Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1.16)
The Compassion Principle
Not long ago I heard an illuminating talk about compassion. The speaker began by breaking down the word’s Latin roots, pointing out that it literally means, “shared suffering.” Then she said the best definition of compassion she’d ever heard came from a Benedictine nun, who told her to be compassionate is to walk beside people in trouble—actively participating in their journey, meeting them where they are, and supporting their efforts to move ahead. Thus, compassion is an intentional work of grace that collapses the distance and differences between those in need and us. It is not sympathy, which attempts to provide solace from a polite remove. Nor is it empathy, which professes to know and understand another’s situation. Compassion surpasses feeling and transpires in the doing. Our sorrow for others means nothing if it stops short of investing our all to alleviate it. Without committing to walk with them in their distress—to make their suffering our own—we’re merely well-wishers, sympathetic viewers from the sidelines.
The more we study God’s Word, the more we mature in our faith, the more convinced we are that compassion is the core Christian value. This belief is inherited from our Jewish forebears, who filled Hebrew scripture with texts extolling compassion as one of God’s defining traits. Numerous times the writers link God’s compassion with divine faithfulness, as we see in Nehemiah 9.17: “You are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore You did not desert them.” Compassion becomes the central theme in Jesus’s message as well, not only in His depiction of God, but also in the expectations He sets for us. Most famously, Jesus marries compassion for others to love for God in the Great Commandment, which we hear in Sunday’s Gospel: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” followed by, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12.30-31) Then, in Galatians 6.2, Paul underscores compassion’s centrality to our faith when he writes, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Bearing the burdens of others, sharing in their suffering, walking beside them, meeting them in their need—we cannot misconstrue the compassion principle as a call for kindness that keeps its distance. It is the law of Christ that places very specific demands on our attitudes and behaviors toward one another. Compassion, first and foremost, is an act of obedience.
There’s a relentless aspect of compassion that we all too often—and easily—overlook. Compassion is an act of faith we carry out by faith, ignoring conventional wisdom, social mores and taboos, and political expediencies that would advise against walking with others. We see the full extent of compassion in God’s unyielding covenant to love and accept us despite our failures and deficits. But we also observe its relentless nature in dozens of biblical characters who are moved to bear the burdens of people around them. None of these examples is more vivid than Ruth’s. Here is a woman dealing with extraordinary loss, whose future is anything but certain, and who stands to lose everything she treasures if she embraces another’s sufferings as her own. Yet that’s precisely what Ruth does. She’s relentless in her compassion for Naomi, the mother of her recently deceased husband, and commits herself—despite her mother-in-law’s protests—to walk with Naomi, to bear her burdens, and to face life’s uncertainties alongside her.
Ruth’s story is familiar to most of us. Yet we risk undervaluing its gravity by underestimating its complexity. Sunday’s Old Testament text (Ruth 1.1-18) introduces her saga with a detailed background that brings Ruth’s dilemma into sharp focus. Ruth and Orpah are two Moabite women who marry the sons of a Jewish couple who relocate to Moab after famine descends on their home in Bethlehem. Despite ethnic, religious, and cultural differences, both marriages prosper. Then the father-in-law dies, as do both sons, leaving three widows with no viable means of support. With no blood relatives to provide for her, Naomi has no choice but to return to her extended family in Bethlehem. Going home is no guarantee she’ll be accepted. Her sons’ marriages to pagan women casts shadows over her and her return no doubt will give rise to resentments about having to care for a woman who’s not contributed to the family coffers for many years. Ruth and Orpah do have a way out, however. They can return to their families and resume the lives they knew before marriage. It won’t be easy. They too will confront prejudices and disdain for marrying outsiders. But they’ll have a safe home and provisions to ensure they won’t starve.
Reluctantly, Orpah assents to Naomi’s wishes. Ruth refuses. It’s inconceivable to her that Naomi should return to Bethlehem alone. So profound is her compassion that she voluntarily severs family, cultural, and religious ties to walk beside Naomi into a strange world, to live among strangers who despise her, to adopt strange customs, to speak a strange language, to worship a strange God. Ruth has absolutely nothing to gain by bearing Naomi’s burdens. That’s why the compassion conveyed in her resolve takes our breath away. “Do not press me to leave you or turn back from following you!” she insists. “Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there I will be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1.16-17) There’s no pause to consider what’s “appropriate” or “feasible.” There’s no lengthy hug, followed by a tender fare-thee-well and reminders to “call if you need anything.” Ruth doesn’t promise, “I’ll be there for you.” Ruth is there and refuses to be anywhere but there. Ruth is relentless.
Admonishments and Promises
Stripped of relentlessness, compassion is reduced to sentiment—an affect that has little effect in a harsh world. As believers who seek to reflect God’s nature in all we do and followers of Christ compelled to honor Christ’s commands, we are wise to take Ruth’s example to heart. And that begins by removing the filter of self from our eyes. Especially for American Christians participating in our national elections, this passage comes at a critical time. We cannot of good conscience enter the voting booth alone. We must take those we walk beside with us—those presently struggling with poverty, hunger, homelessness, violence, broken families, and every other form of social neglect. Beyond what may be best for us, we must consider what’s best for them and, if necessary, place their needs above our wants. We must subvert conventional wisdom, social mores and taboos, and political expediencies—many of them endorsed by religious leaders—to demonstrate true compassion in all of its relentless glory.
In Psalm 112.1-5 we read, “Blessed are those who fear the LORD, who find great delight in God’s commands. Their children will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed. Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever. Even in darkness light dawns for the upright, for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous. Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice.” (NIV) May we listen closely to these admonishments and promises, and like Ruth, trust God above all else in our commitment to walk beside those in need.
Compassion goes beyond promising to be there. It is there and refuses to be anywhere but there, walking beside those in need, bearing their burdens, and sharing in their suffering.