Ordinary Sunday 10: 9th June, 2013
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
An old woman in China supported a monk for more than twenty years. She built him a little hut and fed him while he spent all his time in meditation. At the end of this period she wondered what progress the man had made. She decided to put him to the test by enlisting the help of a beautiful young woman. "Go into the hut," she told the girl, "and embrace him. Then say: What shall we do now?" The young woman called on the monk at night to find him at his meditation. Without further ado she began to gently caress him, and then said, "What are we going to do now?" The monk got into a towering rage at this impertinence. He took hold of a broom and drove the girl out of the hut. When she got back and reported what happened, the old woman was indignant. "To think that I fed that fellow for twenty years," she exclaimed. "He showed no understanding of your need, no disposition to guide you towards a better life. He need not have given into his passion; but after all these years of prayer he could at least have developed some compassion."
Anthony DeMello, Prayer of the Frog (1989), p. 107
Compassion is one of the core drivers of human nature, and indeed the nature of all primates. Biologist and primatologist, Frans de Waal, argues forcibly against Thomas Huxley's famous misreading of Charles Darwin. The natural world is not solely an arena of pure selfishness, an eat-or-be-eaten jungle void of any semblance of morality. It is more complex than that. De Waal writes: "It is fine to describe animals (and humans) as the product of evolutionary forces that promote self-interests so long as one realizes that this by no means precludes the evolution of altruistic and sympathetic tendencies" (Primates and Philosophers 2006, p.14).
There are numerous examples of animals living successfully in groups, hunting together, sharing food, caring for their young and so on. An interesting phenomenon in such groups is what the scientists call "emotional contagion." De Waal writes: "In mammals, parental care cannot be separated from lactation. During the 180 million years of mammalian evolution, females who responded to their offspring's needs out-produced those who were cold and distant .... The first sign of empathy — crying when another baby cries — is already more typical in girl babies than boy babies" (Our Inner Ape 2005, p. 6).
In our Christian tradition Jesus is an archetype of this "emotional contagion." In Luke 13.34 Jesus laments over the violence he sees around him: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" Today's gospel, from Luke 7, gives an equally moving portrayal of Jesus' compassion as he and his followers encounter the widow of Nain's funeral cortege for her only son at the gates of the city. When Jesus sees the widow and the huge crowd that were supporting her in her grief, the author of Luke's gospel writes, "he had compassion for her" (v.13).
The Greek word used here is found 12 times in the New Testament, and only in the Gospels: splagchnizomai. It comes from the noun splanxna, which is a generic term for the gut: the bowels, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys. The verb splagchnizomai means literally "to have the bowels yearning." This is not a nice polite passing smile of pity for the grieving widow; the gospel writer is telling us that Jesus experienced a profound gut-wrenching compassion for the woman who had lost everything; all she had to live for, her family, her livelihood, her life, was gone. He could not just pass by; his gut feeling was that he had to get involved, to bring hope and life in the midst of death.
You have probably experienced at some level this compassion for another human being, or another of God's creatures. One of my parishioners in New Zealand lost his wife to cancer and then a year later their only child was killed in a car accident. I will never forget that funeral. Compassion is an emotion that literally hits you in the guts. It is a godly emotion, a virtue, part of who we are at the deepest of levels. Compassion makes us stop what we are doing and get involved. It draws us out of our selves. It helps us to listen better, to be healers, even to bring life where there is death. It may come easier to some of us, but the gift of compassion is something we can all actively foster and grow.
The church, our church of St Peter's, should of course be a place where compassion, and the related virtues of kindness and forgiveness abound. Sadly this is not always the case. A bit like the Chinese monk in the opening story, all too often Christian folk — even good Catholic Christian folk — can display the antithesis of compassion. We can be grumpy, unfriendly, sullen and seemingly heartless. And it stands out all the more, because we are followers of Jesus; people expect to see in us the Christian virtues. After all, we pray, and do good things, and listen to superb sermons each week!
My heart sinks when I hear of a falling out in our church, or of gossip, or of unkind words being said. Management consultant and author, Charles Handy, has worked in numerous organisations, from Shell, to the London School of Economics, to the Anglican Church. In his book The Elephant and the Flea (2008) he notes that ironically the worst institution he had to work for was the church. We might be followers of Jesus, we might do good works and come regularly to mass, but that is not enough. We must also be doers of the word; and that takes hard work and humility. Moving beyond our selfishness and self-centredness should be a daily discipline. It's not enough to get our weekly God-fix and then go back to business as usual, even if we are being "just like everyone else." The first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, put it well: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."
There are plenty of practical things we can do to strengthen our compassion. A bit like taking daily exercise, we can proactively work on building compassion. Praying for those we don't get on with is a good place to start, and then backing up those prayers with acts of kindness. Church is a great place to practise compassion because we are forced together week after week. Do I choose to ignore those I don't get on with, or can I find a smile or kind words to say to them? Can I genuinely try to understand where they are coming from? Sometimes it all feels too hard. That is where St Augustine's advice comes in handy: we should work as if everything depends on us, and pray as if everything depends on God.
We have the most compassionate and gracious Triune God to help us in our efforts, if only we have the humility to accept help. God the Creator has made us to be compassionate; it is in our genes. God the Redeemer, the Jesus of the gospels, is a profound model of compassion. And God the Spirit, the giver of life, will infuse us with love and compassion if we are open. Thanks be to God. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.