Matthew 9:36 reports this of Jesus, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them…” (italics mine). That two-word phrase the NIV translates as “had compassion” is actually just one word in the original Greek: splagchnízomai—and it means more than we might assume.

Our tendency is to look at Matthew 9:36 and think that Jesus “felt sorry” for the people. That is, he felt sympathy and wanted to help them—but he was also somehow separate from their suffering. As one theologian describes it, “God’s mercy on the miserable…acts of healing [that] grew out of his attitude of compassion.” His divine hand was reaching in from the outside to alleviate pain, we think.

There is a measure of truth to that thinking, but it’s not entirely correct. The more accurate interpretation of splagchnízomai is that Jesus not only saw and sympathized with their suffering, but that he experienced it emotionally within himself as well. You see, splagchnízomai connotes more than just sympathy or even basic empathy; it means literally “to feel deeply or viscerally, to yearn.” Synonymic meanings include “a feeling of distress from the ills of others…to suffer with another.”

In other words, Jesus didn’t simply feel sorry for those in misery, he incarnated their misery into his own being. He suffered alongside them, in both their physical and spiritual anguish. It was out of that shared suffering that he enacted his compassionate acts of healing—physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual—that changed people forever. That’s a heartbreakingly beautiful truth: Our God cares for us because he knows, literally, our pain (see Isaiah 53:3).

The even better news is this: Christ still splagchnísthḗsomai (“will have compassion”) on you and me today. He knows intimately what we suffer—and he’s willing to help. Somebody say Amen!

 

Works Cited:

[NIB, 741-742; CWD, 1306]

 

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