and the


This is one of the loveliest words in the NT: it means to ‘have a deep inner compassion for’ someone. To discover its derivation, however, we need to visit one of the unloveliest verses in the NT. This occurs in Peter’s description (through the words, of course, of Luke) of the death of Judas. NIV renders them: “Judas fell headlong --- his body burst open, and all his intestines spilled out” (Acts 1.18). A more literal translation gives us a better idea of Luke’s vivid use of language here: “Judas --- becoming head-down (‘prenes’ in Greek which, via Latin, gives us ‘prone’) burst open [in the] middle, and all his guts poured out”. The key word for our main purpose here is ‘intestines’, or ‘guts’, the Greek word being ‘splanchna’, which is at the root of ‘splanchnizomai’.

Acts 1. 15-19: Lanchano

We will pick up this thread again in the next paragraph but one, but first there are some interesting observations to make on the language of this passage, Peter’s address to the 120 disciples in the upper room immediately after the ascension. Firstly, in verse 17, he says that Judas “was numbered among us”, echoing Luke’s acid reference to him in his gospel (Luke 27.3) as “one of the number of the 12”: arithmetically, perhaps , he was one of them, but not a genuine member of the team. Nevertheless, as Peter goes on to say, “he received his allotted share of this ministry” - the ministry of discipleship. The word for ‘received’ here is ‘lanchano’, which in Classical Greek means to ‘obtain by lot’, and then, in the NT, ‘to receive by divine allotment’ (Thayer’s lexicon). It occurs only 4 times in the NT, its meaning well illustrated by the first of them, in Luke 1.9, where Zechariah “received by divine allotment [the privilege of] going into the inner Temple to burn incense”. It is, perhaps, significant that Peter himself uses ‘lanchano’ at the beginning of his second letter, which he addresses to “you who have received [by divine allotment] an equal share with us of the precious gift of faith” (2 Peter 1.1). This understanding of ‘lanchano’ sets us up for the antithesis which Luke achieves in the next verse (18): “Judas obtained for himself from the reward for his treachery a plot of land ---”. The verb here, translated ‘obtained’, is in the middle voice, implying that he acquired the land by his own expenditure for his own use. This antithesis, then, is that most crucial distinction between grace and works, what we receive as a free gift from God, like Judas’s ministry as a disciple, and what we earn for ourselves by our own efforts. Judas’s plot of land, in fact, later named ‘the field of blood’, could symbolise the fate of all who reject God’s free gift of grace, and try to save themselves by their own efforts. The 4th instance of ‘lanchano’ also helps to make this point, though in a more positive way. All 4 gospels record that the soldiers who crucified Jesus “cast lots” for his clothes, but only John gives us more detail. He tells us that, whereas they divided up the rest of his clothes equally among them, the perks of their job and part of their hard-earned pay, they could not bring themselves to tear into pieces Jesus’ robe, which was “seamless, woven of one piece from top to bottom” (John 19.23); it was for this that they “cast lots”. Jesus’ “seamless robe” has regularly been seen as an emblem of his perfect righteousness. Only if we are clothed with this robe, rather than in the “filthy rags” of our own sinfulness (Isaiah 64.6) can we be accepted by an all-holy God, and only by the grace of an all-loving God can we receive this robe, as the Roman soldier did, “by divine allotment” (v.24).


Before we return at last to ‘splanchnizomai’, there is one more observation I would like to make on this passage. The verb ‘lanchano’ has an aorist form ‘elachen’, which is how the word appears in verse 18 - “he obtained”. The verb in verse 19 translated “he burst open” occurs only this once in the NT; why does Luke choose to use it here? The verb in question is ‘lasko’, which also has an irregular aorist form, so that the actual word in the text is ‘elachesen’. One is almost tempted to believe that Luke has perpetrated a pun! If so, it is a pun with a deeply serious point. Judas had received, through God’s grace, a wonderful privilege which he did not deserve - to be a disciple of Jesus. By rejecting God’s grace, and betraying his Master, he brought upon himself the gruesome fate which he did deserve.

‘splanchna’ in the LXX

The verb ‘splanchnizomai’, then, is derived from the neuter plural noun ‘splanchna’ (never found in the singular), which means, to quote William Barclay’s helpful chapter on ‘splanchnizomai’ “what are known as the noble viscera, that is, the heart, the lungs, the liver and the intestines”, but what we might collectively refer to as ‘the guts’. In Classical Greek, Barclay continues, “these organs were regarded as the seat of the emotions, especially of anger, of anxiety, of fear, and even of love”. The verb, therefore, which is not found in Classical Greek, was created to express a feeling of compassion coming from deep within a person - not a momentary twinge of sympathy, but a ‘gut feeling’, a lurch of the stomach spontaneously arising from the sight of someone’s suffering. A compound form of the verb, ‘episplanchnizomai’, is found in the LXX version of Proverbs 17.5: “The man who mocks the poor provokes the wrath of his creator, and the man who rejoices in the destruction of another will not escape judgement; but he who has compassion will receive mercy”. This last clause, echoed in the beatitude “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matt. 5.7), is, surprisingly, not represented in AV or NIV. The verb translated “shall receive mercy”, however, introduces us to a near synonym of ‘splanchnizomai’, namely ‘eleo’, which we will look at in more detail later. Proverbs also provides us with an interesting example of the noun ‘splanchna’ - as well as a salutary teaching on animal husbandry: “The righteous man has pity on the welfare (literally, ‘the souls’) of his cattle, but the hearts (‘splanchna’) of the unrighteous are unmerciful” (Proverbs 12.10).

‘splanchna’ in the NT: Luke 1.78

As so often, the LXX paves the way for words not found in Classical Greek, or found in a different sense, to enter into the NT. The verb ‘splanchnizomai’ occurs 12 times, all in the synoptic gospels, and all, directly or indirectly, referring to the compassion of God the Father or (mostly) of God the Son. ‘splanchna’, apart from the literal example we have already looked at, is found 10 times, 9 of them in the epistles, and the other in Zechariah’s prophetic song of praise about his son, John the Baptist, the song usually known as the “Benedictus” (‘blessed’) after its opening word in the Latin version. Our verse comes rather nearer to the end, Luke 1. 78: his son’s mission was to “give to his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins because of the compassionate mercy of our God”. Elsewhere, AV tends to translate ‘splanchna’ as ‘bowels of mercy’, a phrase which, for some reason, seems to have fallen out of favour; but here both AV and NIV are in agreement, offering ‘tender mercy’, a lovely translation.

‘splanchnizomai’ in the NT: I: in Jesus’ parables

For now, however, we will concentrate on ‘splanchnizomai', and focus, to begin with, on its occurrence in three of the best known and most important of Jesus’ parables, ‘the unforgiving servant’, ‘the prodigal son’, and ‘the good Samaritan’. Of each of these three parables we will ask three simple questions, ‘who?’, ‘why?’ and ‘what?’: ‘who is it that feels compassion?’, ‘why is this compassion aroused?’, and ‘what action does it lead to?’.

(a) the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18.21-35)
[i] who?
proskuno, ‘logon sunairein’

We will start with the parable of ‘the unforgiving servant’ - which could just as appropriately be titled the parable of ‘the forgiving master’, for it is he who is the ‘who?’ of our study. He is described as “a man who was a king” (v.23), so he is much more than just a slave-owner. If this description is not enough to show that he represents God himself, the matter is settled by the action attributed by Jesus to the first servant : “his servant fell down and worshipped him” (v.26). The word for ‘worship’ here is ‘proskuno’, which the gospel-writers are careful to use only of the worship of God himself, and of the worship offered to Jesus by those who came and knelt before him. The one exception to this practice is, of course, the temptation of Satan that Jesus should worship him (Matt. 4.9); this temptation Jesus rejects by quoting the key text (Deut. 6.13): “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve”: all other worship is idolatry. The ‘who?’ of the parable, then, is God himself, and we soon learn that he is a God who sits in judgement and calls his servants to account. The phrase for this process in Greek is ‘logon sunairein’, literally to ‘bring together a reckoning’, and it is only used three times in the NT, twice here (vv. 23 and 24), and the third time a few chapters later in the gospel (25.19) in the parallel parable of the talents. There, however, it seems to be Christians who are being ‘called to account’ for their use in his service of the gifts (‘talents’) God has given them, and the judgement, mostly, at least, is a judgement of rewards. But here in chapter 18 it is mankind in general that is ‘in debt’ to God, and that debt, as the context shows, is the debt of sin, for the parable is told in response to Peter’s question “how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?” It would be amusing - if idle - to speculate that Andrew had just trodden on Peter’s toe yet again, either literally or metaphorically, and that Peter’s question ‘how often shall I forgive my brother?’ was a sly dig at him. But Matthew’s purpose in recording this parable, alone of the four gospels, is clearly much more serious, and it is much more likely that the debt in the parable is everyone’s.

[ii] why?

This leads to the second question, ‘why?’. The first servant brought before his king to ‘settle accounts’ owes him 10,000 talents, and as soon as we read this we know for sure that this parable is a work of fiction, and not a slice of history. This sum is unimaginably huge: it would have taken a man on an average wage getting on for 20 years to earn just one talent. The king orders him, his wife and children to be sold into slavery, and all his property to be sold as well, though that could only repay a fraction of the debt. The servant does the only thing he can: he throws himself on the king’s mercy. “Be patient with me,” he begs, as he kneels in worship before the king, “and I will repay you everything.” (v.27) This promise is transparently futile, but his desperate plight pierces the kings heart like an arrow, “and he had compassion on him” (v.27). Here, then, is the answer to our ‘why?’, and a wonderfully comforting answer it is. We, too, can never hope to repay our debt of sin to God, but we can be confident that our God is a God of compassion, and that those who throw themselves on his mercy will receive forgiveness.

[iii] what?
aphiemi’ (a) to forgive

This leads us to the ‘what?’ - what did the king do in response to the compassion that he felt? He “let him go, and forgave the [whole] debt” (v.27): his compassion for the plight of his servant outweighed his need to balance the books. The rest of the NT, of course, tells us that this is only possible because Jesus has already ‘balanced the books’, paying off our debt by his death on the cross. That is why the NIV translation here, “cancelled the debt”, though accurate, obscures the link between the parable and its significance. The Greek verb used here, ‘aphiemi’, has several meanings, but one of them is to ‘forgive’, and the noun formed from it, ‘aphesis’, means ‘forgiveness’ in all 17 of its appearances in the NT. Moreover, this is the verb that Peter has used in his initial question “how often --- shall I forgive my brother?” (v.21). Now Peter has his answer: 10,000 talents’ worth of forgiveness!

