Throughout our Province we observe August as ‘The Month of Compassion’. Of course, we are called upon to share compassion throughout the year, but this month we take time to pause and reflect on the compassion we have received from God, and how he calls us to share it with the world around.
The word ‘compassion’ has roots that mean ‘to feel with’ or ‘to suffer with’. Compassion is not only feeling sorry for someone, but to be with them in what they face. God has compassion on all creation, especially humanity. Coming alongside us in Jesus Christ, taking human form, to experience all that we go through. As Scripture says, ‘We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who, in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ (Heb 4:15-16).
When we look at the life of Jesus, we see how certain circumstances drew out particular compassion in him. We read how he had compassion for a leper, expelled from society and rejected by his faith community (Mk 1:41); for the multitude who ‘were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd’ (Mt 9:36); for a hungry crowd (Mk 8:2); for the sick (Mt 14:14); and for two blind men (Mt 20:34). He speaks of God’s compassion when healing ‘Legion’ (Lk 5:19); and in his parables, compassion is shown by the God-like figures of the debt-forgiving master (Mt 18:27) and the prodigal son’s father (Lk 15:20). We see compassion in Jesus’ treatment of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:11); and in his raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mk 6:41) and the widow of Nain’s son (Lk 7:13). In all these examples, we see what ‘bothers’ God about humanity: our predicaments not only as individuals, but within society, in need of direction and leadership so that we can live the life to which God calls us, and which Jesus both models and offers to us if we put out trust in him as Lord and Saviour.
We see Jesus’ compassion most fully in what we call his ‘passion’. This is not about enthusiasm or desire, but the primary meaning of the word: suffering. For Jesus, in his love for humanity, shared the suffering of mortality and death, as he gave his life for us on the cross. As Jesus says at the Last Supper, ‘No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (Jn 15:12).
God in Jesus Christ shows us what is compassionate love. It is acting. It is coming alongside and walking with. It is persevering and self-sacrificing. Love that does not take action is mere sentimentality. Love that does not come alongside is aloof and condescending. Love that does not walk with is only being patronising. Love that does not persevere is just a passing romantic daydream. Love that is not prepared to give of itself is no more than an empty pretence – or, as St Paul might say, a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. (I Cor 13:1)
How shall we show such love, such compassion, to those whom we meet? Jesus tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves, and the story of the good Samaritan, in which a despised foreigner helps the assaulted Jewish traveller, reminds us that our neighbour is anyone who crosses our path – even someone whom we might never expect to encounter in everyday life.
Sometimes what is needed is to show people that ‘we are there for them’. The Bible tells us that when Job, after losing all his children and wealth, was struck with sores from head to foot, his three friends came, and sat with him in silence for seven days. When they finally opened their mouths, they got it all wrong!! Sometimes our committed presence makes all the difference.
Last month I visited a hospital in Khayelitsha in Cape Town, where Hope Africa had donated equipment, as part of their annual partnership scheme with the South Africa Medical Foundation. So much is done by a dedicated few, with limited resources. Yet I pray that through my visit, and the lasting presence of the new equipment, we can demonstrate some measure of sustained compassion. Sustained compassion is also present in long-running projects such as soup kitchens and winter care programmes. It is in the establishment and support of foster care homes, and in home based care projects. It is in vegetable gardens and prison visiting. It is in skills training and capacity building and community development. It is in reading to the blind, or just sitting holding the hand of someone who needs to know a loving touch. It is in a million little acts of care.
Compassion can also be expressed through raising our voices – especially through Synods at Diocesan and Provincial level. I am reminded of the words of the Roman Catholic priest in Brazil, Helder Camara, who said ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.’ We too must ask our governments the difficult questions of what social justice means, and how it is to be enjoyed by all. And we must be ready to be partners with our governments, at every level, to ensure that the infrastructure resources which we enjoy can be used to their full potential. Perhaps we have buildings that can be used for clinics or in other ways so that services can be delivered to those who need them.
Earlier this month I joined the Diocese of the Free State’s annual Cave Service at Modderpoort, and was touched by the Anglican Women’s Fellowship’s generous spirit. It reminded me of Christ’s compassion in feeding the multitude. May our Lord continue to bless Bishop Paddy and Kirsty Glover and their team.
In South Africa, August is also women’s month. In so many communities, women bear the burden of caring for those in need – but Jesus’ example shows that this is a responsibility all should share. Yet let me salute those women who, whether through choice or force of circumstances, expend their time, their energies, their resources, for the well-being of others. Women priest and deacons, members of the Mothers Union and the Anglican Women’s Fellowship, women lay ministers and wardens, treasurers and councillors, women who teach in Sunday School and clean and do the flowers, women who fill our pews, and the women of tomorrow who grow up among us – we honour you, as our sisters in Christ, our fellow-labourers in his vineyards, our companions on the journey, and our equals in the sight of God.
Yours in the service of Christ,
+Thabo Cape Town
Yours in the service of Christ,
+Thabo Cape Town