Compassion Personified

Turning Jesus into an otherworldly spirit temporarily inhabiting a male person weakens Jesus’ achievement, because what seems remarkable in a person doesn’t seem so in a nonhuman, divine person. We have theologies of spirit becoming fully human, but I could never overcome my conviction that this makes the story into a fairy tale, and in this version of the story Jesus becomes as unreal to me as Cinderella’s fairy godmother.

Stripped of its supernatural trappings, the Jesus story shows a man combining two attributes to a remarkable degree: compassion and courage. The wonderworking parts of the story obscure what we too easily pass over: Jesus was incredibly compassionate. Almost all of the most authentic sayings and actions involve trying to help people. Even more remarkable is that Jesus helped in the most complete and difficult way: by helping people help themselves.

If someone has, or thinks one has, extraordinary—even magical—power to alleviate suffering, it must be a heady pleasure to exercise that power. We all, probably, have had daydreams in childhood and perhaps afterward of possessing magical powers and using them to obtain popular acclaim. What power evokes gratitude more than any other?—Healing. Bestowing wealth, fame, or even a beautiful wife (or handsome royal husband) delights our fantasies in fairy tales, but healing someone from a painful, disabling illness surpasses all these exploits in bringing the miracle-worker awesome gratitude. A superficial reading of the Gospels suggests that Jesus did such magic, that he healed people by some prayer or touch. But that is not how he did it in most instances. Instead, he persuaded people to heal themselves by faith in God’s mercy. In almost all cases Jesus says, "Your faith has healed you," and that faith could move mountains and bring about huge changes from small beginnings, as a tiny mustard seed becomes a large bush.

The tantalizing omission in the Jesus story is how Jesus elicits such faith. It’s hard to imagine people more unlikely to convert to hopefulness than the down-trodden people to whom Jesus directed his efforts. Extravagant promises of pie-in-the-sky might, in the short run, convert people, but the Jesus story doesn’t emphasize that. It seems as if the major action has occurred offstage. The prostitute who shocks the Pharisee by wiping Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair in gratitude is appreciative for her conversion that occurred earlier. Jesus explicitly tells her that her faith has changed her, not his actions. When Jesus fed the thousands he did not magically increase the available food, but, somehow, not recounted, Jesus persuaded the crowd to share its food.

The healing of the paralytic in Matthew 9 shows an easily misunderstood story. Jesus tells the paralyzed man to take heart because his sins are forgiven. The teachers of the law rebuke him for blaspheming, meaning they thought Jesus claimed to have divine power. Jesus answers, "Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?" What does Jesus mean? I think he means that we live in a universe ruled by compassion, and we should tell this to people who suffer because they don’t know it. This assumes, as did people in Jesus’ time, that illness comes from immorality and evil possession.

The man was paralyzed because of his sense of guilt. Jesus means to say that telling him that he can walk and that his sins are forgiven are equivalent statements. Jesus continues, "But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on Earth to forgive sins . . ."—and then to the paralytic—"Stand up, take your bed and go to your home." "Son of Man" most likely was an Aramaic idiom meaning a person. Jesus is saying here that God has granted us permission to forgive ourselves and each other. And once we do that, our guilt-produced illnesses go away. This is the ultimate compassion: to let others forgive and heal themselves.

Not only did Jesus devote himself to compassionately helping people, but he did it in the most effective and difficult fashion. Instead of leaving a trail of passive recipients of miraculous benefits, Jesus left behind empowered people whom he convinced to help themselves with the tool he supplied: faith in a loving, merciful, compassionate God.

This reminds me of the compassion shown during World War II by the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in southern France. Starting in 1940, first under the Vichy government and later under the direct control of the German occupation, about 5,000 of the inhabitants—not a select, small sample—risked their lives by providing secret refuge to thousands of Jews fleeing the Germans. They not only hid the Jews, mostly children, but passed most to safety by clandestinely conveying them to Switzerland. This strikes me as a most impressive rescue of Jews during the German persecution in that large numbers of people acted together for such a long time. It wasn’t dependent on the heroic efforts of a single person. True, the Protestant minister, André Trocmé, courageously and creatively led the effort, but the actual rescue was done by many "ordinary" people.

Just as the convincement of the people Jesus healed and changed occurred offstage, so the mechanism by which the inhabitants of Le Chambon and surrounding villages became exemplary rescuers defies description. One would think that sociologists, philosophers, clergy, mental health professionals, and others would have descended on Le Chambon to try to understand what happened, just as we would have wanted to examine the people changed by Jesus. Actually, that didn’t happen. The incredible story of Le Chambon was not widely disseminated until written about in the 1970s by an American college professor, Philip Hallie, in his book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. Even afterwards the story hasn’t achieved the prominence it deserves.

When questioned, the inhabitants of Le Chambon rejected the role of extraordinary heroism. They demonstrated the sign of the most impressive heroism: heroic behavior considered too ordinary and mundane to be worthy of special consideration.

So must Jesus have performed his most impressive actions: in his ordinary behavior not recorded in the Gospels, when he convinced people to have hope in God’s compassion. There is a Hasidic tale of a yeshiva student who on returning from a visit to a famous rabbi, when asked what he had learned from him, said, "I saw him bend over and tie his shoelaces." Jesus must have impressed those around him in the same way; his deep commitment to compassion must have come across from every deed and word.

The other almost incredible attribute of Jesus was his courage. As with his compassion, it is so basic a part of him that it draws no direct comment by the Gospel writers. Palestine, in his day, was a very dangerous place for anyone who overstepped expected bounds. Jesus directly threatened two powerful forces: the occupying Roman power and the Jewish priestly hierarchy. Anyone attracting attention and collecting large crowds would arouse apprehension from these two powers. Once Jesus made a row in the temple courtyard and attracted large crowds—so large that he had to escape from them—he was a marked man. Palestine was a tinderbox of barely suppressed revolt. It eventually did erupt, and the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and ended the Jewish nation not long after Jesus’ death.

Jesus must have known he faced death by stoning or crucifixion. He chose not to stop his provocative activities or to hide and carry on surreptitiously. When captured he didn’t even compromise his position by a futile defense. He demonstrated God’s compassionate presence. Haggling with the priests and Roman officials would have lowered himself to their level. The Gospels give us details of Jesus’ trial and death, while the most important fact tends to get lost in the melodrama: Jesus’ acquiescence. As the avatar of a compassionate God, he could best teach by showing how a person acts who has emptied himself of self-concern. As the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray wrote: "All meaningful thought is for the sake of action, and all meaningful action is for the sake of friendship." Jesus’ greatest act of friendship was to personify compassion and present it as the inherent value of the universe.

Arthur Rifkin

Arthur Rifkin, a member of Manhasset (N.Y.) Meeting, is professor of Psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.