The Womb of Compassion
Rev. Patricia Adams Farmer and Rev. Dr. Ronald L. Farmer
Scripture: Luke 6:27-36
Ron and I recently returned from an adventurous sabbatical in the beautiful country of Ecuador. There we learned some valuable cultural lessons, not only about South American culture, but about our own culture. For example, most North Americans worry constantly about time—scheduling and being on-time and having enough time. For better or worse, the Protestant work ethic runs through our veins, and at the center of that ethic is the notion that “Time is of the essence.”
As we all know, the Spanish word mañana means “tomorrow.” However, when you visit Ecuador, that ostensible one-to-one meaning falls apart the first day you arrive. You discover very quickly that mañana does not usually mean tomorrow. It simply means “not today.” So when the plumber says he will be back mañana to fix the leaky faucet, it could mean tomorrow, but more likely it means next week or next month. It might even mean, “I shall never return, Señora, but I do not have the heart to tell you this, so I will simply say, mañana.”
Sometimes, we find ourselves in a challenging new situation, an unfamiliar place, a strange culture in which we are forced to reexamine our core values. For many of us today, our US culture feels like that, like a foreign—even surreal—kind of place. In this current reality of jolting change, ugly words, alternative facts, high anxiety, and rigid division, we as Christians are forced to peel back the veneer of our everyday lives and question, once again, our core values. What is most important in our religious life? What is “of the essence?”
Maybe if we could name and embrace the essence of the Christian life, we could harness that spiritual vitality and renew our purpose as the church in a world of broken dreams. Today’s scripture reveals that very essence of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Jesus pointed to the essence, the heart of Christianity when he said, “Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.” Luke 6:36 is a deliberate play on the frequent Levitical command for the Israelites to be holy in imitation of God, who is holy. Here in Luke, Jesus interpreted holiness in terms of compassion.
Some English versions of v. 36 use the word “mercy” rather than “compassion.” Although compassion and mercy are related terms, there is an important difference worth noting. Mercy carries the connotation of undeserved favor. As my late colleague Marcus Borg wrote, mercy implies “a superior in relationship to an inferior, as well as a situation of wrong doing: one is merciful to someone to whom one has the right (or power) to act otherwise.” Marcus was correct; the word compassion does not carry this superior-inferior connotation and is to be preferred in translating Luke 6:36.
As the Latin roots of our English word make clear, compassion means “to feel with” another. The term is similar in meaning to the English word sympathy, which is derived from Greek roots also meaning “to feel with,” and is related to the English word empathy, which is derived from Greek roots meaning “to feel in.” To be compassionate, then, is to feel the feelings of another, to be affected by whatever affects another.
Compassion shines forth from the pages of the world’s sacred texts, and more importantly, you see it in the lives of deeply spiritual people. It would help us to regain something of the power of Jesus’ statement if we were to examine the remarkable Hebrew word for compassion, the word he would have had in mind when he spoke to his disciples. The most commonly used Hebrew word for compassion is derived from a root meaning “womb.” Thus, to be compassionate is to be “womb-like.” A woman feels compassion for the child of her womb. What the womb is to a developing fetus, compassion is to the one who receives it. Not surprisingly, then, the word compassion bears nuances of life-giving, nourishing, caring for, and embracing.
The Hebrew word for compassion carries two strong implications we must not overlook. First, compassion is not only a feeling but also “a way of being which flows out of that feeling.” A compassionate person not only rejoices with those who rejoice and weeps with those who weep; a compassionate person also seeks to alleviate suffering and promote well-being. Frequently the gospel writers said that Jesus was “moved with compassion,” and in each case his compassion gave rise to an outward act: he fed the hungry, taught the ignorant, healed the blind, and cleansed the leprous.
Yes, compassion is more than a feeling; it also manifests itself in a way of being that flows out of that feeling. When we act compassionately, our compassion becomes a “womb” for others. Our compassion nurtures them, cares for them, embraces them. In a very real sense, then, our compassion is the environment that enables them to be reborn.
The second implication of the Hebrew word for compassion is that this “feeling the feelings of others” is much more than an external wave of emotion, a feeling from the outside, so to speak. On the contrary, compassion is the deliberate identification with others until we see things as they see them and feel things as they feel them—from the inside. No doubt, we men have a hard time comprehending this, but ask any pregnant woman and she will vouch for it.