The parable of the two debtors (Luke 7.41-43)

We will return to this parable later, but at this point it is worth looking at a rather similar parable recorded in Luke. Here, there are also two debtors, one owing 500 denarii and the other 50 - perfectly credible amounts, this time. Neither, however, can pay back his debt, and both are ‘forgiven’ by their creditor. Luke here twice uses another lovely word for ‘forgive’, ‘charizomai’ (vv. 42 and 43). This is obviously part of ‘the vocabulary of grace’, for it is derived from the great noun ‘charis’, and so means to ‘give as an act of grace’, which makes it a synonym for ‘aphiemi’ in Matthew’s parable, though with its emphasis on the goodness of the forgiver rather than on the freedom of the forgiven. This verb occurs 23 times in the NT, all in Luke and the Pauline epistles - another example of the shared vocabulary of the two travelling companions.

‘charizomai’ [a] to ‘give a free gift’

Some of its uses in this sense are a bit surprising. Luke describes Jesus “giving” many blind people “the gift” of sight (Luke 7.21); and in Acts he uses it both of the Jews asking Pilate that the murderer Barabbas be “freely given” to them as their traditional ‘Passover present’, and also of (presumably) the same Jewish leaders wanting Paul to be ‘handed over gift-wrapped’ (we might paraphrase) to be tried in Jerusalem rather than Caesarea, so that they could murder him en route (25.11 and 16). On a more positive note, in the middle of the storm in Acts 27 Paul tells the ship’s company that God has told him via an angel that he has “given him as a gift of grace [the lives of] all those sailing with you” (v.24). These 4 instances in Acts, then, all refer to the handing over of people as gifts, whether to death, as was intended for Paul, or to life, as with Barabbas and the ship’s company in the storm. Paul also uses ‘charizomai’ in this sense in Philemon 22, a usage which is nicely complementary to its two appearances in Acts 25. Writing from prison, Paul tells his addressee to “prepare the guest-room for me, since I hope, through your prayers for me, to be given to you as a present of God’s grace”. Elsewhere in the epistles, however, the ‘gifts’ are spiritual, the most glorious being the Father’s gracious gift to his Son of “a name that is above every name” (Phil 2.9). The spiritual gifts which God gives to us are hardly less glorious, as Paul argues in Romans 8.32: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how is it possible that he will not, together with Jesus, give us every gift of his grace?” It is one of the ministries of the Holy Spirit to make known to us, and to make real to us, the full extent and the amazing richness of these gifts of grace (1 Cor 2 12); and in more theological mode, in Galatians 3.18, Paul sums up all these gifts as “the inheritance which, by his promise, God ‘graced’ to Abraham”, stressing the fact that Abraham received his inheritance not by keeping the Law but by believing God’s gracious promise. If some of the previous usages of ‘charizomai’ were surprising, the next is positively startling - even disconcerting: Paul tells the Philippians (1.29) “not to be dismayed in any way by your opponents --- because to you has been given the gift of grace not only of faith in Christ but also of suffering for him”.

‘charizomai’ [b] to ‘forgive’
(i) Colossians 2.13

After this shock to the system - suffering a gift of grace? - it is something of a relief, if no less of a challenge, to come to the remaining 10 instances of ‘charizomai’ , which all mean simply to ‘forgive’: the grace which gives freely also forgives freely. Five of these occur in 2 Corinthians, 4 of them in chapter 2 (vv.7-10), and the other in 12.13; these all refer to human forgiveness within the church, and both passages are found in parts of the epistle where Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians seems to be at its most prickly. We will, therefore, concentrate on the other 5, which will get us safely back to our starting-point in the parable of the unforgiving servant. The key reference is Colossians 2.13: “When you were spiritually dead because of your sins --- God brought you back to life [sharing] with Jesus [in his resurrection], and forgave you [by his grace - ‘charizomai’] all your sins”. Like the debtor in the parable, the enormity of our debt was unpayable, a death-sentence; but Jesus paid it for us so that God could forgive us: GRACE is indeed, as has often been said, an acronym: ‘God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense’.

(ii) Ephesians 4.32 chrestos

But this glorious spiritual truth has challenging practical implications, spelt out twice by Paul in parallel passages in Ephesians and Colossians - both of which link us once again with ‘splanchnizomai’. He tells the Ephesians (4.32): “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another just as in Christ God forgave you” (NIV). The adjective here translated (quite rightly) ‘compassionate’ is an offshoot of ‘splanchnizomai, ‘eusplanchnos’, which only occurs twice in the NT (its other appearance is in a list of Christian qualities in 1 Peter 3.8). The prefix ‘eu-’ means ‘well’, so we might translate the adjective ‘good-hearted’ if we were being as literal as possible - but ‘compassionate’ is better! The word translated ‘kind’ also deserves a brief note; it is ‘chrestos’, which means ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, or even ‘gracious’ - ‘kind’ is, in my view, a bit feeble. The most noteworthy feature of this word, however, is its similarity to ‘Christos’, and it is quite possible that the two words would have sounded much the same in Paul’s day, as they do in modern Greek. So to translate it here as ‘Christlike’ may be a bit over-bold, but it may well have been a connection in Paul’s mind when he wrote, since it makes his point well: to forgive is to be like Christ (see Luke 23.34 - ‘aphiemi’ again). In 1 Peter 3.2 the connection is even more obvious, and almost certainly intentional: “ --- if you have tasted (that is, experienced) that ‘chrestos ho kurios’”, literally “excellent is the Lord”, but inescapably recalling the basic Christian creed “Christ is Lord”.

(iii) Colossians 3.12-13

The parallel passage to this is Colossians 3.12-13: “These are the qualities you should clothe yourselves in: compassion (literally, as in AV, ‘bowels of mercy’), goodness (‘chrestotes’ in Greek so, perhaps, ‘Christlikeness’ again), humble-mindedness, gentleness and generous patience (‘makrothumia’, of which more anon); forbearing (‘putting up with’?) one another, and forgiving one another if any one has a complaint against someone; just as the Lord forgave you, in just the same way you too should forgive”. It can be seen that the essential wording is almost identical to the Ephesians passage, but here Paul has slightly expanded his point, first by the inclusion of the “if” clause, and at the end, where he gives additional emphasis to the equivalence he is establishing by adding three words to the Ephesians text, “so also you”, which I rather over-translated above, to make the point even clearer. This equivalence, of course, is the point of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18, to which we now return.

The parable of the unforgiving servant (contd.)
We left the parable, as it were, to a chorus of ‘alleluias’ - the wonder of God’s compassion and the glory of his grace in forgiving such an unimaginably huge debt. But this is a story of two halves - a story that does not have a happy ending. The servant who has been forgiven his huge debt by his master and king then refuses to forgive a fellow-servant a debt which is a minute fraction of his own. The king, informed of this by his other servants, is justifiably angry: “Wicked servant! I forgave (‘aphiemi’) all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Ought you not to have shown mercy to your fellow-servant as I showed mercy to you?” The verb used twice here is the one we came across a while ago in Proverbs 17.5: ‘eleo’, to ‘have mercy’; it is still familiar today, of course, from its imperative form, in the prayer “Kyrie eleison”, “Lord, have mercy”. The king’s compassion for his servant’s hopeless plight and his desperate plea led him to show mercy and forgive the debt. From this we can formulate a distinction between ‘splanchnizomai’ and ‘eleo’: true compassion leads to action, an act of mercy; a passing stab of sympathy is not true compassion. ‘Mercy’ is always practical, whether it is forgiving a debt, or giving money or help in other forms. One of the two nouns derived from ‘eleo’ is ‘eleemosune’, which, in a (mercifully!) shortened form has entered English as ‘alms’.

‘aphiemi’ (b) to ‘acquit’

The point which Jesus is making about forgiveness in this parable (using ‘aphiemi’), echoed by Paul in the two passages we have looked at (using ‘charizomai’) is, of course, most memorably expressed in the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses”, we are taught to pray, “as we forgive those who trespass against us”. If my counting is correct, ‘aphiemi’ is used 152 times altogether in the NT, and in 50 of these instances it means to ‘forgive’. Of these, in turn, 12 occur in the two versions of the Lord’s Prayer (in Matthew 6 and Luke 11), and in Mark’s expression of the same teaching in a different context in 11.25-6 (though the 2 uses in v.26 do not appear in all the MSS). The obligation to forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven is one of the Christian duties most emphatically urged on us in scripture - and by Christ himself. Are ‘aphiemi’ and ‘charizomai’ synonyms? There is, perhaps, a slight difference of connotation between them. One implies ‘grace’ (‘charis’, as we have seen’ is the root of ‘charizomai’), while the other, perhaps, has its background in law. In Classical Greek ‘aphiemi’ was used to mean (among other meanings) to ‘acquit’ someone of a charge or to ‘let someone go free’ from a court of law. If ‘charizomai’ implies that forgiveness is a free gift, a gift of grace, ‘aphiemi’ reminds us that God can only ‘acquit’ us because the due punishment has already been paid by Jesus. This is why John says (1 John 1.9) that if we confess our sins, “God is faithful and just to forgive us (‘aphiemi’) our sins”: it would be unjust of God to demand from us, if truly penitent, a debt that has already been paid on our behalf.

Romans 5.5

But while the sense of ‘acquittal’ may be helpful and appropriate when applied to God’s forgiveness of us, it is not at all appropriate to our forgiveness of others. We are bidden to forgive others not on the grounds that their debt to us has already been paid, but because our debt to God has already been paid. Jesus sums up the point of the parable, and so answers Peter’s initial question “how often am I to forgive my brother?”, in the final verse of the chapter (18.35): “My heavenly Father will punish you [as the king in the parable punished the unforgiving servant] if you do not, each of you, forgive your brother from your heart.” Forgiveness through gritted teeth is not the kind of forgiveness that Jesus is urging on us here. But the lust for revenge and the perverted pleasure of nursing a grievance are basic ingredients of our fallen human nature, deeply ingrained in our hearts: forgiveness is not coded for in our DNA. But the great truth this parable has taught us is that God is a God of forgiveness, which means that his Holy Spirit, too, is, among many other things, the Spirit of forgiveness. When Paul writes (Romans 5.5) that “the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” he puts the finishing touch to this parable, showing how its impossible demand can become possible as our unforgiving hearts are melted by God’s love as his Spirit works within us.

