Tag Archives: compassion

Always coming Home.

In the middle of an argument Oliver Cromwell is reputed to have said, “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” In classical Greek, the word for bowels was ‘splagchnon’ and it appears in the New Testament only in the plural form. It had four levels of meaning:

  • The inward parts, especially the heart, lungs, liver and other bits we can eat;
  • A sacrificial feast (a logical progression from the first level)
  • Any inward bits of the body – the bowels, the womb for example;
  • The seat of the emotions, our inward nature.

Today we might ask, ‘what’s your gut feeling about this?’ Then it gets more interesting. Apparently you could say we have three brains! The one in our head has 85 billion neurons. The heart and the gut also have ‘brains’; much smaller ones but 40 million neurons for the heart and 100 million for the gut are significant brain-like systems. Oliver Cromwell didn’t know that but he certainly understood the importance of ‘gut feeling’.

In modern English translations of the Gospels the word is not guts but compassion. It occurs quite often in Matthew, only four times in Mark, three in Luke and, oddly, not once in John.

So, engaging our three brains, we turn to Luke’s story of the two sons (often misleadingly called the parable of the prodigal son). Let’s start in the middle of the story. The prodigal son is on his way home:

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion….”.

The New English Bible has, “…his heart went out to him…” and that gets closer to the heart of the matter, if you see what I mean!

The heart of the matter (still thinking of those neurons) lies in the use of two little words (possessive pronouns according to those interested in grammar): ‘yours’ and ‘mine’.

“….this son of mine…”

says the father in verse 24.

“Your brother has come and your father has killed the fatted calf”

says the slave to the elder brother (verse 27).

“But when this son of yours…”

says the elder brother who cannot bring himself to say ‘my brother’ to his father (verse 30).

“… this brother of yours…”

replies his father (verse 32).

There’s a second thread running through the story: slavery. The prodigal thinks he will only be acceptable back home if he becomes a slave.

“I am no longer worthy to be called your son: treat me like one of your hired hands.”         (verse 19)

But a slave is exactly what the elder son thinks he is:

“Listen!” he says angrily to his father, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you….” (verse 29)

He has been at home all the time without realizing that the place is full of ‘home comforts’.

Son, you are always with me and all that is mine is yours”

says his father bringing us back to the ‘yours’ and ‘mine’ thread.

One of the pitfalls of thinking of God like a father is that the divine compassion gets limited to our experience of frail human fatherhood. That can lead to the difficulty of seeing compassion even when it stares us in the face.

Let’s beware of separating out the two brothers in this story. I am both men. I know how deeply the elder brother’s sense of being a slave can infect me. I feel there are so many things I must do and be before I am accepted fully. ‘Look at my regular prayer life! Look at how I go to church regularly; give money to charity; sacrifice myself for the sake of others! And there’s that good-for-nothing so-and-so ……’ Off I go into that far country of the brain that so easily gets my guts stirred up with resentment so that my brain starts using ‘yours’ rather than ‘mine’ or ‘ours’. Both brothers ended up in that distant country. For one of them the living looked easy and pleasant, for the other it was drudgery. For both of them it was a long way from home. Only one of them found the way back.

This  is my last post to this blog that has been my attempt to locate our homeland and the way back to it according to the three synoptic Gospels. May we all find the way and keep returning to the place where infinite compassion, mercy and truth are ours; not theirs, or yours but mine, ours, everyones. To adapt some words from Nan C Merrill’s ‘Psalms For Praying’:

May you know abiding love, gentle joy, deep peace and wisdom.

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Compassionate action

So, if you have followed me through the last seven blog posts on Matthew’s ‘sermon on the mount’: his skilful summary of Jesus’ teaching, we are ready to take an axe to the roots of our consumerist society. Well, that’s what these next words of Jesus seem to suggest –

“…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Chapter 6 verse 25)

 Monks and nuns take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Those of us who desire to live the way of Jesus in our complex secular lives must find our own interpretations of these vows. I talked about chastity in my last blog post. Some rare and courageous individuals take the vow of poverty quite literally in their daily living – Hindu and Buddhist monks with their begging bowls for example as well as some Christians. The difficulty for them is that they have to rely on the rest of us who do plan ahead.

Looking carefully at verses 25 – 34 of this chapter 6, I do not think those of us who make plans for the week, or month, or even years ahead are excluded by Jesus’ teaching. Last week I heard the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University talking about their research programme. He told us that it has taken the last 8,000 years to achieve a 40% increase in agricultural productivity (No, I have not added a nought by mistake). Given the rapid increase in world population we need a similar 40% increase over the next 30 years. Scientists don’t have much time to help us avert a catastrophe. We can say the same about our response to climate change.

There are, of course, Christians who think the end of the world is a good and inevitable thing that God might bring about in our lifetime. Reading my blog, I think you will guess that I’m not one of them. The teaching of Jesus makes sense whatever we may think about the way the world might end. Notice one little word in verse 32. In the version I use it’s the word ‘strive’. Our consumerist society depends upon striving for the latest fashion, or some newly created take-away food. Jesus says,

“Strive first for the kingdom of God. So do not worry about tomorrow….” 

Notice, it’s not strive only but strive first. Get your priorities right. If you are an activist, be a contemplative activist. Act out of enlightened consciousness, not out of fear, desperation, hatred, contempt for politicians who are ‘getting it wrong’ or any other ‘I’m-right-you-are-wrong’ attitude. A Buddhist might say, listen to the cries of the world and act out of compassion and a Christian can fully embrace that. I am profoundly grateful for all the contemplatives-in-action whose compassionate striving is part of the silent revolution that is this stage of the evolution of human consciousness. They might help us avoid panicky short term solutions.