Colossians 3:1-17

November 11, 2001


Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

In Charles Dickens’ classic story A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge undergoes a type of metamorphosis. As most of you know, either through reading the book or watching one of the many movie versions, Scrooge first appears as a wealthy but self-centered and mean-spirited businessman who cares little about anything or anyone other than himself. In the Muppets’ brilliant depiction of the tale, Scrooge, whose favorite expression is “Ba humbug,” even throws out fund raisers from a local orphanage at Christmas time and shouts, “I am doing my part to reverse the population explosion!”

As the story progresses, however, Scrooge experiences a change of epic proportions. Through a series of dream-like encounters with three ghosts–the ghosts of Christmas-past, Christmas-present, and Christmas-yet to come, Scrooge encounters firsthand the horror of his selfish ways. In sheer desperation, while kneeling in the shadow of his own tombstone, he pleads with the ghost of Christmas-yet to come, “Are these signs of what will be, or only of what might be?” Words can hardly describe the expression on Scrooge’s face when he wakes from his sleep the next morning and realizes that the end of his life’s story remains to be written. With unbridled enthusiasm, he mends his fences, corrects his ways, and lavishes the town with gifts and graces. The journey of Ebenezer Scrooge. A journey from success to service. Bitterness to joy. Self-centeredness to compassion.

The Apostle Paul outlines a similar journey here in the third chapter of Colossians. In addressing the apparently small gathering of believers in this now abandoned town, Paul writes, “If you have received new life in Christ, refocus your priorities. Concentrate your energies on heavenly rather than worldly things. Put behind you the self-centered activities that characterized your former life, including anger, greed, and slander, and clothe yourselves with a wide assortment of new garments–humility, patience, forgiveness, and love.” And the first word appearing on the list? Compassion. What Paul envisions here in Colossians 3 is a transformation no less dramatic than that undergone by Ebenezer Scrooge, a journey from self-centeredness to compassion.

With that in mind, what precisely is compassion? A range of images might help us here. In the Old Testament, one word often translated “compassion” also refers at times to a mother’s womb, and Paul similarly connects the word for compassion here in Colossians 3:12 with the term for “inward part.” Compassion, by implication, is more than a casual feeling, more than a passing thought or random act of kindness. It is instead an attitude that is rooted deeply within our souls, an attitude that moves us to respond graciously to the needs and concerns of others. But the image that I have always found the most instructive is this one. In Hebrew thought–and remember, Paul typically thought in Hebrew, though he writes here in Greek–the idea of compassion is at times conveyed with a word whose root means “to sway.” Picture a large pond, with reeds or other plants swaying in the wind. By analogy, being compassionate involves “swaying” with people–walking with them, relating with them, and seeing things from their perspective. Appropriately, our English word “compassion” is a compound of two separate terms and itself means “to suffer with.” Compassion involves a profound sense of identification with other people who are hurting or struggling.

In their book entitled Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill and Douglas Morrison describe the call of compassion in this way:

Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish.... Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep
with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.

In this sense, the greatest and clearest example of compassion is Jesus himself. In Jesus Christ, God took on human form so that he could “sway” with people, walk with people, minister to people, and see things from their perspective.

On no less than twelve occasions in the Gospels, Jesus is overcome by compassion. Various things strike me as I look at our Lord in these passages. To begin with, when Jesus is overwhelmed with compassion, we invariably find him mingling with a wide variety of people in an equally wide variety of places. Jesus, in other words, was “present.” The compassion that he feels for the crowds in Matthew 9:36 occurs as he moves about within their cities and villages. The compassion that overtakes him in Matthew 14:14 comes about when he gives up his quest for personal solitude, leaves his boat, and “goes ashore.” In Mark 1:41, Jesus has compassion for people with whom he has just spent the last three days. And in Luke 7:13, Jesus shows compassion to a grieving widow in a small and somewhat marginalized town. Jesus felt compassion, at least in part, because he lived his life among people–he walked where people walked.