‘aphiemi’ (c) to ‘let go’, ‘leave behind’

It is in this context that another meaning of ‘aphiemi’ becomes helpful and appropriate. In all three synoptic gospels, the first usage of ‘aphiemi’ in Jesus’ public ministry relates to the call of the disciples. Simon and Andrew respond to Jesus’ call by ‘leaving behind (‘aphiemi’) their nets’ (Matt 4.20, Mark 1.18), and James and John ‘left behind their boat’ (Matt 4.22) and their father Zebedee (Mark 1.20). Luke combines both calls as the sequel to the miraculous haul of fish: all four “left behind everything and followed him” (Luke 5.11). Is it, I wonder, deliberate irony on the part of both Matthew and Mark that the disciples, who began their discipleship by ‘leaving behind’ their fishing and their families to follow Jesus, are recorded as ending it (as they must have thought) with the words “they all left Jesus behind (‘aphiemi’ again) and fled” (Matt 26.56, Mark 14.50)? In any event, this sense of ‘aphiemi’ gives us an essential ingredient in forgiveness, the ‘letting go’ and ‘leaving behind’ of our sense of grievance, rather than nursing it and feeding it and allowing it to take root in our hearts. The writer to the Hebrews uses this powerful image as he urges his readers to be holy: “Watch out that you do not fall short of the grace of God, and that no bitterness takes root in your heart and grows into a poisonous plant which will choke your spiritual growth” (Hebrews 12.15, paraphrased). The mention of ‘grace’ here takes us back to ‘charizomai’, the other word for to ‘forgive’. If God’s forgiveness of us is truly an act of grace, his undeserved and unearned love for us, then our forgiveness of others “from the heart” is also only possible through his grace at work within us by his Holy Spirit. The word for ‘bitterness’ here is ‘pikria’; it is only used 4 times in the NT, and one of its other occurrences is also relevant to forgiveness (the other two are in Acts 8.23 and Romans 3.14). In Ephesians 4.30 Paul urges his readers not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God. Therefore”, he goes on - for once he does not actually use this favourite word of his (‘oun’), but his train of thought is clear - “let all resentment and bitterness and anger --- be removed from you” (v.31). ‘Bitterness’ is almost a synonym for ‘unforgiveness’ (a word which ought to exist, though I am not sure it does!), so that if we cling to our bitterness and resentment we grieve the Holy Spirit, in two ways: he himself is the Spirit of forgiveness, as we have seen, so that forgiveness is part of holiness; and he is the only one who can breathe a spirit of forgiveness into our bitter hearts: if we refuse to forgive, we are rejecting his ministry within us.

makrothumo, makrothumia

Before we move on from this parable and focus more fully on ‘splanchnizomai’, there is one more word in it which is worth a brief study, another word in the ‘vocabulary of grace’. We have already seen that this parable is a story of two halves; to this we can now add that each of the two halves is itself divided into two: the debtor’s plea and the creditor’s response. The point of the parable is sharpened by the parallelism of the two pleas, which makes the contrast between the two responses all the more shocking. The two debtors plead in almost identical words: “Have patience with me, and I will repay you” (the first debtor adds “everything”: Matt 18.26,29). The word translated “have patience” is ‘makrothumo’. This word occurs 10 times in the NT, and its related noun ‘makrothumia’ 14 times. In addition, there is an adverb, ‘makrothumos’, which is used just once, when Paul, in his trial before Agrippa, asks him to hear him “patiently” (Acts 26.3). Of these 25 instances, 7 refer to the ‘makrothumia’ of God, though to these could be added the appeal of the first debtor to his master, the King. The remainder refer to ‘makrothumia’ as an important virtue, or strength of character, which Christians are urged to aspire to. It is in the first group of its uses that the word belongs to the ‘vocabulary of grace’, and we will look at these instances first.

‘makrothumia’ [a] a characteristic of God
(i) 2 Peter 3.9

As a characteristic of God, ‘makrothumia’ could, perhaps, be best translated as ‘patient forbearance’. Forbearance (as can be seen!) is some of the way towards forgiveness, but not the whole way: it could be paraphrased as ‘a stay of execution’. The wonder of the first debtor’s experience - and he stands for all who have received God’s forgiveness in Christ - is that he begs for his master’s forbearance but receives his full forgiveness. This idea of ‘a stay of execution’ is central to the meaning of God’s ‘makrothumia’ in several of its appearances. The clearest statement of this principle occurs in the much-neglected Second Letter of Peter: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise - not, at least, as some think of slowness; rather, he is showing towards us his patient forbearance (‘makrothumia’), for he does not want any to be destroyed but to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3.9). This is the basic pattern: God’s forbearance, man’s repentance, God’s forgiveness. Another much-neglected book, in the OT this time, gives us the same truth from a different angle: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed [as we deserve], for his compassions (‘oiktirmoi’ in the LXX) never fail” (Lam. 3.22 - then comes the one verse from this book which is well known: “--- they are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness” - NIV). Peter in his first letter has already given us a specific example of this principle at work “in the days of Noah, when the patient forbearance of God waited [before bringing judgement upon the world] while the ark was being built” (1 Peter 3.20). Peter (back to his second letter) describes Noah as a “preacher of righteousness” (2.5), so perhaps God’s ‘stay of execution’ was to give men time to respond to his preaching and repent - but in vain, for “[only] a few, that is 8 souls, went into the ark and came safely through the waters of the flood” (v.20).

(ii) Romans 2.3-4 chrestos

Of the 14 occurrences of the noun ‘makrothumia’ in the NT, 10 are in Paul’s letters, and it is he who expresses, in a contemporary context, the principle that we have just seen illustrated by reference to Noah and the ark. It is almost as if Paul has taken on Noah’s mantle as ‘a preacher of righteousness’, and is confronting his readers with the same challenge and the same truth that Noah might have proclaimed to his sceptical onlookers as the ark was being built - ‘Noah’s folly’, perhaps they dubbed it. Paul, too, asserts the reality of God’s judgement on human wickedness, and challenges his (representative) reader: “Do you really think --- that you will escape God’s judgement? Do you really treat with such contempt the riches of his generosity - the staying of his hand and his patient forbearance? Do you not realise that [the purpose of] his generosity is to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2.3-4). The two words I have translated ‘generosity’ here are closely related, and we have met them both before: the latter is the adjective ‘chrestos’, used here as a noun, and the former its close relative, the noun ‘chrestotes’. The adjective we met in Ephesians 4, 32, where I suggested that in Paul’s day ‘chrestos’ would have sounded much the same as ‘Christos’, so that ‘Christlike’ might be a better translation than NIV’s ‘kind’. To translate it here as “the Christlikeness of God is leading you to repentance” makes an interesting point: like Son like Father. The noun ‘chrestotes’ is used 7 times in the NT, exclusively by Paul, and it is striking how often this occurs in close proximity to ‘makrothumia’.

(iii) Romans 9. 15ff: Pharaoh

Paul not only sets out the principle behind God’s ‘patient forbearance’, as does Peter, he also gives us two, strongly contrasting, examples of it in practice. The first occurs only a few chapters further on in Romans, a difficult passage dealing with God’s sovereign election. Both examples feature the verb ‘eleo’, which we also came across earlier, since it is used twice in the parable of the unforgiving servant, meaning to ‘have mercy on’. The first example of God’s ‘makrothumia is, remarkably, King Pharaoh. . In Romans 9.15 Paul quotes God’s words to Moses in Exodus 33. 19: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and pity for those for whom I will have pity” - the two verbs being ‘eleo’ and its virtual synonym ‘oikteiro’. He draws from this verse the conclusion that (paraphrasing) “[salvation] depends not on the person who wants it or who runs after it, but entirely on God’s mercy” (v.16): God is sovereign, and we can no more question his authority as Creator than a clay pot can complain to the potter (vv. 20-21). This point Paul makes emphatically, using two consecutive rhetorical questions, the first demanding the answer ‘no’ - “can the pot complain to the potter? - and the second the answer ‘yes’ - “surely the potter has the right to make what he wants?” Now, however, unusually - even uncharacteristically - Paul poses his next question, our central target in this passage, as an open-ended ‘what if?’ question. The MSS disagree (over the insertion or exclusion of an ‘and’ between verses 22 and 23) whether these are separate questions, or whether the second depends on the first; my translation tries to get the best of both worlds: “What if God, wanting to demonstrate his wrath and make known his power, bore with great forbearance (‘makrothumia’) those of his creatures, like Pharaoh, who were objects of his wrath headed for destruction? What if he did this that he might make known [by this contrast] the glorious riches lavished on those of his creatures who enjoyed his mercy, prepared in advance for glory in heaven?” We might say, then, that in Pharaoh’s case God’s ‘makrothumia’ gave him enough rope to hang himself with by the hardening of his own heart - for God could have gone straight from plague 1 to plague 10. But the main purpose of his forbearance, as Paul showed us in the previous verse, is to give sinners enough rope to climb out of the dark pit in which they are plunged. This is Paul’s own testimony in our next example.

(iv) 1 Timothy 1. 12-16: Paul

This time he is writing to Timothy: “I give thanks to the one who has given me inner strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because, in appointing me to the ministry [of the gospel] he considered me trustworthy - me who previously was a blasphemer and persecutor and man of violence! But I received his mercy (‘eleo’) because I did what I did in ignorance and unbelief. But, great as was my sin, much greater still was the grace of our Lord poured out over me, together with the faith and love found in Christ Jesus. It is a faithful saying and worthy of full acceptance that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - and I am the foremost of sinners. But this was why I received mercy (‘eleo’ again) so that in me foremost Christ Jesus might demonstrate the full extent of his patient forbearance (‘makrothumia’), making me the prototype of all those who were going to believe in him and receive eternal life” (1 Tim 1. 12-16). It is not often, I imagine, that Pharaoh and Paul share the same sentence - as here! Both exercised God’s ‘patient forbearance’, resisting his grace and persecuting his people. But thereafter their stories went in diametrically opposite directions: Pharaoh came to grief, Paul came to faith, Pharaoh ‘a vessel of God’s wrath’, Paul a vessel of his grace.


Nor are ‘makrothumia’ and ‘eleo’ the only words to appear in both passages: the verb translated ‘demonstrate’, ‘endeiknumai’ in Greek, also occurs in both. A different compound of this verb gives us the English word ‘paradigm’: Pharaoh is a ‘paradigm’ of God’s wrath and judgement - to persist in disobedience is fatal. Paul is a ‘paradigm’ (as well as a ‘prototype’) of God’s mercy and grace: no sinner is beyond his reach, such is his ‘patient forbearance’. This verb is stronger than the more normal ‘reveal’ or ‘make known’; it suggests a class of Physics students having a fundamental law of nature ‘demonstrated’ to them in a laboratory. In the same way, what God ‘demonstrates’ through sacred history we would do well to take seriously. It is a fundamental law of God’s nature that it is two-sided: God is light; God is love. He treats those he has created either with wrath or with mercy; there is no middle way. Paul makes this point again in Romans 11, this time with crisp economy. The Jews have, he says, for the most part rejected the gospel, and so have been ‘cut off’ from God’s ‘olive-tree’, while the gentiles who believed the gospel have been ‘grafted in’ to it. “Look then”, he says - that is, “take careful note of this ‘demonstration’” - “at the generosity and severity of God” (Romans 11. 22). The word for ‘generosity’, once again, is ‘chrestotes’.

