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Bowels Knotting, Heart Breaking, Lungs Gasping: Can Our Compassion Be Less Than His?


Matthew 9:35-38


In the course of every-day conversation all of us refer to body-parts metaphorically. Without hesitating for a second we say of someone who has changed his mind about doing something bold, “He’s got cold feet”. If someone is born to the upper classes we say, “She’s a blue-blood”. If we object to something strenuously we say, “I can’t stomach that!” And if someone is utterly devoid of courage we say, “He’s gutless”.

In all of this we are speaking metaphorically. We are not commenting literally on the medical condition of anyone’s stomach or feet.

Our ancient foreparents spoke like this too. The ancient Greeks spoke of the SPLAGCHNA. The SPLAGCHNA were known as the “nobler viscera”. The nobler viscera consisted of the heart, the lungs and the bowels. Together these were regarded as the seat of our profoundest feeling, our deepest emotion, our most significant reaction and response to human need.

The Greek verb corresponding to SPLAGCHNA is SPLAGCHNIZESTHAI. The verb was used to speak of bowels that had knotted, a heart that had broken, lungs that had gasped for air. This verb was the strongest in the Greek language for compassion. When this verb was used its force wasn’t that someone was concerned or someone was sympathetic or even that someone was moved. Its force was that someone was so very compassionate that he was beside himself. He wasn’t moved; his heart was broken. He didn’t “feel for” someone else; his bowels convulsed. He didn’t inhale calmly before making a comment that would cost him nothing in any case; he gasped for air as though he were drowning.

This word is used over and over in the written gospels to speak of our Lord’s compassion. A word this extreme speaks of a compassion equally extreme; a compassion this extreme points to a human need no less extreme. What was the need before which Christ’s compassion shook him?


I: — The gospel-writers tell us that Jesus was shaken when he came upon crowds who were “like sheep without a shepherd”. Everywhere in the Hebrew bible “sheep without a shepherd” are sheep who are lost. When Jesus looked out over the crowds — ultimately the whole world — his heart broke at their spiritually lostness.

What is the spiritual condition of humankind, anyway? Back in the Victorian era our foreparents were concerned chiefly with moral matters. To no one’s surprise, the gospel was skewed in the direction of moralism. Pulpit pronouncements were skewed in the direction of moral instruction, moral advice, even moral threat. Plainly, the ultimate human need was thought to be moral need. The church aimed at supplying virtue. Faith was subtly skewed to be confidence in a moral order, and faithfulness meant loyalty to the Judeo-Christian moral code. The minister was to be a moral pillar of the community. To be “lost”, in the Victorian era, meant to be morally adrift.

Then the Victorian moral era gave way to the modern psychological era. Today we aren’t concerned chiefly with moral matters; we are concerned chiefly with psychological matters. Today the gospel is skewed in the direction of psychological assistance. The ultimate human need is deemed to be a psychological need. The human predicament is lack of psychological integration. Faith is subtly skewed to be confidence in psychological processes, while faithfulness is loyalty to one’s school of psychology or even to one’s therapist. The minister is expected to be a model of “togetherness”. To be “lost”, in our era, is not to “have it all together”.

Let us be sure we understand and acknowledge something crucial: both the Victorian era and the modern era have skewed the gospel, and with it the mission of the church and the meaning of Christian truths. Let us be sure we understand and acknowledge that when our Lord’s bowels knotted and his heart broke and he gasped for breath it was not over moral or psychological matters: it was because he saw the crowds to be spiritually lost. Yes, there are undeniable moral and psychological consequences to spiritual disorientation. Nevertheless, our Lord was clear as to which was disease and which was symptom, which was problem and which was manifestation of problem. He insisted that “lost” meant lost, and “spiritually lost” meant lost with respect to humankind’s situation before God.

Everyone has been lost geographically at some point. Likely we have all been lost geographically as children. Most of us have been lost geographically in the roads-network, unable to find ourselves on the roadmap and perchance too proud to ask for help.

To be lost is not to be able to find our way ahead to our destination, not to be able to find our way back to our origin. And yet the person, while lost, who knows he is lost is only a step away from help. The person most thoroughly lost, most helplessly lost, most unhelpably lost (for the time being, at least) is the person who doesn’t know he’s lost and therefore is incapable of admitting it.

