Barnard Castle School. 9.10.23. Vicar’s talk: Theme: Compassion

Two stories this morning. Two stories from the story of Jesus. Two stories around the theme of compassion which school will be exploring this week.
The first story comes early in Mark’s gospel in the New Testament when a man who has leprosy comes to Jesus and begs to be healed. He kneels at Jesus’ feet and says: ‘If you choose you can make me clean’. If you just pause with these bible stories rather than just rushing through them…if you just pause and think… you soon realise just how much is taking place in just a few sentences. Somehow this man, this man with one of the most frightening diseases in the ancient world, believed that Jesus could heal him. Which suggests that, even before Jesus became known as a teacher he was known as a healer. ‘If you choose, you can make me clean’ – this man believed that Jesus had the ability or power to rid him of his disease. But what comes next is the important thing this morning. Most bible translations say something like this ‘Moved with pity or compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him’. Jesus said to him ‘I do choose. Be made clean.’
But it seems that there are some manuscripts that don’t say that Jesus was ‘moved with compassion’, instead they read ‘Jesus was angry’. Now that is interesting. I double checked and, indeed, it is there in my own bible – a little footnote to the text ‘other ancient authorities read anger’. Our New Testament was put together by drawing on a huge number of manuscripts many of which were written within just a few years of Jesus life, death and resurrection. What is remarkable about these manuscripts (and you can see many of them in our great museums) is how little variance there is between them. But a rule that is normally applied is that if there is a difficult reading (anger rather than compassion) that’s the one that should be favoured. Why? Because you might imagine a scribe ‘softening’ the word…but not making it more difficult.
What is clear from the story is that Jesus saw this man and was ‘moved’. He physically ‘felt’ some thing. Another modern translation has this a ‘Jesus was ‘churned up inside’. Compassion does that…but so does anger. Maybe these two things can be connected? Jesus clearly wasn’t angry with the man. He goes on to heal him. Perhaps he was angry, perhaps he felt deep within himself, the frustration that a child of God should be so damaged, that the wider community and religion be so unable to help him…. And his compassion…or anger (whichever you choose…caused him to act. Why? Because God doesn’t just sit up on a cloud watching people suffer: he gets involved and acts. What does compassion mean? It literally means ‘suffering with’ someone. God feels for us, cares for us and gets involved with us.
A second story. Jesus had a friend called Lazarus. Jesus arrived at his home and was immediately taken to Lazarus’ tomb where the shortest verse in the New Testament reads ‘Jesus wept’. Earlier in the story Jesus had met with Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters. As they told Jesus about Lazarus’ death we’re told ‘Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved’. This is another case where our translators have been very polite in their translation. Yes, ’disturbed in spirit and deeply moved’ conveys upset and distress – so again we have a picture of Jesus (the person whose life shows us what God is like) feeling something deeply, but the original Greek gives us that ‘anger’ word again. Some bible commentators say the words here are normally used of a horse that snorts its anger. Maybe we prefer compassion to be gentle, maybe we want God to be gentle, why would we not? But there is so much wrong in this world that needs gentleness to be married with indignation and anger. Those who are struggling, in school or on the TV news across a world that has more than its fair share of natural disaster, extreme inequality and brutality, need care and gentleness, kindness, generosity and mercy: these things are of God because they are of the nature of God. Where you see them God is present. But a quiet tear only goes so far: it might make us feel better without touching anyone else’s life for good. But sometimes compassion needs to go further and become angry: angry that this or that can happen to God’s creation, to people made in his image, angry that individuals and communities can be so damaged or broken. Compassionate anger: maybe these things together are what we need to bring about change?

Open my eyes that they may see the deepest needs of people;
Move my hands that they may feed the hungry;
Touch my heart that it may bring warmth to the despairing;
Teach me the generosity that welcomes strangers;
Let me share my possessions to clothe the naked;
Give me the care that strengthens the sick;
Make me share in the quest to set the prisoners free
And enlarge my heart that it might be filled with your fierce compassion .
This I ask in the name of Jesus your son, our Lord.

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