(v) ‘makrothumo’: a difficult verse - Luke 18.7

We have, then, looked at 3 instances of God’s ‘makrothumia’ in Peter’s letters, and 3 more in Paul’s. The final instance, of the verb rather than the noun, occurs in Luke’s gospel at the end of the parable of the ‘unjust judge’ - or ‘the persistent widow’, to put a more positive spin on the story! The usage of ‘makrothumo’ here is a real problem - and this paragraph is not for the faint-hearted! The parable is a ‘how much more?’ parable (see Luke 11 .13). If an unjust judge finally gives the widow the justice she deserves, not because he is just but because he is worn out by her incessant pleas, ‘how much more’ will a perfectly just God respond to the pleas of his chosen people? (Luke 18. 1-6) So far,so straightforward. Verse 7 begins with a baffling Greek idiom: the main verb is in the aorist subjunctive, prefaced by a double negative. There are two words for ‘not’ in Greek, ‘ou’ and ‘me’ (pronounced ‘ooh’ and ‘may’!); in this idiom both are used together. In a statement, this idiom is used to express a strong, emphatic negative; the best, perhaps, of several encouraging usages of this is Jesus’ promise: “The one who comes to me I will not cast out - no, certainly not” (John 6.37, over-translated to make the point!) Here, however, the sentence is in the form of a question, a rhetorical question, so that the polarity is reversed, so as to demand, with great emphasis, the answer ‘yes!’. This we can translate: “Will not God act to vindicate his elect, who cry out to him day and night? He most certainly will!” What I have added as an emphatic answer to the question is only implied in the Greek. Once one has understood this idiom, the first part of the verse is thus perfectly clear in its meaning; it is the next 4 words, one of which is ‘makrothumo’, which pose the problem: “--- and show-his-patient-forbearance over them”. AV translates “though he bear long with them”, which turns into a subordinate clause what is clearly another main clause attached to the first by ‘and’; nor does ‘though’ seem to be consistent with the train of thought, which implies that God will both “act in vindication and ---” (presumably) do something similar. NIV’s version, it seems to me, is even less plausible: it poses the second half of the sentence as a separate question (quite reasonably): “will he keep putting them off?” But whereas the first question demands a resounding “yes, he will!”, this one demands, from the context, an equally resounding “no, he won’t!”, while Greek idiom requires the same ‘yes’ as in the first part. NEB offers a third way: “ --- his chosen people who cry out to him day and night, while he listens patiently”. In the Greek, “who cry out” is expressed in a single word as a participle agreeing with “his chosen”, and I don’t see how a main clause introduced by ‘and’ can be attached to a participle, for a conjunction (‘and’) can only ‘join together’ two equal things - two clauses, two nouns, two adjectives, and so on. We therefore have an impasse. Following Paul’s example (in Romans 9.22-3, which we looked at a little earlier,) I will preface my tentative solution to this problem with a “what if?”. What if Luke uses ‘makrothumo’ here in a slightly different sense from elsewhere in the NT? This is the only time he uses either the verb or its associated noun, and it is a word not found in Classical Greek (though used quite often in the LXX). It is a word of two halves: ‘makros’, meaning ‘big’ and ‘thumos’, meaning ‘heart’, not in the literal sense, but as the seat of the emotions. To be ‘big-hearted’ certainly includes being ‘patiently forbearing’, but the idea of ‘generosity’ also comes quickly to mind - and we have already noted how often the noun ‘makrothumia’ is associated in the NT with ‘chrestotes’, ‘goodness’, or ‘generosity’. The other linguistic point to notice in this verse is that the first verb, to ‘do’ or ‘work’ or ‘perform’ is in the aorist, suggesting a single, decisive act of vindication, while ‘makrothumo’ is in the present tense, sometimes described as the ‘present continuous’, as it expresses an ongoing action or behaviour. I therefore offer the following as a translation of this difficult verse: “Will not God act [speedily, v.8] to vindicate his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night? Assuredly he will! And will he not continue to pour out upon them his generous goodness? Indeed he will” (Luke 18.7).
It is, then, on the grounds of God’s ‘makrothumia’ that Jesus’ disciples “ought always to pray and never give up” (Luke 18.1).

(vi) ‘makrothumos’ in the OT: Exodus 34.6

As a ‘P.S.’ to this study of the NT’s uses of ‘makrothumia’ and its verb as an attribute of God, it is worth adding a brief look at 3 OT verses (in their LXX version, of course) which feature much of this ‘vocabulary of grace’; grace is not an exclusively NT phenomenon! Surprisingly, perhaps, it is the adjective ‘makrothumos’, absent from the NT, which is found in all these verses. The first is God’s own revelation of his character to Moses on Sinai (his second visit, after the golden calf apostasy): “The Lord God is compassionate and merciful, long-suffering and full of mercy” (Ex. 34.6, translated from the LXX). The 4 adjectives used here are ‘oiktirmon’, derived from the verb ‘oiktiro’, to ‘pity’, which we came across earlier in Romans 9.15 - but ‘pitiful’ is misleading, so I have translated it ‘compassionate’ even though ‘splanchnizomai’ does not appear); then ‘eleemon’ from the verb ‘eleo’, to ‘have mercy’; then ‘makrothumos’ (long-suffering’ is the AV translation, which I have borrowed in preference to ‘patiently forbearing’); and finally a superlative version of ‘eleemon’, ‘polueleos’ - the ‘polu-‘ prefix simply meaning ‘much’. It could be said that all the uses of these words in the NT to describe God owe their origins to this great verse. The next verse, Numbers 14.18, is also an instructive P.S. to the parable of the unjust judge, being an object lesson in intercessory prayer. In chapter 13 the 12 spies bring back their report on the land of Canaan: the majority verdict (10 to 2!) is that to take possession of the land is mission impossible. As a result, the people rebel, and God threatens to destroy them entirely - genocide. Then Moses prays one of the great prayers of intercession in scripture (14. 13-19), during which he reminds God of his own self-portrait on Sinai as “the Lord long-suffering and full of mercy” - he only uses 2 of the 4 adjectives, but it is enough to make the point. Moses’ example teaches us that all true prayer must be based four-square on what scripture reveals of the character of the God we are praying to. The final verse is near the end of the OT, Joel 2.13. Once again, the words are God’s own words channelled through the mouth of the prophet. He appeals to his people, in the face of impending judgement, to “turn to me with all your heart ---; [13] rend your hearts and not your garments and turn to the Lord your God, for he is ‘merciful and compassionate, long-suffering and full of mercy’”. Here are the same 4 adjectives as in Exodus 34.6, though the first two are in reverse order. This is indeed the vocabulary of grace, and the portrait of a gracious God.

[b] ‘makrothumia’ as a Christian virtue
(i) James and Hebrews

‘makrothumia’ as a Christian virtue is not really part of the ‘vocabulary of grace’ - more the ‘vocabulary of graciousness’, perhaps - but, for completeness’s sake it deserves a quick run through. Just as with people, you can tell a lot about a word by the company it keeps. There are two words in particular in whose company ‘makrothumia’ is often found, each providing us with a slightly different connotation, and perhaps translation. The first such word is the verb ‘hupomeno’, to ‘endure, with its related noun ‘hupomone’, ‘endurance, and in such contexts the words are virtual synonyms. If God’s ‘makrothumia’ can generally be translated ‘patient forbearance’, then the ‘makrothumia’ which James urges on his readers can best be translated ‘patient endurance’. At the beginning of his letter (1. 3-4) he uses ‘hupomene’ twice, the first being “the testing of your faith [by various kinds of trials, v.2] produces ‘patient endurance”. He picks up this theme again, and treats it more fully, in chapter 5, this time with a threefold use of the verb ‘makrothumo’: “And so, my brothers and sisters, endure patiently until the Lord comes. As an example, look at the farmer as he eagerly awaits a precious harvest from his land, patiently enduring with it until the early and late rains come [to swell the grain]. You too, in the same way, endure patiently and be stout-hearted (5. 8-9 - note the ‘ring-structure’ here: injunction - illustration - repeated injunction; we will meet this stylistic device again later on). He next cites as a scriptural example “the patient endurance (the noun here, ‘makrothumia’) and the sufferings of the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (v.10), and then finishes the section by mentioning the (proverbial) ‘patience’ of Job - but this time using ‘hupomone’. The writer to the Hebrews has a similar pastoral concern for his readers, urging them to “continue to the end” (his version of James’s “until the Lord comes”), “showing the same eagerness [in ministry], so that your hope may be fully realised. Don’t get slack, but imitate those who, with faith and patient endurance, are inheriting the promises of God” (Heb. 6. 11-12) Then he, too, like James, adds a scriptural example, Abraham, who “in this way, by patient endurance, obtained the promise of God” (v.15).

(ii) Paul:
[a] ‘endurance’

Paul, too, sometimes uses ‘makrothumia’ in this rather limited, passive sense of ‘patient endurance’ - ‘gritted-teeth makrothumia’, we might label it. He tells Timothy that “you have followed faithfully in my teaching --- my patient endurance, my love, my endurance (‘hupomone’) in the persecutions and sufferings that came my way in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra” (2 Tim 3. 10-11). In the next chapter, he tells Timothy to be similarly persevering: “ --- reprove, rebuke, exhort with all patient endurance in your teaching.” (4.2). Patience, even through gritted teeth, is an essential quality for a teacher! Paul’s description of his ministry in Corinth seems at first to be using ‘makrothumia’ in the same sense and in the same company: “In everything we commend ourselves to you as servants of God, in much endurance (‘hupomeme’), in afflictions, in crises --- etc. --- etc. ---” (2 Cor 6.4-5); then in verse 6 comes a change: “in holiness, in knowledge, in ‘makrothumia’, in ‘chrestotes’, in the Holy Spirit, in unfeigned love”. For Paul, ‘makrothumia’ is as much about a gracious heart and a generous spirit at about gritted teeth. As observed earlier, ‘makrothumia’ often appears, as here, in company with ‘chrestotes’, which means ‘goodness’ or ‘generosity’, and in this company its meaning seems to shade away from mere passive endurance to active benevolence: a ‘big heart’ is a warm heart.

[b] ‘benevolence’: a fruit of the Spirit and a facet of love

We will look at just three more instances of Paul’s use of ‘makrothumia’ in this sense; in the first two it appears in very exalted company indeed, perhaps the two most famous lists in the NT. The first is Paul’s description of ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ in Galatians 5. 22-23. The first three are easy to translate: “Love, joy, peace ---”; then come (in Greek!) “makrothumia, chrestotes, agathosune”. The third word here we have not met before; it is the noun formed from ‘agathos’, ‘good’, and so simply means ‘goodness’. NIV and NEB both translate the first two as “patience, kindness”. ‘Kindness’ always seems to me to be rather an anodyne translation of ‘chrestotes’, but since ‘goodness’ is already spoken for, it is hard to find an alternative. Similarly, ‘patience’ falls well short of the richness we have discovered in ‘makrothumia’. Since the Spirit is the Spirit of God, perhaps we should expect his fruit here to be the fruit of divine forbearance rather than of human endurance, the generosity of spirit which resists the natural urge to ‘get our own back’ when aggrieved, or to ‘have the last word’ in every argument. Maybe AV’s (much loved) “longsuffering, gentleness, goodness” is nearer the mark. The other passage is Paul’s great pen-portrait of love (‘agape’ love, God’s love) in 1 Corinthians 13. 4-7 - a passage which many believe is also a character-study of Jesus himself. Here he uses verbs rather than nouns: “Love is-generously-forbearing (‘makrothumo’), love is-rich-in-goodness” (‘chresteuomai’, the verb related to ‘chrestotes’, and its only occurrence in the NT).