One of the most haunting aspects of being lost is that we can be so very lost when we are so very close to where we should be, just around the corner, virtually next door — yet all the while as lost as if we were a thousand miles away.

I was five years old and living in Winnipeg when I became lost in the course of garnering candy on Hallowe’en. My two sisters and I had set out together. We had been traipsing up to one front door after another for 15 or 20 minutes when suddenly I realized that my fellow-traipsers were not my sisters. I didn’t know where my sisters were; and by now I didn’t know where I was. As it turned out, they hadn’t even missed me. When they had accumulated as much candy as they could carry they went home. “Where’s Victor?”, my mother asked. “Who cares?”, my older sister had replied. Whereupon my mother set out after me (my father was working late in the Canada Trust office), anxious; she tripped on the sidewalk and took the knees out of both nylons. No matter; she was going to find me.

It turned out I was only one block away from home. I was lost on the street that paralleled the street on which my family lived. In fact at that moment I was staring at the school that I attended every day. But I was looking at the back side of the school, the side I never entered or left; besides, it was dark and I had never seen the school in the dark. I couldn’t recognize the school at all and therefore couldn’t orient myself. I was as close to home as I could be without being home, yet I was thoroughly lost as well.

The apostle Paul, mind and heart forged by his experience of Jesus Christ and flooded with the gospel of Christ as well; the apostle himself, following his Lord, never hesitated to speak of humankind as spiritually lost. Yet he also told his not-yet-Christian hearers that all of humankind, at every moment, is sustained by the God it doesn’t know. Concerning all of humankind Paul said, “He [God] is not far from each of us, for in him we ‘live and move and have our being’.”

Back in Winnipeg I was as close to being home as I could be, yet I wasn’t home; I was lost. “In God we live and move and have our being” — how much closer can we get? “He is not far from each of us”. True. And who knows it better than Jesus? Yet as soon as he sees the crowd his stomach turns over: lost.


We have spent enough time on the matter of being lost. What is it to be found? It is to meet, love, trust and obey Jesus Christ himself. Centuries ago Phillip said to Jesus, “Just show us the Father and we’ll be satisfied”. “To see me is to see the Father”, our Lord had replied. In other words, Jesus Christ isn’t merely the way to getting home; he is our home; he is both the way and the destination. For in being found of him we are found of the Father. To behold the Lord as he is attested by the apostles; to see him only to find that we can’t help seeing him without seizing him; to embrace him and cling to him – this is to be satisfied. It is to be satisfied so very profoundly as not to be lost or feel lost again.

On the eve of his death Jesus prayed aloud, “Give eternal life to all those whom you have given to me. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and the One whom you have sent.”


The SPLAGCHNA word-group, always pointing to a compassion so gut-wrenching as finally to be inexpressible, is used in the New Testament of Jesus to describe him, or used by Jesus himself in his ministry. It is used of or by no one else. We have spoken at length of the word as it is used of Jesus to describe his reaction when he saw the crowds. The same word is used by Jesus in his parable of the prodigal son; it is used of the father’s compassion when he looked out the window and saw coming home his dear son who had long been lost in the “far country”. As soon as his son is on the front steps his father cries, “Dead, and now alive; lost, and now found!” — even as he runs to his son, hugs him and kisses him.

What is it to be found? It is to know the Father’s delight at our being home; it’s to have felt his hug; it’s to have overheard him shout to no one in particular but to shout anyway just because he can’t keep quiet, “Alive! Found!”


We must never skew the gospel so that “spiritually lost” comes to mean no more than “morally deficient” or “psychologically unintegrated”. We must always insist on the gospel’s self-consistent affirmation of truth: to be found is to be possessed of the assurance that the God in whom we live and move and have our being in any case is now the God whose address we have heard, whose pardon we have tasted, whose joy at our home-coming is greater even than ours.

We must never say that the primary role of the church is to provide a moral bulwark or to be the venue for psychological help. We must always insist that the church’s primary role is to sustain and nurture those sheep who are no longer shepherdless and to exalt the shepherd before those sheep who still are shepherdless. The minister isn’t a moralist or a psychologist; the minister is a prophet who voices the truth of the sheep-finding shepherd and who can voice it authentically just because he himself is manifestly found rather than lost. Faith isn’t confidence in a moral code or confidence in a psychological technique; faith is the bond binding us to the shepherd himself, while faithfulness is loyalty to him and his word and his truth in the face of distractions, would-be seductions, assaults and ridicule.

