Budgeting for Compassion

I think of the drama in The Gospel of Mark as reaching a high point at the end of chapter 8. Finally, Peter gets it: this is the Messiah! Then Jesus spends the rest of the gospel teaching them that Messiah is not what they thought, and neither is following the Messiah. “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (8:34-35)

As the reader, we go back to the beginning of the gospel and see that this is what he has already been teaching us the whole time. What does it mean to be the Messiah’s person? What saves our life? What makes it whole?

The gospel is dramatic in its opposition to the established order of society. Rome and the Temple are constantly criticised in one way or another. Mark is radical. Dictators throughout history have been correct to attack the church; Mark and Jesus and the prophets are their enemies. When the authorities ignore us, then Mark condemns the unauthenticity of our acted faith.

I used to think of the Jesus of Mark as a Jesus who said, “What does this person need?” and then, if there was time or reason, “How must we fulfil the Law?” What was shocking about Jesus was that he gave precedence to compassion, not the Law.

Matthew puts it best: “And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"  But when he heard it, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.   Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." (9:12-13)

And John shows it: after her accusers go away, and Jesus does not condemn her, then  he says to the woman, “Go and sin no more.”

So what does the Lord require? Being a good church person, and doing right? “No, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:6-8)

Jesus' subverting the system was not violent rebellion but compassion. Compassion, which is acting out justice, is even more devastating than armed rebellion which just replaces one kind of injustice with another.

So, I used to say, Jesus stood on a hill called “Compassion,” whereas we too often stand on a hill called “what’s right”, or “proper,” or “decent.” Life, and what we should do, will look  completely different depending upon which hill we stand.

Slowly I realised that when I am faced with someone's need, not only do I too often ask myself what is right or proper or decent. I also ask, “What will this cost?” I seek to budget for compassion.

We cannot budget for compassion. Compassion, by its very nature does not ask the cost; it simply does. When we ask the cost, we are not being with a person feeling their need, we are protecting ourselves. We are not asking what does this person need but, how much will this cost me?

Compassion does not calculate cost. Frequently, compassion costs far more than we imagine it will cost. In a sense, there is no point setting a budget; we can not.

I see now that my reservations about being compassionate are a mixture of cost and propriety. The Jesus of Mark was simply compassionate. Then he worried about what was right... because in the economy of God, compassion basically is what is right!

At the end of Mark, “Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’" (14:33-36)

Jesus commits to paying the cost of compassion, which is mercy to others, and which is finally, doing what is good in the words of Micah: walking humbly with his God, also known as going where God has called. On this last night in the garden, Jesus is seeing with fresh eyes the cost he now has to pay. Three times he has foretold the cost, and now he is facing it head on. It will be soon.

He commits himself again to pay the cost. But you cannot budget for compassion.

The most astonishing thing in the Gospel of Mark is not that Jesus dies, and not that we see no resurrection but only people fleeing in terror from an empty tomb.

The most astonishing thing is that even Jesus cannot pay the cost of compassion. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34) After everything he has taught and done; after all he has given; after all his growing and learning; (7:25-30) even though he is the Beloved with whom God is well pleased, (1:11) he cannot pay the cost. It is too much.

In the end, compassion costs more than we can pay. But it made Jesus into the One we know as fully human. We are invited to follow. There is no risk here; the cost is certain. It will be more than we can pay. And we will be complete.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

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