[c] Colossians 3.12: ‘anechomai’

Our final verse on ‘makrothumia’ is Colossians 3.12, which helpfully pulls together some of the foregoing threads, and conveniently navigates us back, at last, to ‘splanchnizomai’. Once again we find ‘makrothumia’ keeping company with ‘chrestotes - or ‘teamed with’ it, since Paul’s metaphor here is of clothing. What, then, should a Christian ‘wear’? The first two words are, literally, ‘bowels (‘splanchna) of mercy’, and we are once more among the ‘vocabulary of grace’: since God is ‘compassionate and merciful’, so also should Christians be - and so can Christians be, if God’s Spirit is at work producing his fruit within us. Then comes ‘chrestotes’ - ‘generous goodness’, perhaps, then “humble-mindedness, gentleness, makrothumia”, and here the sense of ‘forbearance’ is made explicit by the next word, “forbearing each other”. The verb here is ‘anechomai’, literally, to ‘hold oneself back’ from the natural impulse to anger or revenge when irritated or wronged by our fellow human-beings, and especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. ‘anechomai’ is linked here with another verb we looked at earlier, ‘charizomai’, to ‘forgive’; and this juxtaposition emphasises the point made earlier that forbearance is well on the way to forgiveness. And Paul’s reminder that we should forgive others “just as the Lord forgave us” (v.13) takes us back once more to the parable of the unforgiving servant.

B: The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15.11-31).

That parable was the first of the three which contain ‘splanchnizomai’. We asked three questions of it: ‘who?’, ‘why?’ and ‘what?’ Who was moved to compassion? God, represented as King and Master; why was he so moved? By the hopeless and helpless plight of his indebted servant; and what did his compassion lead him to do? Not only to ‘forbear’ (‘makrothumo’), as he was begged, but actually to forgive (‘aniemi’) the whole debt. The other two ‘splanchnizomai’ parables are both in Luke, perhaps the two best known stories that Jesus told. We will ask them the same three questions. The first is the parable of the prodigal son. It begins: “A man had two sons (Luke 15.11). Firstly, then, ‘who’? This ‘man’ (‘anthropos’ in Greek, a human being, not necessarily a male) clearly represents God himself, not, this time, “a man who was a king” (‘anthropos’ again, Matt. 18.23), but God the loving Father. The younger son, not content to stay at home and help his father run the estate, demands his share of his future inheritance now, and his father graciously gives it to him. Then, we may infer, he sadly waves him goodbye as he departs “into a far country” (v.13). We may also infer that he is constantly on the lookout for his son’s return, for when he eventually does return he sees him “while he is still far off” (v.20), the same word for ‘far’ as in verse 13. At this sight, he is “moved to compassion” (v.20). Why? It is the sense of sight (as we shall see repeatedly in Jesus’ healing ministry) that prompts the feeling of compassion - and his son must be a sight indeed! He has squandered all his money, been trapped in a famine and been compelled to work as a swineherd: he must look gaunt and emaciated and filthy. But his father, so far from being angry at his son’s behaviour, or repelled by his appearance, is so overjoyed that he runs out to meet him (men of standing don’t run!), flings his arms round his neck and kisses him. This is something else we will see frequently in Jesus’ ministry: true compassion prompts a ‘hands-on’ response. But this is only part of the answer to our ‘what?’ question, the compulsive element in compassion, the outworking of strong emotion. The more considered response is still to come. “Take me back as one of your hired servants”, the repentant son pleads (v.21). But, as in the previous parable, “God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph 3.20): he forgives the debtor all his unpayable debt, and he fully restores the prodigal to his honoured position in the household and to his status as a son. Jesus is here reminding us in parable of the great truth which his Father revealed in person to Moses: “the Lord God is compassionate and merciful, long-suffering and full of mercy” (Ex 34.6); and because of this ‘compassion’, however great our debt and however long we may have been in “a far country”, we can, if we return home in repentance, be ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’.

‘The Unforgiving Servant’ and ‘The Prodigal Son’: 3 links.
[a] God and man - ‘anthropos

Before moving on to our third parable, it is worth pausing for a moment to draw attention to three interesting links between the two parables we have just looked at. Our main focus, of course, is that they both contain ‘splanchnizomai’, but there is also another verbal link between them that we have already glanced at: the word ‘anthropos’. There are two words for ‘man’ in Greek, ‘aner’, which is gender-specific - a ‘male’ man, and ‘anthropos’, a human being, man or woman. It is this latter word that Jesus uses when he refers to himself as “the Son of Man”. The parable of the unforgiving servant begins: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man [who was] a king” (Matt 18. 23). The word ‘man’ here is entirely redundant: a king is by definition an ‘anthropos’. The parable of the prodigal son begins: “A certain ‘anthropos’ had two sons” (Luke 15.11); why not ‘aner’ here, to show that it is the father who is being referred to? Nor are these the only two parables to begin like this; there are 6 others in Mathew alone (making 7 in all!) which begin in this way, some of them repeated in Mark and Luke - so that it is clearly not just a stylistic peculiarity of Matthew. The parable of the wedding banquet begins with exactly the same seven (!) words in Greek: “The Kingdom of Heaven is likened to a man [who was] a king” (Matt 22.2). And Matthew, too, like Luke, has a parable- a much shorter one - beginning “a man had two sons” (21.28). Two more parables are about “a man who was the master of a household”, the parable of the tenants of the vineyard (21.33), and the parable of the labourers hired to work in the (same?) vineyard (20.1). In the other two, the parables of the wheat and the weeds (13.24) and of the talents (25.14), the ‘anthropos’ is clearly Jesus the Son of Man, rather than God the Father, as in the others - and in the ‘Prodigal Son’. It seems to me a remarkable fact that Jesus persistently likens his Heavenly Father to a ‘human being’, a fact that, in my experience, does not get remarked on very often by preachers and commentators. But in fact this is what we might expect of Jesus’ teaching. If the incarnation brought God into our world in human form, “Emmanuel”, “God with us”, then Jesus’ mission was twofold: not just to die a sacrificial death, but also to live a sinless life, and so to reveal to us as much of God as is comprehensible within the limits of humanity. When Jesus likened God to a loving human father or a merciful human king he was simply doing in parable what he was already living out in person, making God real to us in terms we could comprehend. He was, in effect, preaching what he practised. If “God made man in his own image” (Gen. 1.27), then not only is man in some ways like God (‘theomorphic’?), but also - a truth just as important but rather less often explored - God is in some ways like us: ‘anthropomorphic’.

[b] works and grace: ‘misthios

The second link between these two parables is that they both express the contrast between works and grace. The servant and the son are both in a desperate situation. The servant represents all those who, by countless failures to live up to God’s standard of perfect holiness, have built up an unpayable debt; while the son stands for all those who actively rebel against God and run away from him into a life of hedonistic self-indulgence: both are sinners facing judgement. This much is immediately apparent. But it is important to note the link between their respective responses to the ‘authority figure’ in each story - that is, God. The debtor pleads: “Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything”; the son says “make me a hired servant”, in effect, “I will pay my way, I will earn my keep, I will work my passage”. Both believe that they can work their way to forgiveness and restoration by their own efforts. The word the son uses for a ‘hired servant’ is ‘misthios’, and these are its only 3 occurrences in the NT (or 2, since not all the MSS repeat the second half of v. 19 in v.21). It is derived from the very similar, and much more common, noun ‘misthos’, a ‘wage’, or, in some contexts’ a ‘reward’. As one might expect, it is Paul who provides the best caption for the verbal picture Jesus has painted. First, he quotes his favourite OT verse: “Abraham had faith in God, and his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15.6); then he adds: “For the one who works, his wage (‘misthos’) is not reckoned to him by grace, it is what he is owed; but for the one who does not work [ for his salvation] but has faith in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Romans 4.3-5). Two chapters later, he puts it even more crisply: “The wages of sin is death, but God’s gift of grace is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6.23). Both the servant and the son try to redeem themselves by their own efforts, their ‘works’, but are, in fact, saved by grace, God’s grace. There are two small details in the latter parable which support this point. Grace is a free gift; while the son is in the ‘far country’, in the midst of the famine, we read that “no one would give him anything” (Luke 15.16), but when he gets home his father tells the servants to “give him a ring for his finger” (v.22 - an ‘eternity’ ring?). In the same verse, the servants are told to “bring out the best robe and clothe him in it”. This may remind us of Jesus’ robe (the word is different, but the imagery is the same), which we looked at near the beginning of this study. This robe was the robe of Jesus’ righteousness, a seamless robe symbolizing his sinless life, for which the soldiers at the cross “cast lots”. The rest of his clothes were part of their perks, and so of their pay (‘misthos’), but the robe was God’s gift, for it was he who determined the fall of the dice, and it is he alone who clothes in the robe of Jesus’ righteousness those who put their faith in him. For the prodigal son, too, perhaps, this ‘robe’ was the symbol of a fresh start and a new life, fully forgiven and restored to his sonship. As his father said: “This my son was dead, but now he has come back to life” (v.24); he might equally well have said: ‘he has been born again’.

[c] tax-collectors and Pharisees

The third link between these two parables is the most obvious: both are stories of two halves, and neither has a happy ending. There is, in fact, a third parable which conforms to this two-part pattern, the parable of the wedding banquet (Matt 22.1-14), which contrasts grace in the first half - a free lunch! - with lack of grace in the second, the wedding guest not wearing the offered wedding-robe (another version of the ‘robe of righteousness’ imagery we have just looked at), but (by implication) ‘trusting in his own righteousness’. In ‘our’ two parables, however, it is the second half which carries the main thrust of Jesus’ teaching, as the context of each shows. The first parable, as we have seen, answers Peter’s question “how many times am I to forgive my brother?”, the answer coming in the second half when the forgiven servant fails to forgive his fellow-servant, making the point that we should forgive others as we have been forgiven. The context of the parable of the Prodigal Son is set out right at the start of Luke 15: “All the tax-collectors and sinners were clustering round Jesus to hear him; and the Pharisees and scribes muttered angrily among themselves, saying ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (vv. 1-2). The two shorter parables that follow emphasise the joyful celebrations that mark the finding of the lost sheep (vv.4-7) and the widow’s lost coin (8-10 - the same male-female gender balance here as in Mark 2. 21-2, though there it is ladies first!). The next parable should, perhaps, be called the ‘Parable of the Resentful Son’, for, remarkably, it is the dutiful, conformist, law-abiding elder brother who is the villain of the piece and the main point of the story. If the errant younger brother who returns home to his father and finds forgiveness is the representative of the ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ who came to Jesus, then surely the upright but self-righteous Pharisees are mirrored in the story by the elder brother, whose indignation at the generous welcome home given to the younger is both so understandable and so unloving. Both parables portray in their first half ‘amazing grace’, but in the second half appalling ungraciousness. God’s grace is gloriously free, but it does impose on those who receive it an obligation; an obligation, firstly, that we ourselves forgive others, and then that we welcome into our fellowship with open hearts new Christians whom God has forgiven; even when they may appear to be rather less than sanctified, that will give us something in common! But though this second, ‘elder brother’, half of the story, as in the previous one, rather sours the mood, it does give us one of the loveliest verses in scripture, as the father - our Father - says to his son, and so to us: “My child, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours”.

