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A Word Study
A word study on compassion in the new testement
by Thomas Merton
Bowels of Mercy: It's Not Just a Feeling!
The New Testament word group frequently translated as "compassion,"
"compassionate," "to have compassion" has a theological focus that
distinguishes it from the ordinary terms for "pity," "sympathy," and "mercy"
frequently used to describe God's mercy as well as human feelings of tender
concern. This "compassion" is more than a feeling. It is the New Testament
word for God's saving, eschatological (end-time) compassion as that
compassion comes to expression in the person of Jesus.
In its noun form the Greek term (splangchnon; plural splangchna)
originally referred to body partsspecifically to the viscera of sacrificial
animals: such things as the heart, liver, lungs, and kidneys. Thus the old
King James translation of the plural form of the noun as "bowels" is quite
close to the literal meaning of the term, and the English word "guts"
captures the sense of the word both in its literal and figurative meanings.
(Acts 1:18 retains this original meaning of the word when it says that the
corpse of Judas burst open and his bowels gushed out.) Since in the ancient
world the feelings were thought to reside in the viscera, the term gradually
came to mean the feelings themselves.
Splangchna appears infrequently in the Greek translation of the
Old Testament, and then almost always in the later works that Protestants
know as the Apocrypha. More frequent is the term "mercy/mercies" to describe
God's gracious attitude toward Israel. In later Jewish works, however,
"mercy" is replaced by "compassion," and the way is prepared for the New
Testament usage of the term. One reads, for example, in the Testament of
Zebulun 8:2-3: "In the last days God will send his compassion on the
earth, and wheresoever he findeth bowels of mercy he dwelleth in him. For in
the degree in which a man hath compassion upon his neighbors, in the same
degree hath the Lord also upon him."
Even more notable is a passage in the Testament of Naphtali 4:5 in
which the advent of the Messiah (a "man working righteousness and working
mercy") is described as the coming of the "compassion of the Lord."
In the New Testament the verbal form of the term (splangchnizomai)
appears only in the synoptic gospels, while the noun appears almost
exclusively in the epistles. Mark captures the essence of the matter when he
introduces his two feeding stories by referring to Jesus' compassion. Mark
6:34: "and he had compassion on them." Mark 8:2: "I have compassion on the
crowd." In both cases Matthew follows Mark's example (Matthew 14:14 and
15:32). "Compassion" is thus God's response (in Jesus) to the hungry
multitudes and to the human need that they represent.
The other cases in the synoptic gospels in which compassion is used in
connection with Jesus are miracle stories. In Mark 9:22 the fatherof the
possessed son cries out to Jesus: "Have compassion on us!" Matthew 20:34
reports that Jesus healed the two blind men out of "compassion." And in Luke
7:13 Jesus raises the son of the widow of Nain because of his "compassion."
The only New Testament uses of the verb to refer to human compassion come
from the mouth of Jesusspecifically in three of his parables. In Matthew
18:27 the master forgives the slave's debt out of compassion. In Luke 10:33
the good Samaritan acts out of compassion. And in Luke 15:20 the father of
the prodigal son is filled with compassion.
The evidence is clear: In the New Testament the verb splangchnizomai
("to have compassion") appears exclusively in the synoptic gospels, and it
is used exclusively to refer to God's response (in his Messiah) to human
suffering or, in the parables, to describe the way people who represent God
respond to human need. That modern versions sometimes translate the word as
"pity," other times as "compassion," is itself a pity (pun intended!), since
it obscures the careful way Mark, Matthew, and Luke consistently use the
word to refer to the heart of the gospel: God's response to human suffering.
On occasion the appearance of the noun (splangchna) in the
epistles retains something of the theological force of the synoptic verb
form. Paul writes to the Philippians, for example: "I long for you with the
compassion (viscera/bowels) of Christ Jesus." Elsewhere, he uses the term
synonymously with "heart(s)" (2 Corinthians 7:15; Philemon 7, 20). In
Philemon 12 he refers to Onesimus as "my own heart (viscera/bowels)." In
perhaps his best-known use of the term, Paul underscores his exhortation to
the Philippians (2:1) by appealing to their compassion (viscera/bowels) and
Of special relevance for a Week of Compassion appeal is the single
example of any form of the term in the Johannine literature. 1 John 3:17
asks how God's love can abide in people who refuse to help persons who are
in need. The RSV reading "closes his heart" is better than the NRSV's
"refuses help," but neither captures the graphic force of the literal "he
shuts his bowels against his brother." In the Bible, it would appear, the
failure to help people who are in need is, quite literally, an example of
anal retentive behavior!
