“…but go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,
for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners’.”
I adore weddings. There is a splendor to even the most simple of ceremonies and little else can cause me to be caught up in the beauty of what this sacrament points toward – the betrothal and commitment of the Bridegroom to His Bride. But I’ve attended enough weddings to know I also dread them. There’s no mistaking the strange feelings that gnaw at my heart when the wedding party has driven away – it is over. The splendor is gone and now they, and we, must go about the dailyness of living. Was the splendor a farce? No – it was very real -even the most cynical eyes or concerned relatives cannot dismiss it. This is why my “post wedding angst” persists – I don’t want the splendor to end. Especially the look of adoring pursuit in the bridegroom’s eyes.
Strange, but this sadness, this “missing the splendor” comes close to defining Biblical compassion.
What comes to mind when the word compassion is heard? Images of the homeless and soup kitchens? Bosnia, Afghan, Mozambican refugee camps? Hospital wards and AIDS clinics? Struggling single mothers? Surely these realities draw upon the compassion within us. There is a certain poverty to these images that causes us to desire to see a wealth of warmth, nutrients and care to intrude into the pictures. Compassion is called out of us when we see situations where there’s an obvious absence of something or someone life-giving. It calls us to ache, mostly because we are forced to long for what or who is absent to be restored. For those of us who have tasted the riches of Christ, it calls us to want to extend His heart into the situation, to be ministers of reconciliation and restoration.
And now, when the bride and bridegroom drive away from us, when our taste of splendor ends, we are left with the banal reality of our lives. We are left with the poverty of our own condition. We are left to live, nourished only by a memory of the splendor that once was. Sacrificial living requires nothing of our hearts because it has no sight; no memory, no vision. Compassion requires us to see what is gone, to remember what was and to long for those things, for those people, to be restored. Compassion is being broken over how little we grieve the absence of Christ in our lives.
Internal Poverty – Compassion’s Birthplace
Never has my definition of compassion been challenged as much as the years I had the privilege to live and work in Southern Africa. In an era when the vestiges of apartheid were crumbling, it was an electric place – an exhilarating time to walk the dark soil of that beautiful continent. It was in the crowded slums of one of the many townships, in a simple home of a displaced Mozambican family, that I met Musa. Musa looked about six when his piercing brown eyes first caught mine. He had one of those grins that threatened to cause his entire jaw-line to burst. I found myself filled with delight at this little boy. What I didn’t realize as I played faces with Musa was that he was actually twelve years old, and had been mute for almost six years and could no longer walk, or even stand, on his own. A debilitating muscular disease, his mother told me as she pulled him from a small wash basin outside their stucco home. My heart was filled with, what I thought was compassion.
Compelled by this family, I found myself spending quite a bit of time in their home. I looked on as Musa’s mother, Ketsiwe, discovered the love of Christ and with a zeal I have rarely seen since, soon began urgently knocking on little wooden doors to tell her neighbors what she had come to realize about the love of God. Pretty soon there was a humble living room filled with kerchief-clad African women, desiring to search the scriptures together.
It was these seekers who decided, as they studied the gospels, that they needed to pray for Musa. And they did. Fervently. Constantly. And one day while we all watched in disbelief, Musa took his mother’s hand and stood up. He let go of her hand and took several shaky steps and then collapsed and with the first words in six years, he mumbled, “Siabonga Jesu” – Thank you Jesus. An absolute wait came from my African friends. Musa was talking. Musa was walking. Prayer had been heard and the answer was a scene of absolute wonder.
I held that day, and that little boy, in my heart as a picture of “what is possible.” I returned to the States having had my heart captured by Musa and by the unlimited power of God. And sadly, I held it as a picture that no longer prompted compassion; after all, Musa’s plight was lessened now, right?
A year and a half later, I had the opportunity to return to Southern Africa for several weeks. The first stop was predictable. I expectantly worked my way down the muddy slope to Musa’s home. As I turned the corner into the back garden, I felt the life drain out of me as I saw Ketsiwe washing Musa in a basin again; he was more emaciated and twisted than ever. He had taken a really bad turn for the worse in the last five months, Ketsiwe said. Musa could still speak, though, and he greeted me. His eyes embraced me as I wept and internally raged at God. What a cruel joke, I thought. The splendor I had witnessed was gone and I was furious.
