or the impure but because he loves without excluding anyone from his compassion. For this reason compassion is not one more virtue for Jesus but the only way to be like God, the only way to see the world, to feel for people, and to react to human beings the way God would.


Parable of the Good Samaritan

This compassion is not a mere feeling but a principle of action which defies conventional patterns of behavior. It consists in internalizing and making our own the suffering of the other in order to respond and do for him all we can. Jesus suggested this as a challenge in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus speaks of a man assaulted and abandoned by the roadside on a lonely road. Fortunately two travelers pass by the same way : a priest and a Levite. They come from the Temple after performing their ritual duties. The wounded man sees them arrive full of hope: they are from his own town ; they represent the God of the Temple; no doubt they will have pity. It is not so. The two went around him and passed him by.

A third traveler comes along. He is neither a priest nor a Levite. He does not even belong to the chosen people. He is a hated Samaritan, a member of an enemy people. The wounded man watches him approach scared. He can expect the worst. However, the Samaritan had compassion on him; he came to him and did for him all he could to save him. The listeners couldn’t have been more surprised. The parable broke all the patterns of behavior and classification of people into friends and enemies, into chosen people and foreigners and impure people. Is it true that compassion can flow not from the Temple, nor from official religious channels, but from a proverbial enemy?

Jesus looked at life from the roadside, through the eyes of victims who most needed help. There is no doubt about it. For Jesus the best metaphor for God is compassion for the wounded. And the only way to be like God and to behave in a human way was to behave as that Samaritan did.

The parable of Jesus introduced a complete change. The representatives of the Temple pass the wounded by; the hated enemy is the savior. Barriers fall with the appearance of compassion. Even a traditional enemy, detested by all, can be a channel of the compassion of God. Will we not have to forget prejudices, hatreds and sectarianisms? Will we not have to rearrange everything from a compassionate perspective?


Parable of the sheep and the goats – the judgment of all nations

A final parable in which it is not easy to reconstruct the original narrative of Jesus, allows us to understand the revolution he introduced in history. The parable is really a grandiose description of the judgment of all the nations. We have there the peoples of all races and nations, of all cultures and religions, and generations of all the ages. The final verdict will be heard which will make everything clear.

Two groups keep emerging from that multitude. Some are called to receive the blessing of God to inherit his kingdom; others are asked to go away. Each group goes to the place they themselves have chosen. Some have reacted with compassion for the needy; the others were indifferent to their suffering. What decides their fate is not their religion nor their piety. They have not acted out of religious motives. Quite simply some have been moved by compassion others not.

The parable speaks of six basic situations. They are not unrealistic cases, but situations that are known to all peoples of all times. Everywhere there are people who are hungry and thirsty; immigrants and the naked; sick and in prison. There is no mention of big words like “justice” or “solidarity”, but of food, clothing, of something to drink, of a roof for shelter. There is no mention of “love” either, but of such concrete things as “ give” “welcome”, “visit”, “go”. What matters is not theory but compassion which leads one to help the other when it is needed.

True progress, the redemption of humanity, lies in caring for the unfortunate of the world. Its damnation, on the other hand, lies in indifference to suffering. The message proclaimed and put into practice by Jesus to the end of his life was this: “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate”. This is his legacy.

José Antonio Pagola

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