The remaining examples of the word group in the New Testament are of less
theological importance. Luke 1:78 offers the sole example of the noun in the
synoptic gospels. In poetic, and typically Jewish, form the text refers to
God's tender mercy (literally: bowels of mercy). Equally Jewish is the
statement in James 5:11 that God is "greatly compassionate." Finally, the
adjective eusplangchnos (tenderhearted) appears in Ephesians 4:32 and
1 Peter 3:8 to refer simply to the general human quality of
The following list offers all of the examples of the word group in the
New Testament. In parentheses are the translations offered by the New
Revised Standard Version.
The verb splangchnizomai (to have compassion)
Matthew 9:36 (he had compassion)
Matthew 14:14 (he had compassion)
Matthew 15:32 (I have compassion)
Matthew 18:27 (out of pity for him)
Matthew 20:34 (moved with compassion)
Mark 6:34 (he had compassion)
Mark 8:2 (I have compassion)
Mark 9:22 (have pity on us)
Luke 7:13 (he had compassion)
Luke 10:33 (he was moved with pity)
Luke 15:20 (filled with compassion)
The noun splangchnon (singular), splangchna (plural)
Luke 1:78 (tender mercy)
Acts 1:18 (bowels)
2 Cor 6:12 (there is no restriction in our affections)
2 Cor 7:15 (his heart goes out)
Philippians 1:8 (I long for you with the compassion of Christ
Philippians 2:1 (any compassion)
Philemon 7 (the hearts of the saints have been refreshed)
Philemon 12 (I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to
Philemon 20 (refresh my heart in Christ)
1 John 3:17 (refuses help - RSV: closes his heart)
The adjective polusplangchnos (very compassionate)
James 5:11 (the Lord is compassionate)
The adjective eusplangchnos (tenderhearted)
Ephesians 4:32 (tenderhearted)
1 Peter 3:8 (have a tender heart)
Coda: Angry Compassion. Reflections on Mark 1:41
Missing from the above list is Mark 1:41, even though the majority of
Greek manuscripts clearly state that Jesus responded to the leper's appeal
for help by "being filled with compassion" (splangchnistheis).
However, a few manuscripts, including the important Codex Bezae, located in
the Cambridge University Library, read that Jesus was filled not with
compassion but with anger (orgistheis).
So, which reading is original? Did Jesus respond to the leper's condition
with compassion or with anger?
It is possible, of course, that neither reading is original, since
Matthew (8:3) and Luke (5:13) speak of neither anger nor compassion in this
context. Jesus simply reaches out and heals the man. If, however, we must
choose between one of the two emotions, it is quite possible that "anger"
and not "compassion" is the earlier of the two readingsthat Mark indeed
portrays Jesus as reacting in anger to human illness.
The text-critical principle involved is that the more difficult reading
is likely to be the original reading, since it is easier to understand that
a difficult reading was changed by later scribes than that the reverse
process took place. Clearly, the idea that Jesus responded in anger to
leprosy is a difficult idea, and one can understand why Christian piety
would change Jesus' "anger" to "compassion." Like the early Christian
scribes, we are more comfortable with a compassionate Jesus than with an
angry Jesus, and most modern translations read that Jesus was filled with
compassion or pity. (The New English Bible appears to opt for a compromise
by saying that Jesus acted "in warm indignation.")
So, what's wrong with feeling anger in the face of human suffering?
Indeed, does not the loss of one's ability to feel anger about the
conditions that create suffering indicate a loss of consciencea loss of that
sensitivity that is part of God's compassion?
We are learning to understand that illness is more than diseasethat it is
caused not merely by bacteria and germs but also by the social and
psychological conditions in which people live. To the degree that human
suffering is the product of injustice and human cruelty, anger is a most
The question we face with this textual problem, therefore, is not:
"What's wrong with an angry Jesus?" It is: "What is wrong with a church that
has been so co-opted by the world in which she lives that she no longer
feels anger at the conditions of poverty and injustice in which illness
What really matters in the text before us is that Jesus healed the leper
and that in doing so he acted as an instrument of God's compassion. But Mark
(or an anonymous Christian scribe) reminds us that a church that has lost
its capacity to experience anger when confronted with the poverty and
injustice that cause human suffering is a church that lacks moral authority.
For compassion to be more than charity it must be driven by a healthy
dose of "warm indignation."
The whole idea of
compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all living
beings, which are all part of one another and all involved in one another.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to
undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break
every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the
homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and
not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth
like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator
shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard . . .
If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the
afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be
like the noonday.
Isaiah 58:6-8, 10
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