The Cost of Compassion

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost



Genesis 32:22-31

Romans 9:1-5

Matthew 14:13-21

Quoting Henry Ford, Dale Carnegie wrote in his seminal, bestselling self-help work How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), “If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.” While Carnegie might not have been the first public figure to package this brand of empathy for the masses, he was certainly one of the most prominent. In the decades since, the move he describes here, of understanding “the other person’s point of view” has come to be adopted by businesspeople, politicians, gurus and ministry experts as an effective sales technique, a surefire campaign strategy, a can’t-miss item in our evangelistic toolkit. Empathy sells. Compassion pays off.

Those who have been formed in a culture rooted in Carnegie’s principles might sometimes be tempted even to view Jesus through these lenses. After all, wasn’t Jesus the ultimate influencer of people? The one who came to win people to his cause? He certainly seemed to have the empathy thing down. We read in Matthew 14 that when Jesus saw the great crowds attending him, he had compassion on them and healed them. He put himself in their place. He saw things from their point of view—their hunger, both physical and spiritual, their longing for someone to follow, their desire for some message that might give them hope—and he met their needs. He touched them and took away their afflictions. He fed them and took away the gnawing emptiness in their bellies. And the crowds grew. Word spread that here, in this teacher from Nazareth, the hopes of the people were being fulfilled. This was, it would seem, a peak moment for the Jesus movement.

Of course, if we read this story in the context of the larger narrative of Jesus’ mission, not to mention the larger scope of the biblical story, we realize it’s not quite that simple. Compassion doesn’t always pay; sometimes, most of the time in fact, it costs us dearly. In John’s version of this story, Jesus follows up this display of his power with a profoundly unsettling proclamation: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” indicating that he wasn’t willing just to pass out some miraculously multiplied loaves and fishes in order to fill the emptiness of this crowd. He was going to suffer, deeply, that they might have life.

We see this same kind of hard compassion at work in Paul’s shocking statement at the beginning of Romans chapter 9, that he could wish himself accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of others, his own people, his kindred. Such language should not be taken lightly. For Paul, who had spent his early years, by his own admission, in the grips of sin and death, bearing with anguish the curse of the Law before his encounter with Christ, to even entertain the thought of going back to that place, let alone to wish it, so that others might embrace the hope he enjoyed, is astounding. This is not merely empathetic engagement for the sake of influence. It is a willingness to enter into a place of suffering for the sake of friends, neighbors, even enemies.

In this confounding passage, Paul seems to be realizing what Jesus embodied—the costliness of such self-sacrifice. For Paul, this cross-centered gospel of compassion was less like winning friends and more like wrestling with God. One who embraced this message was less likely to find him or herself standing before the adoring masses and more likely to feel like Jacob at the River Jabbok, doing battle with forces much bigger than him and emerging wounded from the encounter.

If any of us entertained the idea that compassion is easy, the past few months of our collective experience has likely unburdened us of that notion. It’s easy to fire off a tweet in support of those who are suffering, or to offer up thoughts and prayers for individuals and communities in pain. It’s much harder to suffer with, to struggle alongside, an elderly COVID patient gasping for air, or an unemployed single mom wondering if she’ll be able to find work, or entire communities of black men, women, and children demanding that their cries for justice be heard. For that matter, it’s difficult to have compassion toward those in power, to pray wisdom and humility and for God’s transformative grace in the lives of those who wield the sword and who speak from positions of authority. To suffer with these people, to embrace and enact true compassion involves a great deal of wrestling—with ourselves, with the world around us, and even with God. As we pray, as we read, and as we act, may our posture be like that of Jacob, wrestling with God in prayer in a way that transforms us. May our attitude be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who gave of himself completely. May our costly love for others be like that of Paul, who was willing to risk everything for those who were cut off from Christ.  

Image Credit: Jacob Wrestling with God, Carl-Heinz Kliemann, 1962

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