Jesus and pity: its more than being ‘nice’

εὐαγγελίζω (euaggelizo)
“to announce the Good News of victory in battle”

“A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said,
“If you wish, you can make me clean.”
Moved with pity (σπλαγχνισθεὶς, splagchnistheis),
he stretched out his hand,
touched him, and said to him,
“I do will it. Be made clean.”
The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.”

θεωρέω (theoreo)
(“to perceive, discover, ponder a deeper meaning”)

As He often does, Jesus acts in a way that is at odds with the social norms of the day. This Sunday’s episode is no different wherein Jesus’ pity moves Him to a specific action. His understanding of pity is not bound exclusively to being nice or even kind for that matter. His encounter with the leper triggers a response that is quite different from antiquity’s understanding of pity – and perhaps even our own knowledge of this evangelical action.

How the Greek verb σπλαγχνιζομαι (splagchnizomai) came to connote pity is an interesting evolution. In Ancient Near Eastern cultures that predate and are concomitant with the Hebraic people, pity often expressed an emotion, a feeling or a sentiment. When a person came upon another in distress or affliction, pity was meant to startle, in a way, the non-afflicted person and remind him or her of boundaries when dealing with a person in distress. In an era that was aware of the contagious nature of sickness and disease, knowledge of how the contagion spread was often non-existent. Isolation and separation were thought to be the best, if not the only way to handle various aliments for the sake of the Common Good. Strong social mores enforced barriers between the healthy and the sick.

Throughout Israel’s history, while elements of Ancient Near Eastern life became part of Israel’s living, such often happened only after ‘tweaking’ the particular cultural element to reflect the oneness of God and the dignity of the human person. Like her neighbors, Israel was very concerned about the spread of sickness and disease. Coupled with kosher dietary laws, Israel’s pity towards the sick mirrored to a degree the way other cultures looked upon the ill. Yet the people of Israel also knew that while the particular disease was a concern, more fundamental was the fact that a person was sick. Consequently, while the sick lived apart from the healthy, Israel knew there was more to pity than setting boundaries for the Common Good. The minimal necessities of life: water, food and shelter HAD to be provided for the sick. For the Israelites, pity was not just an emotion, feeling or sentiment. Pity was an action that was ordered to providing life-sustaining necessities.

So how does a Greek root σπλάγχνα (splagchna), which often referred to internal organs, become the word that expresses Jesus’ response to illness that alienates and separates?

In the Jewish world of Jesus day, some of the internal organs (σπλάγχνα, splagchna) were an essential part of sacrifice, 1 of the constitutive pillars of Jewish religious practice. As medical knowledge increased in the Greco-Roman world, the ‘internal organs’ gradually became more and more specified. While some distinctions among bodily organs were already known in the Ancient Near Eastern world, more distinctions emerged as knowledge of the internal bodily processes became better known. σπλάγχνα (splagchna) was used less and less to describe all internal organs and evolved to the point of referring to the intestines and intestine related processes. In time, and already in place in the first century, the verb form of σπλάγχνα (splagchna) — σπλαγχνιζομαι (splagchnizomai) — was used to describe how ‘stuff’ flowed through the intestines, especially when battling a ‘gastro-intestinal event.’ This very visceral, earthly, graphic verb essentially describes a single-minded gut-level urgency of urgencies wherein there is no other task to consider but relief!

Jesus’ expression of pity (σπλαγχνιζομαι, splagchnizomai) is not about being nice or kind in a milk toast or pollyanna way. For Jesus, pity is an action that provides whatever is need for another’s survival. It is an all consuming action that urgently and single-mindedly stops one dead in his or her tracks because a fellow PERSON is in need. As far as Jesus is concerned, the PERSON in need became the center of the other’s universe in an axial moment of halting all other items on the ‘to-do’ list. The dignity and preciousness of a PERSON’s life consumed Jesus and did so for our salvation in this world and in the world to come. Our challenge in a very concrete way is to do as Jesus did.