Thoughts on transcending compassion

As a little girl with plenty of time to spare, I spent a fair bit of it with eyes glued to the ground, watching  trails of ants avoid me like a river round a rock. Each time, my instinct would be to stomp on them, at first because I thought they might bite, and later on in life, just because I could. Occasionally, though, I’d feel unusually merciful and so choose to simply watch. It’s a kind of detached mercy, barely bordering on compassion. The same inconsistent and dispassionate kind that sometimes made me spend extra time in the shower simply letting the water run, so the rats and cockroaches in the sewers could have clean water to drink for a change.

This pastor at a church I was visiting in Jakarta was talking about how we do not like to receive pity favors. Unless utterly and desolately desperate, which in some cases still doesn’t deter, we do not want to receive help when we know the other party is offering it out of pity. We want things to be done for us out of respect, out of love. And for another person to help us out of pity us implies a difference in level.  He goes on to talk about how Jesus did so much more than save us out of pity. In becoming a man, he descended to our level, an act that also displays just how much he values and loves his creation.

For sure, God looks upon us with compassion, and that compassion plays a part in his plan of salvation (the word “compassion” is applied on God many times in the Bible), but this got me thinking about transcending compassion. Remember when Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40)? In the few verses preceding that, he identifies himself with those needing clothes and food, the sick, the imprisoned. No, he essentially subsumes his identity with theirs. I always thought, how compassionate of Jesus to identify with those of the lower rungs (“the least of these”), but am now realizing that perhaps he’s saying that there are no rungs. Jesus is saying he’s one of them, and so they’re one of us and we’re one of them. When we help the needy, we’re not doing charity work, it’s solidarity.

Too often, when I think about not withholding God’s love from others, I think about it in terms of not withholding the Good News of salvation, to proclaim it loud and proud, what Jesus did on the cross and what his death and resurrection accomplished. But Jesus’ ministry cannot be reduced to his final act. Nor just his final act + calls to repentance + teachings + healings. He, fully God, first also became fully man.

I first began to glimpse the gravity of this back in October while preparing Luke 4 (Jesus being tempted in the wilderness pre-ministry) for small group prep. I’d previously thought that of the 3 temptations, the first one seemed most trivial: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread” (Luke 4:3). But upon deeper reflection, it hit me that it’s a taunt that carried so much more weight. You could imagine the devil saying, “Oh Jesus, Jesus…You had all the riches and glories of heaven, you had angels serving you, you had no need or want. Are you sure you want to be reduced to a mere man at the mercy of petty needs? Whoa, let alone face death? Do you know what you’re getting yourself into? Have you really done your calculations?”

Jesus didn’t look upon us and confer mercy simply on a whim, out of pity, or even as a favor. Let us not forget that he forsook his heavenly throne and became an ant, was an ant, died like an ant thoughtlessly squashed under under our sneakers.

And so what? For us who call ourselves Christians, do we stop at singing of this radical love? Christ explicitly said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). As he has loved us. And the precedent set for us beckons, compels us to transcend compassion. I want to strive towards that. What would it look like if we saw a homeless person, or to not romanticize things, just a struggling friend, and saw them as ourselves? We are each surrounded by some imaginary hamster ball, and we occasionally let people in, be it people of our choosing, those we “love”, or circumstantially depending on how charitable we feel. But maybe to love doesn’t mean that these hamster balls have semi-permeable membranes. Maybe it means not having hamster balls at all. I honestly believe this mindset is a social construct (sorry, Sociology major here) we are too quick and too happy to adopt because they’re convenient and comfortable.

And it occurs to me, am I being a starry-eyed idealist? No, I think I just think I’m being idealistic because I’ve been brainwashed by societal standards that fall short of God’s standards.

Being back home in Jakarta means it’s time for the annual excavation of old photo albums. This year, the above vestiges of my childhood strike me most powerfully.

1. (Left) It’s hard to imagine that I was once that tiny. And that my mom once unabashedly sported magenta shorts.

2. (Right) This was pretty much every morning of our first 2 months in Singapore, fresh off the proverbial boat. With the help of 2 private tutors we crammed to know adequate amounts of English and Mandarin before starting grade 2/3 in a local school (i.e. joining the rat race). And the rest is history.. Cheesy adage that springs to mind: remember where you came from.