Then, Musa and I spent the day together and this little teenager completely silenced me. All he wanted to talk about – from his borrowed wheelchair -was me, Jesus, and his friends who he cared about. He would occasionally sing, thanking God that we were together. He wanted to pray together. He was absolutely in love with Christ and it permeated every breath. He told me about the church that had started in his neighborhood – because so many people had heard about him, he said. I had nothing to say. The “compassion” I thought I had for Musa was revealed as nothing more than a convenient way to avoid the utter sadness of his situation, and mine. But, it was not his “condition” that drew me to true compassion. It was his heart. His glorious, splendor-filled heart. The petty complaints of my soul were exposed and I looked at this little boy and decided to learn all I could from him in our hours together. Through him, I saw the poverty of my own arrogant “sacrificial” love. I have never been the same.
The Poverty of the Bridegroom’s Absence
“Go and learn what this means…that I desire compassion and not sacrifice.” Jesus was responding to those who were questioning why his fasting didn’t look like the fasting of the Pharisees. The question could have just as easily sounded like the contemporary cry of “Where is your commitment? What are you willing to give up for Jesus? How are you demonstrating your godly values?” Jesus’ reply was one that squelched the very essence of those arrogant questions, firmly, but gently bringing the focus back to who He was and what He was desiring to give. The Pharisees’ fast, in its public proclamation, had a harsh absence of mourning. Suddenly the picture of the bridegroom at a wedding is the one Jesus uses to describe what is worthy of mourning. Do the guests at a wedding mourn while the bridegroom is still present? No, there is no mourning. There is only jubilation at being in the presence of one who loves so passionately. The sadness sets in when the wedding is over and the wedding party has departed. The guests are left with only the memory of splendor. Hearts long for the bridegroom’s return.
How do we “go and learn this”? Those who do not know the bridegroom have no need to long for his return. It is only those adoring him who then ache for his presence. Sacrifice can do nothing to appease the ache. The ache for a person missed propels us into the sorrow of compassion. We are reminded in missing their splendor, of the poverty we are left in without them, and it is this poverty that is the birthplace of the compassion of Christ.
The compassion we learn in relationship we then bring into the setting of worship and ministry – we learn we’re incapable of conjuring up the presence of the Bridegroom who we miss – and yet, He condescends to come anyway. We learn the kind of compassion Jesus had on the hill above Jerusalem; a heart that aches for our bewildered and lost condition. We learn by understanding it is the sick who need a physician. We learn that sacrifice only solidifies the hardness of our hearts; compassion melt the hardness until we wait, expectant and thirsty, for a God who intrudes into our lives to restore the missing splendor. Suddenly worship is not a dry proclamation of our intent to serve Him well. Rather, it becomes a living and vital expression of a relationship with the heart of God.
How do we extend our hearts to compassion? And, as the reality of compassion penetrates our hearts, does it matter? I’m coming to see that it does matter. If the reality of compassion doesn’t shape and inform the heart I extend, then I am reduced to being only a “moral, sacrificial woman”, rather than a helpless child clinging to the heart of her Father. I am reduced to being lukewarm in my perceived lack of poverty.
Compassion is allowing myself to be stunned by the absence of. As Dostoyevsky puts it, the “bond with the heavenly world” in my situation, to mourn the absence of an acknowledgment of God in my heart. It moves me to long for His presence to intrude into the most common of situations – a conversation with a friend that never gets beyond surface chatter, a relationship that has become content with maintaining a certain level of civility to avoid the deeper heart issues, or a worship service that exalts the worshipper over the One to be worshipped. And it is at this point that compassion and hope show their common heritage. I hope to enjoy the splendor of Musa’s heart. I hope to have the splendor of lingering with a good friend. I hope for the bridegroom’s return. And in so doing, I open my heart to compassion. To not hope is to live compassionless. To not hope is to not “go and learn that this means…” Compassion comes whenever I’m called to ask, “The Bridegroom isn’t here. Where is He?”
This article is a classic originally published in our early print magazines.