The man who gave the sermon this morning was talking about Mark 7:1-15. In that passage, Jesus was saying that “the things that come out are what defile” (NRSV). The preacher was interpreting this to mean that, when we act on the corrupt and selfish things that are inside of us (making them “things that come out”), we become separated from God (defilement), presumably until we repent and receive forgiveness. The preacher seemed to be presenting compassion as an anecdote to our struggle with vice. The preacher noted that Jesus in the passage was compassionate towards the dishonored and deprived parents of some of the Pharisees, and he also referred to other passages in which Jesus feels and acts on compassion. The preacher said that, unlike us, Jesus was not proud as a result of his compassion, and that we should not be proud either because compassion is something that God has placed inside of us.
What the preacher said reminded me of Galatians 5:16. In the KJV, it reads, “Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.” Over a decade ago, another preacher told me after citing this passage, “You can’t do both.” His point was that, by walking according to the Spirit and its fruit (i.e., love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.), we are going in the opposite direction of the works of the flesh (i.e., hatred, sexual immorality, etc.). It’s like cultivating and walking in what is good is an anecdote to being bad, for both are oriented in opposite directions.
As I look at the NRSV and the Greek of Galatians 5:16, I am a bit skeptical that this is what the passage is saying. The NRSV has, “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” This seems to treat Galatians 5:16 as a two-fold command rather than viewing walking in the Spirit as an anecdote to walking in the flesh: walk in the Spirit, and don’t gratify the flesh. Obey both commands. In the Greek, the part about not walking in the flesh is in the subjunctive: “may you not fulfill desire of flesh.” To me, that seems to coincide more with what the NRSV has. I may be forgetting some Greek rule, though, so I am open to correction.
Do I believe that cultivating compassion can serve as an anecdote to acting on the flesh? On some level, I do. Compassion humanizes people and seeks to identify with them. If I am compassionate towards someone I hate, that lessens my hatred. If I humanize a woman after whom I lust, that tempers, or at least counter-balances, my lust. I still have questions, though. For example, is sexually desiring a woman, or even engaging in pre-marital sex, necessarily the opposite of love? It can be, but is it in every case? Both Jesus in Mark 7 and Paul in Galatians 5 list sexual immorality among the vices, however.
I liked what the preacher said about compassion being the voice of God within us. I am one who wants to hear from God. Well, maybe God is speaking to me when I feel an urge to be compassionate. I was thinking of a colleague whom I cannot stand, and, to my surprise, I was actually happy that he had a job, for I remembered listening to him stress out about employment prospects. Whenever I feel this way, I ask myself, “Is that compassion genuine? Am I really happy for this ass?” I then think, “Why stress out over that question? Just cultivate compassion! Any ounce of compassion that is within me is worth cultivating.”