The last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about compassion. Moms are sort of the archetypical picture of compassion, soothing fevered brows and kissing scraped knees and all that. But these days mothering feels to me more like small bodies hurtling in my direction and plastering sweaty limbs and slimy hands across the surface of my skin like octopi, rudely demanding a band-aid or sympathetic utterance for even the smallest wound from a sister, a sidewalk or just the world at large. Frequently my body is mounded over by this small clump of humanity, buried under one child or three, all slurping greedily from the well of a mother’s compassion. Lately, I must admit, the well’s felt a little dry.
That press of broken bodies, that thirsty slurp of humanity’s need; that’s what I pictured Jesus experiencing when he returned to shore in Matthew 14. Jesus, after hearing of John’s beheading, had withdrawn by boat to a solitary place. But no sooner does he reach shore than he finds that crowds of people are waiting for him, having followed him on foot from the surrounding cities. I’m can see myself in that position, desiring to withdraw only to find this extremely needy throng of people ready to pounce as soon as he sets his foot on shore. So when we’re told, “Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick,” I’m ashamed.
What’s hard for me to admit is that when I’ve been meditating on compassion these last few weeks, what I’ve actually been thinking about is not how I can give more, but how I feel like I need more. Lately, when I see my own miniature mob of needy humanity, I’ve wanted to take out a hammer and pound out a tall fence to surround myself to keep the slurpers from bleeding me completely dry. So reading how Jesus, in a single sentence and seemingly without even a second thought, immediately has compassion on the crowd— Well, it seems like an impossibly high standard to achieve.
For whatever reason, it’s a lot more comfortable to be in a position to give than to be in a position to receive. I’d rather be like Jesus than like the mob. Wouldn’t we all? But in my most private thoughts and the moments when my children are my only audience, I have to admit that I more closely resemble the broken masses than calm and collected Jesus, always ready to dispense infinite compassion.
So as I’ve been thinking about compassion, I was interested to read that the word actually comes from ‘compati’ which means “to suffer with.” Compati comes from ecclesiastical Latin which was a form of Latin developed to preach and otherwise communicate with ordinary people. Basically “compassion” is a word developed by the church out of a need to express the concept of “suffering with” to ordinary people. In a way it seems fitting since Jesus came to earth to suffer for and with ordinary people. Weak people. Needy people. But what we don’t like to admit is that needy and weak is the state in which every single one of us human beings exists (not just those other “ordinary” people).
But what about Jesus? Certainly He is the one human being who has never experienced weakness, right? I don’t think that’s exactly true. After all we are told, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are…” He experienced the body’s need for food and water and rest. He experienced the depths of human emotion and grief. He chose to take on human form, emptied Himself, and laid down his life to be crucified in weakness. Jesus’ body was broken under the weight of our sins before He was raised again by God’s power. So though Jesus is not inherently weak in the same sense that we are, He made himself weak in order to complete the glorious and glorifying work He was sent to do.
What I left out about Jesus’ encounter with the masses may actually be the most important fact: Upon close examination of the passage, we find that Jesus meets that great throng of human need after having already gone out on the boat to seclusion and returning to shore. As was his well-established habit when alone, Jesus likely spent a portion of His time talking with God, opening His heart, offering up needs, and receiving God’s strength and refreshment in full measure so that He was ready again to pour Himself out.
We have an enemy of our soul and one of his favorite devices is to convince us that we should be ashamed to admit our true state. The enemy wants to do all he can to keep us from acknowledging and acting out of the reality of our dependency on God because he never wants us to be in a position to ask for and accept all that God would offer us.
It’s not a surprise to God how weak we are, He knows that we are dust. He created us from it. We should not be surprised by our weakness either. We shouldn’t feel shame when we realize that we’re just never going to be enough or have enough to give. Instead, we should take a cue from Jesus, who even though He was enough, still chose make His requests known to God and put Himself into a position to receive. Sometimes we need to retreat, lay ourselves down before God so that we too could be raised by God’s power (not ours) out of the places we are weak and dead. He promises he will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. He assures us He will refresh the weary and satisfy the faint. But to truly know all that He is and does for us, we first must acknowledge that that weak and flickering and weary and faint IS what we are.