[C] The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10. 30-37).

The third parable featuring ‘splanchnizomai’ is just as well known as the previous one; it is, of course, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Its very familiarity may blind us to several unusual features. It begins like many other parables (as noted above): “A certain man ---” (‘anthropos’), but this man turns out not to be the main character of the story: the real hero makes a late entry onto the stage. Nor is the story strictly a parable - at first reading, anyway (but see below!). The Greek word ‘parabole’ literally means a ‘comparison’ - even more literally, a ‘throwing’ two things ‘alongside’ each other, just as ‘parallel’ lines lie ‘alongside’ each other. Most parables are allegories, with many, if not most, of their details standing for something else - metaphors, in fact. The story may be about human beings (‘anthropos’) but the significance is spiritual. In Matthew 13 there are seven parables; the last five all begin “the Kingdom of Heaven is like ---”, with a simple comparison to follow. The first two, the parables of the sower and of the ‘wheat and the weeds’, are the only two parables in the gospels to which Jesus himself supplies an interpretation, decoding all the details for his disciples’, that is, our, benefit. These two are clearly allegories, and it seems to me that, despite the reservations of many commentators, many other parables can be ‘decoded’ in similar detail. But, in its context, the ‘Good Samaritan’ is not a parable at all; rather, it is an object lesson, with a multiple-choice test at the end to check that the lesson has been learned. It is like the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector a few chapters later (Luke 18. 9-14), where both the characters stand only for themselves, though they illustrate two diametrically opposed attitudes to prayer. Here, the Samaritan on the one hand and the priest and the Levite on the other stand for diametrically opposite attitudes towards loving one’s neighbour.

(1) The ‘Good Samaritan’ as an object lesson.

We will start, then, by treating this parable not as an allegory but as an object lesson. Even in this sense, though, there is an oddity, or an anomaly, between the story and the lesson it purports to illustrate. Jesus quotes the summary of the Law (from Leviticus 19 18): “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, and the lawyer who had asked him the original question now asks him (typical lawyer!) to define his terms: “Who is my neighbour? Who exactly is it that I am commanded to love?” He is, perhaps, like the man in the story who, late in life - a life of sinful self-indulgence - took up bible-reading, and explained it to his puzzled family as ‘looking for loopholes’. In fact, the question, in the Greek, at least, contains its own answer: the word for ‘neighbour’ literally means “the [one] close [to me], or ‘nearby’ - a demanding standard, since those closest to us are often the hardest to love. Jesus’ story, however, and its subsequent question turn the lawyer’s quibble on its head. Jesus asks, not ‘which of the three saw the victim as his neighbour?’, but rather, “Which of these three do you think was neighbour to the man who fell among thieves?” (Luke 10.36). The story teaches that I should love someone not because he is my neighbour, but because I am his neighbour - and it was clearly the Samaritan who saw himself as the neighbour to the victim.

Who? Why? What?

Let us, then, apply to this parable the same three questions as before. Who was it who “showed compassion”? It was neither the priest nor the Levite, who, so far from getting ‘close’ to the victim “passed by on the other side” and gave him as wide a berth as possible. No; it was, of course, the Samaritan, the representative of a race with which the Jews were barely on speaking terms; indeed, the lawyer, in answer to Jesus’ question, cannot bring himself to let the word pass his lips, but just says “the one who showed (literally, ‘did’) mercy” (v. 37 - more on this later). Clearly Jesus is making the point that neighbourliness should not be confined to those within our own cosy coterie, or who share our language or our values; our neighbour is, rather, any one near us who happens to need our help. Why was the Samaritan ‘moved to compassion’? It was because he “saw” the desperate need of the victim, who, as an ‘anthropos’, was a fellow human being, lying, probably naked, in a pool of blood, “half dead”. Once again, it is the eyes that loosen the ‘bowels of compassion’. What does he do in response? Plenty! The structure of the narrative here is instructive. The priest (v.31) and the Levite (v.32) both “came --- and seeing --- passed by on the other side”. The Samaritan (vv.33-4) “came --- and seeing --- had compassion”: the structure emphasises the compassion. This is the first of seven verbs describing the Samaritan’s reaction to what he saw: first, the compassion, then the action - as in the previous parable, hands-on action - the “acts of mercy” the lawyer spoke of in his answer to Jesus’ question (v.37). The other six are: “he went up to him” (he got ‘close’), “he bound his wounds, he bathed them in oil and wine, he put him on his donkey, he took him to an inn, and he cared for him”. Nor was this care just first aid: he provided for after-care as well, the cost of the victim’s board and lodging in the inn while he recuperated. THAT is ‘compassion’! THIS is what it means to be a loving neighbour! In fact, just like the father and the king in the previous two parables, the Good Samaritan does far more than could reasonably be expected of him.

(2) The ‘Good Samaritan’ as an allegory

This comparison leads us to revisit the first question, the ‘who?’ question, and so to revisit the parable as a whole. Another detail also suggests a rethink. Everywhere else in the gospels where the verb ‘splanchnizomai’ is used it is used of Jesus, except in the two parables we have looked at already, where it is, in effect, God himself who is ‘moved to compassion’. This suggests that the ‘Good Samaritan’ is rather more than just a good man who happens to come from Samaria, and that the story is, after all, an allegory in disguise. The rocky road from Jerusalem to Jericho is well chosen as the setting for this story, for it was notoriously frequented by robbers living in the caves along the route. But the road “down from Jerusalem” can also be seen as symbolic, the road away from the presence of God in his Temple in the Holy City; and the road “to Jericho” was leading the traveller to a city under God’s curse (see Joshua 6.26). It was, then, a road which was downhill all the way. The traveller, therefore, was not just “a man”, he was Everyman, just like the younger son journeying to “a far country”, and just like the debtor relentlessly piling up a debt of sin and failure he could never repay. And like Everyman, he ends up “[half-] dead in his transgressions and sins”, as Paul describes all those who have not yet found new life in Christ (Eph. 2.1). Elsewhere (John 8.44) Jesus says that “the Devil was a murderer from the beginning” - literally a “man-killer”, ‘anthropo-’ again. Our traveller would have been wholly dead had not the Samaritan come to his aid, so perhaps the ‘thieves’ represent the Devil and his angels. This interpretation means, too, that the priest and the Levite are not just themselves (like the Pharisee and the tax-collector in Luke 18. 9-14). They stand for the Law, the Old Covenant, which can do nothing for the sinner but accuse him relentlessly of his sins. No, the traveller, like the prodigal and the debtor, needed not law but grace, not recrimination but compassion. Who, then, is represented by the ‘Good Samaritan’? Surely it is Jesus himself, of whom it is recorded 8 times in the gospels that “he had compassion”, and who declared that he had journeyed into this world “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19 10). Nor is this allegorisation of the parable (which can be, and has been, sometimes excessively, elaborated even further) alien to its context, but rather gives it added depth and subtlety. The lawyer’s original question had been (literally) “Teacher, having done what will I inherit eternal life?” (v.25). Here, too, the answer is implied in the question: only heirs inherit, God’s children. Jesus asks him to quote the Law, which he does. “Do this” (present continuous imperative), Jesus replies, “and you will live”. But the only person in the whole of human history who has kept the Law continuously and perfectly was Jesus himself. The parable therefore works on two levels. As an object lesson it depicts the impossibly demanding standards of the Law; as an allegory, it shows us (like the two previous parables) grace in action, this time incarnated in Jesus the Son of God.

Jesus: Son of David and ‘Son of Man’
(John 8.48)

Another P.S. The verse from John 8, quoted earlier, where Jesus calls the Devil a murderer, comes in the middle of a long discourse between Jesus and the Jews. At the end of it, the Jews are so scandalised by Jesus’ claims to be ‘from God’, and by his assertion that they are not, that they are just about as rude to him as a Jew could be: “Are we not right to say that you are a Samaritan, and that you have a devil?” (John 8.48). I have never seen or heard this verse connected with the parable of the Good Samaritan, so I do so now. Whether it lends greater credibility to the allegorical interpretation of the parable suggested above I am not sure. Did Jesus cast himself in the role of a Samaritan as a subtle in-joke, as a dry response to the Jews’ name-calling? It would be nice to think so, and it would lend extra piquancy to the parable; but this is, of course, just idle speculation. To return to the solid ground of scripture, it is worth noting that Jesus’ reply to the Jews is: “I do not have a devil”; he does not rebut their charge that he is a Samaritan, not, of course, because it was true, but because, for Jesus, to be a Samaritan was no crime and no insult - as we can see in John 4. 1-42 (especially v.39). Jesus’ pure Jewish ancestry and his status as a ‘Son of David’ are set out twice in scripture, in the genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. Furthermore, he is addressed 8 times in the gospels as “Son of David”. It is notable, however, that he never refers to himself in this way; his preferred self-styling is “the Son of Man” (‘anthropos’), a title he uses 70 times in the synoptic gospels, and 12 more times in John. While this is a Messianic title, deriving from the prophet Daniel (7.13), its repeated use asserts that, for Jesus, it is more important that he is a man than that he is a Jew. He tends to use this title especially when predicting his death and resurrection, and when prophesying his ‘parousia’: he died as a man for all men, not just as a Jew for Jews, and when he comes again, he will come not primarily as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, but as a man to judge his fellow men. He himself made this clear: “God has given him the authority to exercise judgement because he is the Son of Man” (John 5.27).

