Becoming a More Compassionate Caring Community
Address – Saturday 14th May 2011
The brief given me for my contribution this morning was, I’m glad to say, advertised as ‘A Brief Introduction’ – and with that I’ll happily comply! So to begin, and to ensure your active engagement, let me ask you to think for a moment or two about what you understand ‘compassion’ to be …
Fine. So let’s hold all of those thoughts in our minds as we turn to the Scriptures and take a look at the usage of the term. First of all it’s interesting to note that compassion is closely associated with Jesus and it’s worth quoting some examples. So, for instance:
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mt 9:36)
“When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” (Mt 14: 14)
Two blind men approached Jesus and “they said to him, ‘Lord, let our eyes be opened.’ Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.” (Mt 20:34)
“I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat …” (Mt 15:32)
“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep …’ ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’” (Lk 7:13)
“But a Samaritan while travelling came near him: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him.” (Lk 10:33)
“So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion …” (Lk 15:20)
Perhaps before anything else, the first question we should ask ourselves is, why compassion is so closely associated with Jesus? To which the answer – with important implications for our understanding of Jesus’ identity – is that in the Old Testament God is a compassionate God – a God whose relationship with his people is marked by unfailing compassion. And so the Gospel emphasis on the compassion of Jesus, is in fact a Christological statement, telling us something deeply significant about the identity of Jesus. In Him the compassion of the God of the Old Testament has come amongst us to share our human experience, and, as the word ‘compassion’ in its derivation conveys, He suffers with us, alongside us.
But what, you may be wondering, has all or any of this to do with our becoming ‘a more compassionate caring community’? Well, before considering the more practical aspects of such a quest, the most important aid to our development is surely to be as clear as possible about our vocation as a caring community – and I used the word ‘vocation’ deliberately – the reason being that it’s ourselves as the Church – the Body of Christ – about which we’re thinking as we consider the quality of our care. In striving to be a more compassionate community, we’re not just wanting to be a more efficient welfare agency, we’re striving to be the continuation of Christ’s compassion, and the on-going expression of all that that involved. Understanding the compassion of Jesus then, is for us the primary key to our becoming a more compassionate caring community.
So against that background, let’s return to the Gospel texts. Perhaps the most important insight to emerge from these texts, is that in the ministry of Jesus, compassion is always linked with action. When Jesus is moved with compassion, He acts. And so practically that serves to differentiate compassion from other reactions which at first sight may seem to be no different. So, for instance, ‘compassion’ with its link to action, is different from pity, which may or may not result in action; likewise ‘empathy’, which is primarily the ability to identity with another’s feelings; nor is compassion the same as ‘mercy’, which suggests a response associated with an inequality in the relationship. Compared with all of these, compassion as seen in Jesus, is a much more total and rounded response – involving emotions, cognition and will – Jesus sees another’s suffering, is moved by it, and does something about it. This, of course, is in keeping with the Mission for which He came and to which He was totally committed. His Mission was not to sooth and sympathise but to heal and save, and all his compassionate acts pointed to the Salvation He’d come to bring and which were in fact part and parcel of the healing that would reach its completion in the self-giving of Calvary. At the heart of our own compassionate caring then, there must be action, and it will help to remember that it’s nothing less than a sharing in and continuation of Jesus’ own Ministry.
So moving on to what we might call ‘the hands-on aspects of our topic’, let’s consider the shape, the form our compassionate caring should take. And here again our Gospel texts are instructive. In every incident, what Jesus does is in direct response to a perceived need – where there is hunger, food is provided; blindness is met with the restoration of sight; the harassed crowd were taught and healed. Appropriate action follows on from accurate perception of need. And that asks rather more of us than we might at first think. Sometimes the response required from us will be obvious and straight forward – but at other times it may be less so, and we may find ourselves far less sure as to what is required of us. And here, two possible dangers need to be guarded against. The first is what I would call the ‘playing at God complex’ – the temptation to think everything depends on me, on us, and that whatever the need, I/we should be able to meet it. We need to learn to be content to do what we can – even though it may be less than what is required. Failure here can result either in an exaggerated and suffocating involvement or, on the other hand, such an impossible sense of what needs to be done that a paralysis of inactivity takes over. The second danger is the ‘satisfying-self syndrome’ in which action decided upon has more to do with satisfying me than with what is in the best interest of the other, or, perhaps, more generally, where my involvement arises more from my needing to be needed than from genuine concern for the other. Compassionate caring requires of us realistic, personally disinterested perception – rooted in the dignity of the other and their equality with us.
Which brings me finally to some thoughts concerning how best to develop compassionate caring within ourselves. And here there’s surely no better entry point than self-knowledge – awareness that I, too, am a person in need. In Chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant who after receiving mercy from his master refused it to a fellow servant.
“You wicked servant”, says the master, “I forgave you all that debt … should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had mercy on you.” (Mt 18:27f)
The parable is of course about the need for mutual forgiveness and doesn’t reveal the servant’s motivation in treating his colleague the way he did, but clearly a healthy realism about his own situation might have resulted in a more compassionate response. Be that as it may, there’s no doubt that a healthy awareness of our own vulnerability and need for compassion is crucial. In the first place it provides an experiential understanding of need, of suffering, of what the other is enduring; and secondly, it helps to avoid any trace of superiority or condescension in our involvement. Deep in all of us is the desire to establish ourselves in relationship to others – where do I stand in the pecking order? When we’re introduced to someone, there’s more to our interest in where they work and live than casual chat! Do I regard them as ahead or behind in life’s league, in the pecking order of life? How I respond, how I treat people will often depend – perhaps unconsciously – on where I place them – ahead of me, or behind me. Unaware, or in denial of my own vulnerability and need, I’m in danger of locating below me those who are in need – and that is no basis for compassionate caring.
I promised to be brief and that I think is where I’ll leave my introductory comments. I’m aware that many of the very practical issues about which you may wish to speak have not been touched on but I hope that what I’ve said may provide a solid basis at both a theological level and a practical level for our ministry as a compassionate people in the service of others.