a spirituality of tenderness - part four...

NOTE: In an on-going exploration of a spirituality of tenderness - perhaps something that just
interests me - or is more about my own work at this late stage in ministry than anything that grabs your attention - today's installment picks up with three texts from the Greek Testament. They add shape and form to the deep roots of the Hebrew texts I considered yesterday.

The three texts from the Greek Testament that are shaped by the Hebrew Bible and interpreted through the lens of the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as the Christ are as follows:

+  First is the word mercy in English – eleos (ἔλεος) in Greek – which is how the Hebrew hesed is translated by the rabbis in the Septuagint.  Here again the sense of solidarity within a community is key with compassion and tender feelings of support during times of suffering being essential.  Mercy should not be confused with pity. Pity is an emotion that is experienced by those not connected to the suffering, while mercy/compassion is all about sharing the sorrow of the afflicted.  Mercy moves into action, while pity remains a feeling most often associated with the aloof. Mercy is used 217 times in the New Testament.  One of my favorite verses from St. Matthew is found in 9: 13 (and again in 12: 7): Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Second is the almost psychedelic sounding word for compassion in Greek – splagchnizoma (Σπλαγχνίζομα ) that appears 12 times in the Greek Testament. Like the Hebrew word, racham, that evokes a response of tenderness from deep within our vital organs, the Greek is equally embodied: the Hebrew root has its origins in a mother’s womb while the core of the Greek is born from the seat of our affections found in “the nobler entrails of the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys.” (Strong)  Splagchnizomai is also like the Hebrew in that it involves a compassion shared with those in a covenant relationship who are suffering. It is not an abstract or universal experience, therefore, but one grounded in intimacy and the particulars of real life.  In Mark 1: 41, it is a particular leper upon whom Jesus has compassion, not all lepers in general: A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with compassion,  Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”

The same particularity is true in Matthew 9 where Jesus moves through the various towns of the covenant in Israel healing first a paralytic, then a girl and a woman, two blind men and one who was mute.  Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” In other words, Jesus was moved to bring healing and hope to the lives of those within his community of faith.

And I would be remiss in my exploration of the biblical roots of a spirituality of tenderness if I did not make reference to the way St. Paul takes the core of Christ’s words and actions and fleshes out the radical grace of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Esther, Jesus, Magdalene and Paul.

Third, therefore, is the Greek word agape (ἀγάπη) which we know as tender, self-giving, compassionate love. The Gospel of John uses it often, the letters of Paul are saturated in its wisdom and the Greek Testament speaks of this love 116 times. The key text, of course, is I Corinthians 13. And the radical implications of this tenderness are made most clear in Eugene Peterson’s brilliant reworking of the classic text from The Message:

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled. When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good. We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.


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