Compassion is at the heart of the Gospel. It is central to the message of the great Prophets. Some aspects of compassion experienced as a particularly human disposition is the focus of this reflection.
Jesus was a Jew who was born into a specific cultural and religious tradition, which he took very seriously. He knew the Hebrew scriptures – the Torah, Prophets and Writings. He could quote the psalms and opened his ministry with a lengthy quotation from the prophet Isaiah [61:1-2]. He earned a living as a carpenter. He became a wandering preacher, like others of his era. He was called Rabbi, as in Teacher, and other names such as Master. He warned his disciples against being called by titles such as these, because ‘you have one Father, one teacher, and He is in heaven’.
Jesus was never a Christian. Neither was he a churchman, nor presbyter nor bishop. He was not a cleric. He was not a member of a reforming organization. He alienated himself from the religious leaders of his time, or rather, he was excommunicated by them, because he threatened their power. He showed that even though they occupied the seat of Moses, many among the establishment were hypocrites. They used the words of the scriptures to exploit and dominate the people, especially those who were poor. They failed to see, and so failed to live, the central teaching of their religion, and their blindness was deemed culpable.
The introduction to the parables of God’s mercy in Luke 15 indicates that Jesus was responding to complaints from the scribes and Pharisees that he was associating with the sinners, the wrong class of people. In the parable of the prodigal son, the listeners - all of the listeners - are left with the question: do you not see that God’s love is unconditional: there are no ‘buts or ifs’, as in ‘ I love you, but you must change your ways’, ‘you will experience my love if you give up your sinful ways’. Infinite love, or limitless love, available to all, is what Jesus conveyed, a teaching he imbibed from his own exposure to the great prophets. This is one of the scandals of the Good News, that people who are manifestly unworthy - in the eyes of people who strive to lead a good life - are as precious to the Lord as those who deem themselves worthy. The unlimited compassion of God is a challenge to the self-righteous as well as being a reassurance and challenge to the sinner.
When a person experiences this reality, then he or she is becoming compassionate, because compassion, and the attendant virtues of forgiveness and understanding, is not earned: it is the free gift of a compassionate Father.