When we attempt to describe the Jesus who walked among us so many years ago, the first word that likely comes to mind is compassion. We remember that as he looked out over the crowds who came to hear him “he had compassion for them” (Matt. 9:36). When he went ashore and saw a great crowd “he had compassion on them” (Matt. 14:14). To the crowds of people who had been with him for three days with nothing to eat he said, “I have compassion on them” (Mark 8:2). When the widow of Nain passed by with the corpse of her only son Jesus “had compassion on her” (Luke 7:13). And the important thing is that in each case he did something about it. In the four incidents just mentioned, after being moved with compassion, he taught the crowd, he healed the sick; he fed the 4,000, and he raised the widow’s son to life.
The world does its best to define and describe compassion. Dictionaries tell us that it is “a feeling of distress and pity for the suffering or misfortune of another” (British Dictionary ), and philosophers and religionists observe that “compassion is the basis of morality” (Schopenhauer) or “without suffering, there’d be no compassion” (Sparks). All correct as far as they go. To move closer to the meaning of the word, consider the Greek verb in Luke 7:13, splangnidzomai, “to be moved with compassion.” The noun form refers to the inward parts of the body, the “viscera,” which in that day was considered to be the seat of the emotions. To be deeply moved was to experience something at a profound level.
One of the more beautiful qualities of our friend Jesus of Nazareth was his compassion. We can only guess how it expressed itself when he was as boy in Nazareth. Imagination is not wrong when it suggests a boy anxious to help, responsive to need, more than willing to take the necessary step. We do know, however, how his compassion looked during his three years of ministry. As we mentioned, it moved him to heal the infirmed, provide food for the hungry, reach out in concern to a mother quietly mourning the loss of her only son. On his way to Bethany where it had been reported that his friend had died, Jesus encountered Mary, the brother of Lazarus. When asked where he had been laid, Mary asked Jesus to come and she would show him. Deeply moved in the presence of a very close family in mourning, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35 – the Greek means “to burst into tears”).
It is well to remember that Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnate Son of God, the eternal second person of the triune God. He wept. The sorrow of the moment moved the Creator to “burst out in tears” over the tragic loss of an earthly friend. If the eternal Son of God can weep over an earthly misfortune, what should be said about our reaction in a similar situation? I refer not simply to the emotional response but to the intense involvement of God in the life of each of us. He cares. He is moved with compassion, a compassion so great that he left the eternal glories of heaven, became one of us, lived a perfect life, died for our sins, and was raised that we forgiven sinners might spend eternity with him.