In the New Testament there are several Greek words that may be translated, and sometimes are, by our English word “compassion.” Although they may sometimes be synonyms, they have nuances that distinguish them. Eleeos refers to the mercy one shows toward someone in need. Frequently it describes the mercy God shows toward the sinner in need of forgiveness. It is used several times in the Gospels, not to show Christ’s mercy, but by those who begged Him to show mercy on them.
Obviously, the word sympatheo is that from which we get our English word “sympathy.” As we use it, it generally means “to feel with.” It is what a kind-hearted person feels when he sees another in difficulties of some sort. But in the Hellenistic Greek it is closer to what we mean by “empathy.” It is a compound word literally meaning ”to suffer with.” There is a difference, though difficult to define, between feeling sorry for another’s situation, and feeling what that person feels.
The word I want to discuss here is splanchnizomai. Literally it describes the feeling of compassion that comes from the inner parts of the body. It is formed from the word meaning entrails or bowels. Today, we usually speak of the heart as the seat of emotions; our “heart goes out” to someone. But in Bible times the idea was that the seat of emotions was the intestinal area. And, of course, they were right insofar as the physical sensation is concerned. No one really thinks our emotional responses are in the organ that pumps the blood, located in our chests. The heart, in that sense simply means that part of the mind that loves, rejoices, pities, fears, etc. Splanchnizomai, then, is compassion that comes from the deepest center of one’s emotions. It is more than just feeling sorry for a sufferer. It is what is felt by one whose whole being identifies with another’s problems.
This word occurs in the NT only in the Synoptic Gospels, where it is found 12 times: Mt 5 times, Mk 4 times, Lk 3 times. NIV renders it “had compassion” 4 times, “have compassion” 2 times, “took pity” 2 times, “filled with compassion for,” “filled with compassion,” “heart went out,” and “took pity” 1 time each. In our Lord’s parable of the Unmerciful Servant, the king “took pity” on the man who could not pay what he owed, and cancelled the debt (Mt 18:27). The father of a boy with an evil spirit asked Jesus, “If you can do anything, ‘take pity’ on us and help us” (Mk 9:22). In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus says that the Samaritan “took pity” on the man who had fallen into the hands of robbers (Lk 10:33). In the parable of the Prodigal Son, when the father saw his son returning, he was “filled with compassion for” him (Lk 15:20).
The word splanchnizomai is applied to Jesus Himself several times. He not only commended such, as in the cases mentioned in the previous paragraph, but He set the example for us to follow. His miracles, which we cannot duplicate, were astonishing, but hardly more so than the compassion He showed to those who needed His healing power. One cannot fail to be impressed with the account in Mt 20::29-34 of the two blind men near Jericho who begged Him to show mercy and give them their eyesight. The crowd rebuked them for appealing to Jesus. This was typical of the attitude of that time, for two reasons. There was nothing that could be done for the blind, and it was generally believed that blindness was the consequence of having sinned. So the blind were usually outcasts in society. But Jesus ignored the complaints of the crowd and “had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him” (v 34).
Leprosy in the Bible may not always refer to the medical condition we call leprosy today, Hansen’s Disease, but it was nevertheless a dreaded disease. It was not only physically debilitating, but under the Law it made one ceremonially unclean. Worse, lepers were the untouchables of Jewish society. A leper, approaching another person had to call out a warning, lest that person touch him and become unclean. With that in mind, read Mk 1:40, 41. A man with leprosy begged Him on his knees, “If you will, you can make me clean.” “Filled with compassion,” Jesus reached out His hand and touched the man –and he was cured. Other examples of the compassion of our Lord include His coming upon the funeral procession of the son of the widow of Nain. Jesus’ “heart went out to her, and he said, ‘Don’t cry’” then raised her only son, her only support, from the dead (Lk 7:11-15). Jesus said, “I have compassion” for the crowd of 4,000 who had been with Him for three days far from home without anything to eat, because if He sent them away hungry they might collapse on the way home (Mt 15:32; Mk 8:2). There are yet other examples that could be mentioned.
Jesus taught His disciples, in parables and otherwise, to be compassionate. He set the example. It will perhaps be helpful to see what compassion enables us to accomplish; that which would not be possible without splanchnizomai.
Without a deep sense of compassion it would in many instances be impossible to forgive someone who has committed a serious and painful offense against you. Think of the king who forgave the slave who owed him a large sum of money but could not pay. That parable was spoken within the context of forgiveness. Peter had asked how many times he should forgive one who sinned against him. Jesus answered with this parable, and ended by warning of God’s refusal to forgive one who does not forgive his brother. The slave owed his master several million dollars but could not pay. He was ordered to be sold with his whole family and all his possessions to pay the debt. Falling on his knees he begged for more time. The master cancelled the debt. Why? Because of what he felt when he saw the distress of the servant; he “took pity” (splanchnizomai) on him.
It is compassion that enables us to love our neighbor as ourselves. With reference to that commandment, a lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Our Lord’s reply was to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan. A priest and a Levite passed by the man left wounded by robbers. It was a despised Samaritan who stopped and provided help. He demonstrated what it means to love one’s neighbor. My neighbor is anyone to whom I can render a loving service. It Is often the case that we see someone in need, and think, “Well, it is his own fault. He got himself into that fix.” But the commandment to love my neighbor means that I must do whatever I can to help the one in trouble, no matter how he got there. We can do that only if we have genuine compassion for him.
It is compassion for the lost that enables us to seek and save those out of Christ. A good lesson on this is found in the closing verses of Mt chapter 9, when we continue on into chapter 10. As Jesus went through the villages of Galilee, preaching the kingdom and ministering to the sick, He saw how harassed and helpless the people of the land were. They were, he noted, as sheep without a shepherd. That is, they had no leadership, Their rulers, instead of taking care of them, piled heavy burdens on them. Jesus had compassion on them. What they needed was to hear the good news of the kingdom, to know that a Savior had come. The fields were white unto harvest, but the reapers were few. He told His disciples to pray that workers would be sent out into the harvest field. Immediately He began instructing those same disciples to go throughout the land (what we call the limited commission)) and reap souls for the Lord. It was compassion, we are told, that prompted this effort to save the lost. It is when we feel deeply enough the consequences of their condition that we will try our very best to present the good news that will lead them to the salvation of their souls.
We understand the heart of God and become people after His own heart, when we see His character exemplified in Jesus. When we become true followers of the Nazarene, full of compassion, we are coming close to being the kind of people God looks on with favor.