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This past weekend, in light of the crowds storming our nation’s Capitol, a Spiritual Director I follow, Rev. Summer Joy, issued this “hard and holy invitation” of compassion, even towards those at the capitol, to her weekend readers:
As I meditated on these verses from Matthew:
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field,” I noticed these hard and holy invitations:
- to turn towards the crowds surging on the Capitol with compassion,
- to recognize where we feel powerless,
- to see where our country has been harassed by a shepherd who desired ego-stroking more than sheep tending,
- and to pray for politicians (and other leaders) who will tend the sheep with integrity and care.
Did you notice that first invitation? “Turn towards the crowds surging on the Capitol with compassion.”
When I read that, I sharply inhaled, as if I had just been gut punched. Because that is not how I was looking at the crowds throughout the news cycle on Wednesday. There were so many other feelings and emotions in my eyes and my heart as I watched the events unfold.
But maybe those feelings didn’t cancel out my capacity to feel like Jesus does in this scene, to feel compassion for a crowd out of control. Maybe I didn’t need to feel ashamed and gut punched, at least not in the way that initial inhale signaled to me.
The Context of Compassion
In this passage, Jesus is traveling from town to town, healing & teaching in every place he goes. He draws a crowd every time, because he is doing truly amazing things, and is growing in popularity. But there is much misunderstanding in these crowds. They don’t realize he is their Messiah, the promised Savior of Israel. They revere him as a prophet, a healer, a teacher very different from the usual religious teachers.
Yet they do not truly know him as he is. In fact, their understanding of Messiah is far off from how he defines himself. They are looking for someone who will perform great signs, and amass great power, in order to throw off Roman rule and set them free. In other words, they want a powerful King. They too will turn mob-ish at times, both to try and crown him as an earthly king, and then, later, to shout “crucify him!” during Passover.
Jesus sees their, and our, true need: a shepherd. Not a character of great power, but of great commitment to taking care of the sheep. One who will help and tend to their needs, not ones who leave them “harassed and helpless.” Like sheep with no shepherd at all.
And it’s as if he knows that he alone can’t help them all; that the work will still be unfinished when his time ends, because in this compassionate spirit, he turns to his disciples, and says, “Pray for more workers.” Pray, using the same imagery: for more shepherds. Pray for more people who will likewise turn towards the crowds with compassion.
Even mob-like crowds that storm into politically-sacred buildings to try and keep an earthly king in power.
Let’s Define Compassion
I think it is important to define compassion here, because we often have very lofty, quasi-Christian ideas of what things mean, and therefore run the risk of shaming ourselves into good behavior, as opposed to actually understanding what Jesus was feeling here.
First, Compassion is NOT:
- Not “feeling bad” for someone
- Not excusing actions that are wrong
- Not overlooking injustice and grievances against others
- Not excusing someone from proper punishment
- Not denying the truth about an action
In the Greek, it is quite literally a “gut wrench” — just look and try and pronounce this word:
σπλαγχνίζομαι — splagchnizomai
It’s a guttural word, that literally means “to be moved in the inward parts,” and yes, those inner parts: one definition goes so far as to say, “to have the bowels yearn,” which is just not a great image, but one that definitely denotes a LOT of feelings.
More figuratively, it’s a feeling of being moved with compassion. It’s a deep move of the spirit for someone, or for a situation that moves us.
So, then, a few things we can pull from this very interesting Greek word that compassion IS:
- a deep move in the spirit
- deep feelings stirring within
And the English definition gives us these markers of compassion:
- from the Latin word meaning to suffer with
- sympathetic pity or concern for the sufferings of others
Compassion is much deeper an emotion than we might think when we hear an invitation to show it. That’s because it’s not merely an emotional response; it’s also a response of the spirit, of our hearts. It’s not something we’re just going to stumble upon feeling. It’s going to come like a gut punch—much like how I felt when reading this invitation myself.