A Compassionate Community In many ways, our society increasingly encourages us to live our lives in a sort of isolation. Oh, I know that there are people everywhere, and that it is difficult at times to find private space. But you can shop at Walmart everyday of the week for an entire year without ever learning the name of a single person who works there. You can now do most of your business over the internet. You can make a phone call, push a seemingly endless array of buttons, and never speak to a solitary soul. It’s wonderful, isn’t it? We can live our lives without ever having to deal with messy people.
Just recently, I called a local company. When a genuine human being finally came on the line and asked me how she could help me, I apparently startled her by asking how I might help her. Astonishingly, she began to cry, and she proceeded to share with me how her world was falling apart around her. Here I was, praying on the phone with an older, broken woman who I never talked with before.
Do you know what really impresses me about the compassion of Jesus? It’s not so much that he healed people, fed people, and clothed people, as important as such acts of mercy are. What amazes me the most about the compassion of Jesus is that he touched people. God in the flesh, walking on dirty streets, hanging out with stuffy religious leaders, eating a meal with society’s outcasts, sitting with the sick, and rewording difficult concepts for the unlearned. Jesus Christ was present, and out of his presence grew his compassion.
In addition to this overwhelming sense that Jesus was present among people, I find myself moved in these passages by the wide variety of needs and circumstances that brought our Lord’s compassion to the surface. He was stirred, for example, by such physical needs as hunger and sickness. Two blind men sitting by the roadside near Jericho aroused Jesus’ concern, and on another occasion he reached out to help the hopeless–a person afflicted with leprosy. Jesus similarly responded when the crowds to whom he was preaching went a few days without food. People’s physical needs were vitally important to our Lord.
Jesus, furthermore, felt compassion for those enduring emotional distress, either as a result of circumstances or foolish personal choices. He wept with others at the tomb of Lazarus, and he had compassion for the distraught widow of Nain as she prepared to bury her son. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus describes a father moved beyond words at the return of his wayward son. How easy it would be to say to a fallen person, “It’s your fault. You messed up. You made the wrong choices.” Instead, we read that the father “was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
And Jesus felt a penetrating compassion for the lost and seemingly shepherdless people of the world. In effect, Jesus was moved by the vast chasm between the “what is” and the “what could be.” “When he saw the crowds,” Matthew informs us, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” The very circumstances of life, the brokenness in which people live, and the profound lack of purpose and direction that many experience, all of these moved Jesus to compassion.
It’s fascinating, isn’t it? The same society that often encourages us to live in isolation also inundates us with the seemingly endless needs of the world. It wasn’t so difficult to respond compassionately when we lived in Walnut Grove in the 1800's and learned that Jonathan Garvey’s crop failed or that Harriet Olsen had left emotional scars on yet another unsuspecting victim. We knew what to do then. But today, we are not only aware of sickness, hunger, grief, and sin in our own town, but in countless other places around the world–Afghanistan, Romania, Palestine, the Sudan, New York, and Harrisburg. Such an overwhelming sense of awareness often leads, not to compassion, but to either indifference or paralysis. “Where do we begin?” we ask.
Where did Ebenezer Scrooge begin? He began to reach out in compassion in those areas where his own life and the needs of others directly interfaced. Scrooge shared gifts with family members he had earlier tried so hard to alienate. He began to give additional vacation time to his overworked employees. He bought a massive Christmas turkey for Bob Cratchett, his beleaguered office manager, and even ate Christmas dinner with the entire Cratchett family. Scrooge went back to the same orphanage fund raisers whom he had previously thrown out of his office and he made a sizeable donation. From there we can only imagine the net widening, for as Ebenezer Scrooge walked among people instead of hibernating in his dark and lonely office, he became increasingly aware of appropriate ways in which he could enact compassion.
We simply cannot help everyone; Jesus didn’t either. So where do we begin? At the places where our lives directly interface with the needs of others. A forsaken family member. A member of this congregation lying in the hospital. A grieving neighbor. The previously nameless cashier at the local hardware store where you now shop, even though it costs a few pennies more. The mission in the country you once visited. If you care deeply about education, help a school or sponsor a student. If you are a nurse or a doctor, or have been greatly served by one, support a medical clinic in a foreign land. If you are a computer whiz, tutor a street kid. If you are a recovering addict, counsel the oppressed. As we walk with people, as we forsake our sheltered worlds and genuinely sway with other human beings, here and elsewhere, the compassion that moves the very heart of God will become our own. Being present and living compassionately go hand in hand.
Just a few days ago, my wife received a letter from one of her teachers and spiritual mentors. He closed the letter with these words: “Be well, my friend, and do as much good as you can wherever you can. In the faces of those you do it for you will see the face of God.” I could tell countless stories this morning about many of you who have done much good in so many places. I won’t. I’ll let each of you do that.