‘splanchnizomai’ in the NT: II: Jesus’ Ministry.
[1] Individuals
[a] the widow of Nain (Luke 7.11-15)

The remaining 9 instances of the verb ‘splanchnizomai’ all occur in the synoptic gospels, and all refer to Jesus. Of these, 5 tell of his compassion for the crowd (‘ochlos’ in Greek), and the other 4 relate to individual encounters. We will start with the latter group, and look first at a remarkable incident recorded only by Luke. Preserving his expressive word-order as far as possible, the narrative reads like this: “He came to a town called Nain. --- As he approached the gate of the town - look! - there was being carried out dead the only son to his mother, and she was a widow. --- And seeing her, the Lord had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep”. The three ‘her’s are, I believe, Luke’s way of indicating how intensely Jesus focused on the bereaved widow. Then, “approaching the bier he touched it, and the bearers stood still, and he said: ‘Young man, I say to you, be raised’. And the young man sat up and began to speak, and [Jesus] gave him to his mother.”(Luke 7. 11-17). Once more, compassion is prompted by ‘seeing’ and leads to ‘touching’. It is also worth pointing out a pre-echo of the ‘Good Samaritan’ here. Luke uses exactly the same three words of him in 10.33-4: “seeing, he had compassion, and approaching---”; there, the three words are consecutive, while here they are separated by a few other words. Is this significant? Is Luke giving us a subtle hint that the Good Samaritan is really Jesus himself? If he expects us to remember three words three chapters later, he expects a lot! But - “he who runs may read” - especially if he reads Greek! It is the word “approaching” (‘proselthon’, the aorist participle) which makes this idea a bit more plausible. In the parable, as we saw, it provides a striking contrast with the priest and the Levite, who both “passed by on the other side” (a single word in Greek, a double compound of the same basic verb to ‘go’ or ‘come’), and also reinforces the definition of a neighbour as ‘one who is near’. But here at Nain, the word is, unusually for Luke, quite redundant, since you can’t ‘touch’ something without ‘approaching’ it; what reason, then, did he have for inserting the word? Oh dear! More speculation! - but this time, I think, not entirely idle.

[b] the leper: ‘katharizo

This passage, then, shows Jesus moved to compassion by the sight of a widowed mother burying her only son, and by his awareness of the destitution this was likely to entail. This is the same Jesus whose loving concern for his own mother was later so beautifully expressed by his words from the cross entrusting her to the care of John (John 19. 26-7). Our next passage shows Jesus stirred to compassion by the all-too visible ravages of leprosy, and shows us once again that his ministry was a ‘hands-on’ ministry: a loving heart has busy hands! The healing of the leper is recounted in all three synoptic gospels, but only Mark uses ‘splanchnizomai’; otherwise, all three accounts are worded almost identically. Mark writes: “There came to him a leper beseeching him and kneeling and saying: ‘If you are willing, you have the power to cleanse me’. And, moved by compassion, [Jesus] stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him: ‘I am willing: be cleansed’. And immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed” (Mark 1. 40-42). Rather remarkably, although Jesus is clearly at the centre of Mark’s narrative, he does not mention him by name for 24 consecutive verses, from 1.26 to 2.4. Also noteworthy here is Mark’s skilful use of word-order - a characteristic we will see again before long. The passage begins with “there came to him a leper” and (almost) ends “there went away from him the leprosy” - prefaced by Mark’s ubiquitous “immediately” (‘euthus’). Furthermore, each of the three sentences of this passage ends with the verb ‘katharizo’ (hence the ‘almost’ above’). Mark clearly wants to emphasize this verb, and a quick look at its usages elsewhere shows that it tells us something about the spiritual symbolism of leprosy as well as its physical symptoms. The verb is used 18 times in the synoptic gospels (it is not found in John’s gospel), 7 times in Matthew and Luke, and 4 times in Mark. In 14 of these 18 instances it refers to the ‘cleansing’ of leprosy. Its most revealing occurrence is in Matthew 10.8, where Jesus is giving his instructions to the 12 before sending them out on their mission: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers”. Leprosy does not just need healing, like other diseases, it needs ‘cleansing’. Being so highly contagious, leprosy was regarded as a threat to the whole community, and so lepers were ‘unclean’. Jesus, then, not only ‘has the power’ to cleanse lepers, he also, as the next incident shows, has power to forgive sins (Mark 2. 10-11). Leprosy is a symbol of sin, which cuts us off from fellowship with God just as leprosy cut lepers off from their community. John, as said earlier, does not use ‘katharizo’ in his gospel, but its memorable (first) occurrence in his first letter makes this equivalence clear: “The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1.7 - and also v.9).

[c] Two blind men: ‘eleison

Our next incident is another example of Jesus’ ‘hands-on’ ministry. This incident, too, is recorded by all three synoptics, but this time it is Matthew who uses ‘splanchnizomai’, and this time there are some interesting differences in the three accounts. Mark and Luke mention only a single blind man sitting by the roadside near Jericho begging - Mark names him as Bartimaeus. In Matthew there are two, and his account goes as follows, shortened to the essentials: “Two blind men sitting by the road heard that Jesus was passing by, and shouted out: “Have mercy on us, Son of David’. --- Jesus stood still and said to them: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ They said to him: ‘Lord, that our eyes may be opened’. Jesus, moved by compassion, touched their eyes, and immediately they received their sight and followed him” (Matt. 20. 30, 32-4). All three accounts, however, are identical in recording the pleas of the blind, “Have mercy, Son of David” (‘eleison’), and in repeating it when the crowd try to shut them up the first time. This incident thus accounts for 6 of the 8 times in the gospels that Jesus is addressed as ‘Son of David’ (as mentioned earlier). It also accounts for 6 of the 10 times that Jesus is asked to ‘have mercy’ (‘eleison’ is the imperative form of the verb ‘eleo’). We therefore see once again, from Matthew’s account, how closely allied in meaning ‘eleo’ and ‘splanchnizomai’ are: the act of mercy prompted by the feeling of compassion.

[d] the boy with the ‘deaf and dumb spirit’ (Mark 9.17-26)

This similarity is further illustrated by our final instance of ‘splanchnizoai’ used to express Jesus’ compassion for an individual, and for this we need to return to Mark. Like the two previous episodes, this one is also found in all three synoptics, though this time with considerable differences. Immediately after his transfiguration, Jesus comes down the mountain to be confronted by a man whose son (Luke - 9.38 - is the only gospel to tell us that, like the widow’s son at Nain, he was an only son) is possessed (in Mark’s version) by a deaf and dumb spirit. In Matthew’s version (17.15), the father’s first word to Jesus is ‘eleison’, ‘have mercy’. The key passage in Mark is where the father, having described the boy’s symptoms, appeals to Jesus: “Have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9.22): ‘splanchnizomai’ is clearly Mark’s equivalent of ‘eleison’ in Matthew. To continue with Mark’s version: Jesus “rebuked the unclean spirit”, whereupon the boy had a climactic seizure and collapsed as though dead. “But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he got up” - or, as this word (‘anistemi’) often means in the NT, “was resurrected” to new life. Once again, Jesus’ healing hands are in action as he responds to the father’s plea for compassion.

[2] Crowds
[a] Matthew 9. 35-38: ‘skullo

These four instances of Jesus’ compassion are moving but not particularly surprising: who would not feel compassion at the sight of a widow burying her only son, or of a man terribly disfigured by leprosy or disabled by blindness, or of a child with ‘special needs’, as the current jargon has it, but, as Jesus diagnosed it, cursed by demonic possession? In our remaining passages, however, Jesus is stirred to compassion by the crowd, and this is not the emotion felt by most of us, I suspect, when confronted by a crowd. For us, a crowd is just a crowd, but for Jesus it was clearly a collection of individuals, each with their own needs. Four of these five instances occur in Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts of the feedings of the 5,000 and the 4,000 respectively; we will start, however, with the exception. This one is even more remarkable than the others. It is not just a specific crowd in front of him that stirs Jesus to compassion (as in the other examples), but “the crowds” in general. The reference occurs in a generalising passage in Matthew describing Jesus’ itinerant ministry in Galilee: “And Jesus went round all their towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom, and healing every illness and every infirmity. Seeing the crowds, he was moved with compassion for them, for they were distressed and downcast, like sheep who have no shepherd” (Matt. 9.35-38). This image of ‘sheep without a shepherd’ occurs several times in the OT. Moses, told by God that he will die before Israel enters into the promised land, prays to God to appoint another leader in his place, so that “the people of the Lord (literally, in the LXX, “the synagogue”) may not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Num. 27.17).. But the ‘locus classicus’ for this pastoral imagery is Ezekiel 34, where the “shepherds of Israel” (i.e. their religious leaders) are accused of faithlessness and selfishness, not feeding their sheep, but, on the contrary, feeding off them. The two participles which Matthew uses to describe the crowds (NIV translates rather well as ‘harassed and helpless’) are unusual verbs, and do not seem to appear in the OT (LXX) references. The first, from ‘skullo’, means literally to ‘skin or ‘flay’, so that, in the light of Ezekiel’s diatribe against the ‘shepherds’, it is tempting to translate it as ‘fleeced’ - but a temptation that should, reluctantly, be resisted!

‘sheep without a shepherd’

Once again here, it is ‘seeing’ that stirs Jesus to compassion, but this time it is not their physical afflictions that move him, but their spiritual confusion and emptiness. Jesus, like his Father, looks not just on the outward appearance, but into the heart (see 1 Sam. 16.7). This passage is also different from the previous ones in that Matthew records Jesus’ compassion as an explanation of what has gone before, his teaching and healing, rather than as his motivation for what comes next. Clearly, Matthew implies, Jesus’ teaching and preaching in their synagogues (v.35) is motivated by his compassion (v.36) for their spiritual poverty. Israel’s spiritual leaders, in his day just as in Ezekiel’s, and as the whole gospel record makes all too clear, were failing in their responsibilities, so that his teaching and preaching ministry is his compassionate response to their spiritual needs. There is a hauntingly memorable line in Milton’s pastoral poem ‘Lycidas’; he too, like Ezekiel, attacks the church leaders of his day, whose failure to pastor their flocks faithfully meant that: “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed” (l.126).

‘the Lord of the harvest’: ‘ekballo

But Matthew’s mention of Jesus’ compassion does not just look backwards, to explain the motivation of his teaching and preaching in the synagogues, it also looks forward, to explain the motivation of the teaching which he then gives to his disciples. The imagery is still agricultural, but now moves from sheep-rearing to arable farming: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few; so pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest-field” (9. 37-38). If we share anything of Jesus’ compassion for the crowds of the lost around us, we may not be able to preach to them, as Jesus did, but we can certainly obey his command to “pray to the Lord of the harvest”. How desperately, in our secular age, we need God to send out gospel workers “into his harvest”! The verb here translated ‘send out’ is not the more usual ‘apostello’, the source of ‘apostle’, but ‘ekballo’, literally, to ‘throw out’. This is the verb that Mark (remarkably!) uses when he says that “the Spirit threw [Jesus] out into the wilderness” to be tempted by Satan (1.12). In both contexts, the verb seems to indicate the deep inner compulsion, the work of the Holy Spirit, to ‘leave our comfort zone’ and do something that we would really rather not do, but know inwardly that we must. Evangelists are in the front line of God’s army, battering at the very gates of hell, and so they are the ones most exposed to Satanic attack. They need to be sustained by a rock-firm conviction that this is their calling, and that it is, indeed, God himself who has ‘thrown them out’ into the harvest-field, which, despite this tranquil imagery, is really a battle-field. It used to be said of some of the saints of old that they had ‘a passion for souls’; both the expression, and, alas, the passion, seem to be less in evidence today. But an evangelist without such a passion is no true evangelist, and the source of such a passion must be compassion, the same compassion that Jesus felt for the ‘lost sheep’ of his day.