How I Felt on Wednesday vs. Compassion on Wednesday’s Crowds
On Wednesday, as I simultaneously watched the Capitol being attacked and listened to a Bible study, I felt a lot of feelings. My spirit was heaving under the weight of anxiety and overwhelm. A lot was going through my heart, but this rose to the surface, as I shared with a friend that evening:
Maybe forcing love tonight is worse than hatred, because hatred is exactly what is at work in the domestic terrorism happening in DC. Our job is not to convict that; our job is to love “each other,” which Jesus said to his disciples in a move for them to look at one another and realize that that love is their first priority.
Loving others isn’t a blanket statement against feelings of hatred; loving others means correcting untruth & calling out those who take God’s name in vain. There is so much more than hate in our hearts; and above all else, the Spirit takes up residence right next to all of our emotions and doesn’t leave when they get “too big.” He will guide us.
Here’s the thing I’m landing on with this call to compassion in the midst of everything else I feel:
Compassion does not cancel out other emotions. Compassion does not mean you have no anger or grief or pain, even when it’s because of those you are practicing compassion toward. Compassion doesn't ask us to not tell the truth. Compassion is complex, like we are. We can feel it AND everything else we’re feeling.
Jesus saw the crowds and had compassion on them. He knew they didn’t have the right shepherd. Even as they were near him, they were still struggling to understand his true purpose and person. They didn’t fully understand him as that shepherd coming specifically for them. He knew they were astray. He probably had other emotions alongside that knowledge: frustration over people wanting signs more than a savior, anger over religious shepherds not tending them well, sadness that he couldn’t change everyone in that instant.
His spirit moved within him and with all these other feelings in tow. He felt compassion. He kept doing what it was he was called to. And He kept being a good shepherd.
The Challenge of Compassion
How can we do the same? How can we turn towards those who stormed the capitol with compassion?
1. Don’t deny other feelings. Let them, along with compassion, lead you to action.
Personally, my main point of overwhelm has been the grief that roots itself in my bones over the blatant white supremacy shown not only in the crowd itself, but also in the realization that if this crowd had not been white, there would’ve been a bloodbath. (But please do not compare Black Lives Matter protests to last week. Those protests were cries to correct injustice; January 6th’s events were blatant insurrection).
Compassion is not a call to deny our feelings, to shame our feelings, or to feel differently about an event that has unveiled the harsh fabric of our country, a country we may love, but a country that has stormed other people’s capitals, too—from our very founding, to the war on drugs, and to the war on terror.
I cannot deny this grief over this unveiling its place, because it leads me to lament, and lamenting will lead me to act — to speak against white supremacy, to repent of my own involvement in how the church has often perpetrated nationalism and racism from its pulpits. After all, these crowds were carrying crosses and “Jesus saves” flags alongside gallows and deadly weapons. The Jesus raised up among this crowd in these symbols is not the same Jesus I follow. But he is the Jesus that has been preached about in many churches, we must be honest about this. We must speak truth and take actions that tell the truth.
2. Remember that we, too–all of us–have been the crowds.
It is all too easy to lump ourselves against something in a “they” versus “us” mentality, and all of us have been doing it for years. Some recent examples:
“They” are rioting; “we” want a peaceful protest.
“They” stormed the capitol; “we” would never do something like that.
But the reality is: we’re all the crowds. There is no escaping the fact that we all need a shepherd.
Some have found it in political power.
Some have found it in a religious leader.
I tend to look for it in my husband.
Many, many more find it in themselves.
Political players and spiritual leaders, husbands and wives and partners, even our own identities can help us, as fellow sheep who understand what it is like to need a shepherd, and who have experience following the Shepherd.
The Shepherd of Compassion
But there is only one true shepherd. Yes, Jesus turns and prays for more workers, more shepherd-like people, to tend to crowds such as these, to turn towards the crowds with compassion.
At the end of the day, we must be looking to him, or we will all continue to be helpless and harassed, as I think we’ve all felt most acutely over the past year.
It is only from him that we can learn that movement of spirit and soul, which leads us not to the high road, or better arguments, or loftier morality, but to the deeper work of uprooting the power, autonomy, and even supremacy, that we too crave.
At the end of the day, he looks at us—all of us—with compassion, and we must learn that look in his eyes towards us before we can ever hope to glance it to anyone else, or even ourselves, with it too.