II: — In case we think all of this to be exclusively inward-looking; in case we think all of this to be one-sidedly individualistic, we should understand that Jesus was equally moved, with the same bowel-churning compassion, when he came upon people afflicted with material needs.

His heart broke and he gasped, we are told, when he saw people who lacked food. We aren’t talking now about the bread of life; we’re talking about bread.

He felt exactly the same when he came upon someone with leprosy. The greater horror of leprosy wasn’t the physical ravages of the disease, dreadful though these were; the greater horror was the social rejection, the ostracism; it was being shunned as the most revolting creature imaginable, the only sick person who had to shout a warning to villagers so that they could get out of the way. The result was that lepers banded together to support each other and care for each other and protect each other as much as they could. They formed a community of disease. “Ordinary” people were glad to have them bunched together, for then it was easier to keep an eye on them; to avoid one was to avoid them all.

Our Lord’s compassion drove him to touch lepers. In that one act he crumbled the walls of contempt and rejection and isolation. Who are the lepers (or near-lepers or somewhat-lepers) in our midst? What do we do? What should we do? Who are those, known to us, whom our society has shunned?

Our Lord’s stomach turned over again when he came upon two blind men. Two blind men, be it noted. In Israel of old it was said, “Wherever two Jews are found together, the whole of Israel is present.” In other words, when Jesus comes upon two blind men he is telling us that there exists a societal blindness, a communal blindness, a corporate blindness. Where is there such a corporate blindness in our society, in our community, in our congregation? And as disciples of Jesus Christ, what are we to do about it?

Our Lord’s heart broke with compassion when he came upon the widow of Nain. Her son had just died. To be sure, bereavement at any time is distressing; but in first century Palestine a widow (her husband was already dead) whose only son has just died is a person who is financially destitute; she has no means of supporting herself. That is what distressed our Lord. He had to do something about it. What are we to do, whether individually or by means of our political system?

A man whose child suffered from epileptic seizures brought the child to Jesus. According to the text of Mark’s gospel the boy’s father cried out, “Have compassion and help us!” Have compassion “on us”; not “on my son”, but “on us”. Who are the “we”? The boy and his dad? the boy and his dad and his mom? the entire family? Surely the entire family. Everyone knows that a child who suffers from a major disability is an enormous disruption to the entire family. How enormous? Several years ago I was visiting an elderly man who was dying. He spoke of his disabled son, long an adult, and how the entire family had been disrupted endlessly on account of the disabled son. At the height of his frustration the dying man shouted, “That boy has ruined our life”. “Don’t say that!” his wife shrieked, “Don’t say it!” But it was true. The man with the epileptic son who cried to Jesus for help already knew it. Who are such families in our midst? What do we do for them?

Earlier I mentioned that the SPLAGCHNA word-group was used only of Jesus himself or by Jesus in his ministry. Just as this word for the strongest compassion was found in our Lord’s parable of the prodigal son where it illustrated compassion for the spiritually lost, so it is used in the parable of the Good Samaritan where it illustrates his compassion for people who are materially deprived.


III: — There is one last point to be made in all of this. The ancient Greeks believed that the deity could not be moved. If the deity could be moved, then the deity could be bribed, manipulated, exploited.

We who have been taught in the school of Israel know that the Holy One of Israel can’t be bribed or manipulated or exploited. Yet we know something more. Just because the Holy One of Israel has incarnated himself in Jesus of Nazareth, just because Jesus is the outer expression of the innermost heart of God, everything we have noted about the compassion of Jesus must therefore be said of the Father himself. He whose judgement is undeflectable and whose intolerance of evil is unyielding and whose wrath is no more an exaggeration than his love is an exaggeration; this one is finally the God whose heart is broken at the sight of men and women in a fallen world who are spiritually “at sea” and/or materially deprived. He who has made provision for us in his son summons us to know for ourselves and to witness before the world that his provision is sufficient. For he who feeds us now is going to feed us until that day when we want no more just because we need no more.


                                                                                                      Victor Shepherd                                  

 July 2005