Recent experiments by neuroscientists have demonstrated that there is a biological aspect to empathy, that empathy is rooted in brain cells called “mirror neurons.” Quite by accident—as so often is the case with major scientific advances—researchers discovered that these mirror neurons in the brain fire not only when a person moves or experiences an emotion; they also fire when a person observes the actions or emotional states of others. It’s as if we imagine we are the person we’re watching. But it’s more than merely imagining, more than some sort of virtual reality simulation. It’s a physiological activity. And these mirror neurons can’t tell whether it’s you or the other person who’s having the experience that’s causing them to fire. Think of how a sad movie can move you to tears, or how a scary movie can raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
There’s a genuine brain-to-brain connection; an interconnectedness, if you will. In a very a real sense, the discovery of mirror neurons dissolves the barrier between the self and others. By means of the mirror neuron system, we literally “read the minds” of others. Within our brains, we create internal representations of the actions, sensations, and emotions of others, as if we were the ones moving, sensing, and feeling.
Thus, mirror neurons, sometimes referred to as empathy neurons, indicate that there’s a biological underpinning for ethics, that we’re hardwired to resonate with each other at the deepest level of our beings—something religious leaders like Jesus have taught for centuries. Indeed, the point of many of the spiritual disciplines is to strengthen this nascent empathic connection to others.
Although they come at it from different perspectives, science and religion suggest that compassion or empathy lies at the center of things. I am convinced that when we grasp the centrality of compassion, it transforms the way we relate to one another and to the larger world around us. All the artificial barriers we have erected to divide us from one another—religious, ethnic, economic, and yes, even the species barrier—all of the barriers come crashing down when compassion is understood as the essence of spirituality.
Meister Eckhart famously said, “Whatever God does, the first outburst is always compassion.” At no time are we more spiritual, more Christ-like, than when we hold others in the womb of our compassion.
The womb of compassion—a beautiful idea. But can we do it? We are called to create nurturing environments to help birth one another into wholeness. But how? Like a physical birth, it isn’t easy—it’s messy, it’s painful, and it takes courage.
During WWII, the story is told that some American soldiers serving in France wanted to bury their friend and fellow soldier who had lost his life heroically. Being in a foreign country, they wanted to ensure their fallen comrade had a proper burial. So they found a picturesque little Catholic church, with a lovely cemetery surrounded by a simple, low stone wall. This was just the place to bury their friend. But when they approached the priest, he answered that unless their friend was a baptized Catholic, he could not be buried in the cemetery. The soldiers were disappointed since their friend was not Catholic. Nevertheless, the priest showed them a spot just outside the wall where they could bury their friend. Reluctantly, they did so. The next day the soldiers returned to pay their final respects to their fallen friend but could not find the grave. “Wait! It was right here!” they said, “just outside the wall.” Confused, they approached the priest, who took them to a spot just inside the cemetery wall. “There is your friend’s grave,” he said. And then he explained: “Last night I couldn’t sleep. I was troubled that your friend, this heroic solider, had to be buried outside of our cemetery wall, so, well, I got up and I moved the wall.”
This priest’s compassion offers us a lesson for our own culture, a culture of division and walls. As Ron explained, compassion is at the very heart of our faith. Therefore, we must have the moral courage to re-think our values, to move the wall, to draw the circle of compassion wider.
And lest you think moving walls is hard, hang on. It gets worse. Because according to our Scripture lesson for today, Jesus challenges us to stretch our compassion to the very brink of our capacity—even into enemy territory: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
Who said being a Christian was easy? Oh, it’s not so hard to be compassionate toward those like us, who share our values. And it’s not too much of a stretch to feel compassion for those suffering around the world—the vulnerable, the refugees, the homeless, the sick, the powerless. But in this passage, he asks for the near impossible: to love our enemies? To tolerate them maybe—but to love them? Give them our coats, our shirts? Was Jesus crazy? Maybe. If so, we are called to be crazy right along with him.
