For years, a banner hung in the hallway at my church. Whenever I would step through the door into all that God had planned for us that night, I would see it: A large cloth draped from a Command hook that begged our attention and to provoke our thoughts as the evening wore on. It depicted a man in purple traveling clothes; an orange sash around his waist with red and green head covering. A fashion nightmare if you ask me.
He appears to be a kind, older man with a white beard, on his knees helping a young man on the ground. The young man is weak, bony, limp, stripped naked and barely breathing (if he was breathing). This kind old man gently places his hand on the back of the young man’s neck, his other hand on his chest. It is a beautifully intimate moment of one man caring for his brother.
Precisely the opposite of what is happening in the upper corner of this banner. Two men walk away and out of sight. One pretends he didn’t see the hurting man while the other stares right at the scene unfolding in front of him as he turns his camel around. Neither one of these men want anything to do with their Jewish comrade. Perhaps they were afraid of what they couldn’t see; the reason why this man was in such terrible condition. Maybe they were abiding by the temple rituals; getting blood on you meant a full ritual cleansing when they got back. It’s possible they had important meetings to get to. After all, priests and Levites have packed schedules. Church people are always busy.
But not the man in the purple robe. He has compassion. He sees the dying man. He tends to the dying man. He pours oil and wine to heal his wounds. He takes him to rest. He stays with him at the inn. He pays the debt. He, by every ounce of the definition, is good (Luke 10:25-37).
That word “compassion” is an amazing word. It is beautifully complex, offering us a window into the hearts of those who have it. However, I would argue that compassion, or splanchnizomai in Greek as it’s used in this parable, is not just a noun but it is also a verb. Without boring you with a complicated Greek definition, allow me to explain using another parable that you are more than likely familiar with, even if you are not yet a Christian: the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).
I would argue that compassion, orsplanchnizomai in Greek as it’s used in this parable, is not just a noun but it is also a verb.
After the young son receives his inheritance from his father, he runs off into the world without any cares. He hits the casinos, the high-rise restaurants, gets box seats at his favorite sporting arena, and stays in five-star hotels. Reckless living at its worst (v. 13). Upon crawling back to his father, Jesus says that the father saw his son and felt compassion (v. 20). His next move? To run. With no regard to his reputation, social norm, or shame he might bring upon himself, he springs into action towards his son. Compassion.
Sure, these parables talk about compassion, but what about the storyteller himself? If he is going to talk the talk, shouldn’t he walk the walk? Well, ask the Widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17). As her son is carried out of town, she grieves having lost her husband and now her son. Jesus sees her, and he has compassion (v. 13), urging her not to weep. His next move? To heal. “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak (v. 15). Jesus sees, Jesus heals. Compassion.
Matthew makes use of this word as well in his accounts of feeding of both the 5,000 people and the 4,000 people (Matt 14:13-21 and Matt 15:32-39). In the feeding of 5,000 Jesus withdraws after his cousin (John the Baptist) has been brutally murdered by Herod (Matt 14:10). But the crowds follow him anyway. When he sees them, he has compassion and heals their sick (v. 14). One chapter later, he is faced with a similar situation on his hands and has the same response. He says, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way” (v. 32). This response gives a little more as to what is true compassion. Jesus is unwilling to let the crowds go hungry. He will not let it happen. He sees, he feeds. Compassion.
This word “compassion” is biological. It is more than an effortless “I’ll pray for you” as you pass by on the other side of someone hurting. It’s even more than a conscious choice to love and serve your neighbor. Compassion is an action word, and is done without calculation of the consequences. Compassion affects our inner guts. Because of this compassionate love, you cannot witness injustices without acting. You cannot help but to act. To quote my mentor, compassion is a gut-wrenching, “we-have-to-do-something” kind of love. For this is the love of Christ.
Knowing a bit more about the word splanchnizomai, the parable of the Good Samaritan takes on a different flavor. It digs deeper. This banner that hung in a small church in the middle of Samaria, a part of Michigan that people from the suburbs rarely want to go to, is much more intimate than one might realize at first glance. This banner hung in the hallway to remind us of the ministry. A ministry that is drenched in the parables that Jesus shares of his compassion, love, and intentionality. A ministry that is founded upon intentional relationships and gut-wrenching love for our people. A ministry littered with people just like the young man in the banner, ravaged by a neighborhood that has made them bleed, chewed them up, and then spit them out. People left for dead.
Knowing a bit more about the word splanchnizomai, the parable of the Good Samaritan takes on a different flavor.
And people drunk and passed out on the inside of the churches front door, like a particular young man I encountered a few Sundays ago. As he snored in his alcohol induced nap, I noticed dried blood on his arms and a black eye. When I got close to him, I had to keep myself from choking on the stench that exuded from him. I vividly recalled the scene on the Jericho Road. I thought this is probably similar to the scene that the famous good Samaritan walked up on.
As people continued to step over him, careful not to kick his feet, I heard commentary about how disgraceful it was that he was “like THIS in church!” But others didn’t mind. He was safe. Safe from the monsters in the neighborhood. So, we let him sleep. It would be but a few hours before he would have to go back to battle.
We gave him some water, made sure he was hydrated (properly), he sat in service and I made every attempt during the sermon to try to direct some of my points to him as he sauntered in and out of the room. I highlighted his baptism and Jesus compassionate love for him. That the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of his sins has been given to him in this sopping wet gift. He is drowning, not in the bottle, but in the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.
As he walked away from church that day, I couldn’t help but picture this banner. Except that it wasn’t the man clothed in purple with orange, green, and red trimmings attending to the young man in our church. But a man in a white robe, a crown of thorns, scars in his wrists, side, and back. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who didn’t just “happen” to stumble upon this man, but sought him out intentionally.
This is what Jesus does, motivated by compassion. When people and other false gods see you, they step over you or turn around. They have no compassion. But not the ultimate Good Samaritan. He sees you stripped, beaten, and left half dead in your sin, completely and utterly hopeless. Jesus is filled with compassion for you. His inner parts ache for you and he cannot help but to act.
So he comes to you. He binds your wounds, and he pours out his body and his blood for the forgiveness of your sins. He brings you to the inn of his church where he stays with you, sustaining you in faith. He pays the debt that you owe, and he does it out of the deepest part of his inner-being.
Compassion is not just love. It’s a verb that defies all logic and reason. It’s the word behind the greatest scandal in history; when Jesus comes to save sinners like you and me.
And it now invites us to do as Jesus says in this very story, to go and do likewise.