Shepherding the Wounded
"Compassion Not Religion"
by Nancy Edwards
(**Please note that this article is the second one listed on the link for the site!)
There’s a concept scattered throughout the Old and New Testaments that for years I have passed over without much consideration, but of late it has caught my attention. It reveals a surprising principle that I believe may give some insight into the dilemma of Christians not being very much like Christ. In its briefest form it appears in a short phrase quoted by Jesus in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7:
"I desire compassion not sacrifice."
In Matthew 9 the Pharisees confronted Jesus about eating with tax gatherers and sinners. His response: "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners." In Matthew 12 the Pharisees again admonished Jesus and His disciples, this time for picking grain on the Sabbath. Jesus points out from the scriptures a higher principle of what it means to keep the Sabbath and in the midst of His argument says, "But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent."
Both times that Jesus quotes this verse (from Hosea 6:6), He is being accused of being irreligious, of missing the mark, of doing something wrong. Both times His accusers were the orthodox, conservative religious leaders of the day. Both times Jesus’ response reveals that in spite of their great efforts to do what was good and right, they had become blind to the heart of God and the life-giving principles in His word.
Expanded versions of this same scripture help us to understand what it is that God doesn’t want: religious activity separated from the core realities of our faith. Empty religion that allows us to think we are on track when we are in fact far away from what God wants for us. Shadows without reality. Form without substance.
"‘ What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? For your loyalty (goodness, kindness, faithfulness) is like a morning cloud, and like the dew which goes away early…For I delight in loyalty (goodness, kindness, faithfulness) rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.’" (Hosea 6:4, 6)
Religious practice during the time of Christ included such things as public worship (sacrifice), defending orthodoxy, ministering among fellow believers, and maintaining moral purity. Things really haven’t changed much in 2000 years. The real question is, are we more like Jesus or more like the Pharisees? Be honest, whom do you identify most closely with in the Matthew passages? Jesus, who was violating the expected norms of the day, or the religious leaders, who were defending the status quo and confronting a dangerous and apparently unorthodox teacher?
What is it then that God wants? What does He desire of us more than our worship, our service, our orthodoxy, and our morality? What is it that can begin to transform all of these things into what James calls, "pure and undefiled religion?" God’s surprising answer is COMPASSION. It seems that compassion is so much a part of the heart of God, that He considers having compassion for others a mark of authentic faith. Amazing!
The Hebrew word most often translated compassion is racham, which means to love deeply, have mercy, and be compassionate. It is derived from rechem, the word for womb. The Greek word for compassion in the New Testament is spagchnizomai, and means to be moved in the inward parts. When Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, the Greek word spagchnizomai is used in place of the Hebrew word, chesed, which can be translated goodness, kindness, or faithfulness. It is most often used to describe God’s heart toward His children. It is His faithful lovingkindness. In the gospels Jesus is described as being moved with compassion. "Indeed, compassion is such a deep, central, and powerful emotion in Jesus that it can only be described as a movement of the womb of God." (Henri Nouwen, Compassion)
Compassion is what God experiences when He looks at you. He is moved in His inward parts, He loves you, He longs to demonstrate His goodness and kindness toward you. He desires that you accept and enjoy all of who He is. When He asks us to go and learn what it means that He desires compassion not sacrifice, He knows our path will lead us first to experience the fullness of His compassion toward us before we can experience genuine compassion toward others.
As you continue to meditate on the meaning of this verse in your own life, I would like to suggest that you consider the following:
Confess the unattractiveness, the hurtfulness, and the emptiness of being religious. Become willing to admit that your honest desire to know God has degenerated into ideas, rituals, and attitudes that are more consistent with man-made religion than a personal relationship with God. Acknowledge your weakness and propensity to leave that which is truly attractive for that which you can control. Offer the sacrifice of humility and brokenness to God and to those whom you have hurt. Experience afresh God’s compassion (faithfulness, mercy, kindness, and goodness) toward you.
"Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me, do not cast me away from Thy presence, and do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation, and sustain me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Thy ways, and sinners will be converted to Thee…For Thou dost not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; Thou art not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise." (Ps. 51:10-13, 16-17)
Practice the presence of God instead of religion. Exchange thoughts about God for talks with God; busyness with stillness, and intellectual pride with awe. Answer first the question that Jesus asked Peter, "Do you love me?" before you think about feeding His sheep.
Hang out with Jesus. Be changed by being in His presence. Become fragrant.
"The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus? Perhaps another way of putting the question would be: Do you know the incarnate God? In our world of loneliness and despair, there is an enormous need for men and women who know the heart of God, a heart that forgives, that cares, that reaches out and wants to heal." (Henri Nouwen, In The Name of Jesus)
Extend to others the compassion, kindness, goodness, and tenderness you have felt in the presence of God. Be careful, in fact consider restraining yourself from speaking or acting in the name of Jesus unless and until you experience genuine compassion for the person you are about to address. Identify with their experience until you are moved at the center of your being. Wait until you feel more similar to them than different from them. Let genuine compassion craft your response.
"Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke. Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into the house; Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; and your righteousness will go before you; the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard." (Isaiah 58:5-8)
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