As we celebrate Black History Month, my thoughts turn to an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, Ruby Sales. Ruby Sales comes from what she calls a nurturing Black Folk Religion during the days of Jim Crow in the South. It was a religion based on the very scriptures read today, a religion of compassion, extending even toward one’s enemies. And this core belief was put to the test during the 1960s. In 1965, Ruby Sales marched from Selma to Montgomery, enduring the infamous brutality of that march. That same year, as Ruby and fellow activists picketed a “whites-only” store in Alabama, the protesters were swept up by the local authorities, taken to the county jail, and locked up for six days. After being released, Ruby and her friends went to purchase sodas at a nearby store. There, while drinking a soda, she was threatened by a shotgun-wielding deputy named Tom Coleman. One of Ruby’s fellow marchers, Jonathan Daniels, a white Episcopal seminarian, pushed her out of the way, and took the shot meant for her. He died instantly. Ruby Sales was so traumatized by Daniels’ murder that she nearly lost the ability to speak for the next seven months. Despite death threats made against her and her family, Ruby resolved to testify at Coleman’s trial. Nevertheless, Tom Coleman, the deputy who attempted to murder Ruby Sales and who killed Jonathan Daniels, was acquitted by a jury of twelve white men.
Ruby Sales had plenty of reasons to hate those who abused her and killed her heroic friend. But, because of her vow to follow Jesus, she chose to widen her circle of compassion. In fact, as a human rights activist today, her most recent concern is what she calls “the spiritual crisis among white Americans,” that is, those whites who feel left out, angry, left behind. She cares about them. She understands them. Ruby Sales believes in what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community”—not a community that simply tolerates each other, but a beloved community, that is, a womb-of-compassion kind of community, one which creates a nurturing environment to help re-birth one another into wholeness. So what is Ruby’s secret? How does she do it?
Ruby Sales says that it all comes down to a single question—a question she poses even to those who curse her. Now, if you were to stand toe to toe with someone you perceive as your enemy, what would your one question be? Would it be, “When are you going to see the truth?” or “Why are you being such a jerk?” No. These are not helpful questions.
Ruby Sales says that in the presence of rage and ugliness, compassion knows only one question, and that is: “Where does it hurt?” Where does it hurt? She knows that to connect with those with whom we vehemently disagree, we must go below the surface and feel what they feel. Where does it hurt? This is the question we must pose even to those who curse us. And then, we must sit back and listen. We must listen deeply and without judgment. This is connection. This is compassion. This is the secret of loving our enemies. Where does it hurt? As the poet Mary Oliver says, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”
Yes, sometimes compassion is hard. Moving the wall is hard. Connecting to one another’s pain is hard. But it’s the only way to become the beloved community and begin what many today are calling a revolution of love.
And this revolution of love transcends all political categories. As the celebrated Disciples minister, William Barber, says, “There are some issues that are not Left versus Right, Liberal versus Conservative, they are ‘right versus wrong.’” Rev. Barber has a point. It doesn’t matter what political party you belong to: Compassion is not political; it’s the Gospel! We are called to stand with the vulnerable, the weak, the poor, the abused, the fearful, the powerfulness, and the left behind. This is what it means to follow Jesus.
Today the progressive church has an extraordinary opportunity to lead this great moral movement, this revolution of love! We can renew ourselves as a mighty force for peace, justice, and reconciliation. This is our moment to rise!
We can do this! We can do this because Jesus offers us a way to become wombs of compassion to all beings. We can do this because the God we worship is a God of compassion, a God of love—a God in whom we all live and move and have our being. AMEN.
 Marcus J. Borg, “Jesus and Compassion,” in The Living Pulpit 3 : 42.
 From com = with, and pati = to feel or to suffer.
 From sym = with, and pathos = to feel or to suffer.
 From en = in, and pathos = to feel or to suffer.
 Borg 42, italics added.
 Matt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 6:34; Luke 7:13.
 Based on the story “Inside the Wall” from storiesforpreaching.com
 Wikipedia, “Ruby Sales.”
 “Where Does It Hurt?” podcast, On Being with Krista Tippett
 Rev. Dr. William Barber, II, Speech at the Democratic National Convention. “Watch Rev. Barber ‘shock’ the DNC, shame religious hypocrisy and lead with love (video/transcript).” Daily Kos, July 28, 2016. Web.