Jesus’ compassion for the crowds
[b] the feeding of the 5,000: Mark 6. 30-34

All four gospels record the feeding of the 5,000, but only Matthew and Mark record the subsequent feeding of the 4,000, and it is these two who use ‘splanchnizomai’ on each occasion. Of these 4 instances, it is Mark’s usage in chapter 6 (the 5,000) that is the most striking. The 12 disciples, whom Mark here refers to as ‘apostles’ for the first time (6.30) since they have been ‘sent out’ by Jesus on a preaching mission earlier in the chapter (v.7), now return to Jesus to report back, excited, but also, we may infer, exhausted, for Jesus invites them for some private time with him so that they can rest and be refreshed (v.31). In Matthew’s account, Jesus has his own motive for wanting to go ‘on retreat’, for he had just heard the news of John the Baptist’ death and was obviously grieving for his cousin. (The rector of the church I went to during my year in the USA was a keen sailor, and named his boat ‘Retreat’ so that when he was away sailing his parishioners could truthfully be told that he was on ‘Retreat’.) This context is important, for it makes Jesus’ compassion for the crowd even more remarkable. Mark’s account reads as follows: “Jesus said [to his disciples], ‘You yourselves come privately to a deserted place and take a little time to renew your energy’. For those coming and going were many, and they did not even have time to eat. And they went away in a boat to a deserted place privately. And many saw them going and recognised them, and from all the towns they ran together on foot and got there before them. And Jesus, getting out [of the boat], saw a great crowd ---” and ‘his heart sank’? No! “And he was moved with compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (6.31-4) Even when the crowds ruin his careful and thoughtful plan for a private retreat for him and his disciples, Jesus’ response is not annoyance or frustration, but compassion. We saw earlier how, in his telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke highlights his use of ‘splanchnizomai’ by its careful contrast with the behaviour of the priest and the Levite. Here, Mark does something similar, using ‘ring-structure’ to highlight Jesus’ desire to be alone with his disciples: in verse 31 he invites them to come “privately to a deserted place”, which is echoed in reverse order in 32: “they went away to a deserted place privately”. Such ‘ring-structure’ is common in Homeric epic, and, more to the point, in the books of Israelite history in the OT, from Joshua onwards - as is regularly pointed out by Dale Ralph Davies in his excellent commentaries on these books. Perhaps Mark’s use of ring-structure here and in many other places in the narrative passages of his gospel is his way of indicating that he, too, is writing sacred history.

Jesus’ compassion: ‘the Good Pastor’

It is remarkable enough, then, that Jesus, on seeing the crowd (‘seeing’ again) shows compassion even though the ‘deserted’ place he has chosen is now full of people, and his plans for some privacy have been frustrated. But the more important point, I believe, is the way in which Jesus manifests his compassion; as we have seen, true compassion leads to action. Here, Mark’s narrative, which I cut off in mid-sentence in verse 34, continues: “ ---and he began to teach them many things”. Once again, as in our previous passage in Matthew (9.35-8), Jesus’ compassion is aroused not by their physical plight but by their spiritual poverty. They are “sheep with no shepherd”, with no one to lead them into God’s truth and feed them on his word - that is the food that they really need. In fact, I suggest that the key text of which all the six accounts in the gospels of the feeding of the thousands are illustrations is Matthew 4.4, quoted from Deuteronomy 8.3: “Mankind shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”. Jesus, then, in teaching the crowd was fulfilling his role as the ‘Good Shepherd’ (John 10. 11 and 14): he promised that the sheep in his sheepfold would “go in and out and find pasture” (10.9). The Latin for ‘shepherd’ is ‘pastor’, a word which, in its Christian sense, has entered the English language unchanged. Literally, a ‘pastor’ is ‘someone who feeds’ or ‘pastures’ his flock. It is notable that when Paul lists the gifts God gives to his church (Eph. 4.11), he writes: “Some are apostles, some prophets, some evangelists” - each a separate ministry - but “some pastors and teachers”, implying both that pastors should be teachers and that teachers should be pastors, because caring for God’s flock involves feeding it on God’s word.

Jesus the Bread of Life

One further thought on the feeding of the 5,000. Between them the synoptic writers use the word ‘deserted’ 6 times to describe the scene of this miracle. The Greek word used is ‘eremos’, which occurs 49 times in the NT (more 7’s!); it is used both as an adjective (‘deserted’) and, twice as often, as a feminine noun, ‘the desert’, or, more resonantly, ‘the wilderness’. It is, typically, John who sees this miracle not just as a conclusive demonstration that Jesus is God himself - for who can create something out of nothing but God alone? (to paraphrase Mark 2.7), but also, more imaginatively, as a sign, an acted parable. In Jesus’ discourse with the Jews at Capernaum which takes up the rest of the long chapter 6, after the narrative of the miracle itself, Jesus four times claims “I am the bread ---”, followed twice by “of life”, and once by “that has come down from heaven”, and once simply “I am the living bread” (vv. 35, 41, 48, 51). In fact the word ‘bread’ (‘artos’ in Greek) occurs 21 times in this chapter (no comment!). If Jesus can feed physically 5,000 people with just 5 loaves - with 12 baskets full of breadcrumbs left over - how much more can he satisfy the hunger of all the millions down the ages who feed on him spiritually! Peter describes Jesus as “the Head Pastor” (more usually translated ‘shepherd’ - 1 Peter 5.4), and it is he who ‘pastures’ his flock with the bread of his word, often ministered by ‘sub-pastors’, or ‘under-shepherds’, here on earth, and also with the bread of his body, broken for us, in the Communion service, often appropriately referred to as ‘the Lord’s Supper’.

Manna in the wilderness

John also, via the Jews with whom Jesus is discoursing, introduces another angle on the miracle. He does not himself use ‘eremos’, as the other three gospels do, to describe the scene of the feeding, but he does draw a parallel with “our fathers in the wilderness” (v.41), whom God fed for 40 years on manna from heaven. To this, Jesus ripostes that “your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness - and died” (v.49), whereas “I am the living bread come down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread he will live for ever” (v.51). A wilderness is the antithesis of a garden (though my own garden, alas, does not make this point very well!), and, in particular, of the Garden of Eden. God’s judgement on Adam is foundational for understanding the fallen world we now live in: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you.” (Gen. 3.17-18) The garden has become a wilderness, so that “in the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread” (v. 19, AV). But even as God pronounced his curse on the natural world, he showed his compassion for man’s sinful state: “The Lord made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them” (v.21). The 40 long years in which the Israelites wandered in the wilderness were God’s curse on their faithlessness, when they could have been enjoying a ‘garden’ experience in the “land flowing with milk and honey”. But even so, God showed his compassion for them by feeding them with manna, ‘bread from heaven’, which they could eat with no sweat! Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, then, in this ‘desert place’, was a further demonstration of “the goodness and the severity of God” (Romans 11.22). We live in a world which, newly created, was “very good” (Gen. 1.31), but which now is under God’s curse, and that curse will not be lifted until Jesus comes again and we inherit “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21.1). But our fallen world is also shot through with golden threads of God’s goodness and compassion. The 5,000, and the 4,000 after them, like “our fathers in the wilderness”, did not have to toil and sweat to be filled with bread: the curse had been temporarily suspended. For as long as we live, our lives must be lived ‘in the wilderness of this world’ (Bunyan’s phrase in the opening sentence of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’), and we cannot expect to escape entirely all the ills of a natural order under God’s curse. But these miraculous feedings are evidence that, even in our fallen state, God has compassion for us, and his gracious goodness is everywhere in evidence; moreover, they are reminders that the bread we need most of all is “the living bread that has come down from heaven”: Jesus himself and his living word, the word of truth.

‘splanchnizomai’: 3 final instances

The remaining 3 instances of ‘splanchnizomai’ may be dealt with quite briefly. Matthew also uses it in his account of the feeding of the 5,000, and his lead-up to the verb is, virtually, identical to Mark’s - though without the ring-structure. Jesus goes in the boat to a deserted place privately with his disciples, and “as he got out [of the boat] he saw a great crowd, and was filled with compassion for them” (Matt. 14.14, = Mark 6.34) But whereas in Mark, as we have seen, Jesus expresses his compassion by teaching them, here he does so by healing the sick. It is not until we get to the two accounts, still in Matthew and Mark, of the subsequent feeding of the 4,000 that we find that Jesus’ compassion for the crowd is stirred by what we might have assumed to be his concern in the earlier miracle: their physical hunger and exhaustion. Once again, the two accounts in the relevant verses are virtually identical: “And Jesus, calling his disciples to him, said: ‘I have compassion for the crowd, for they have already been with me for three days, and have nothing to eat” (Matt. 15.32, = Mark 8.1-2, with a different word for ‘said’).Of course Jesus’ compassion here sets us an example to follow: Christians should, like their Master, be moved by the sight of hunger and starvation, and so give generously to famine relief. But we also need to remember that key verse: “Mankind shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4.4 = Deut. 8.3). The secular world is often moved by famine-relief appeals to give generously, but it is on the generosity of Christians that the work of the gospel relies for financial support. The relief of famine may keep people alive for a bit longer, but it is only the word of God, “the bread that has come down from heaven”, that can lead to eternal life. Surely, that should be our priority as we allocate our giving.

[I] 1 John 3.17

As we saw at the beginning, ‘splanchnizomai’ is derived from the noun ‘splanchna’, which literally means ‘innards’, or ‘bowels’. In addition to the two instances of this noun with which we began this study, ‘splanchna’ occurs 9 more times, all in the epistles, 8 of them Pauline, and the 9th in the first letter of John. I sometimes feel that, in addition to the ‘comfortable words’ that are often included in the liturgy of the communion service, there should also be a collection of ‘uncomfortable words’. If so, then 1 John 3.17 would be a strong candidate for inclusion: “Any one who has enough worldly goods to live on, and who sees his brother or sister in Christ in need, and who hardens his heart against them - how does the love of God dwell in him?” In most of these 9 instances, ‘splanchna’ can be translated ‘heart’, as I have done here; but the phrase literally means ‘closes his bowels’ - of compassion. Such spiritual constipation, John says, is not consistent with the love of God, which, says Paul, has been “poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5.5 - ‘heart’ here is the more normal ‘kardia’). Someone has memorably said that “love is a decision” - that is, ‘agape’ love, the love of God. It means deciding to treat someone lovingly even though in our hearts our feelings for them may be very different. But if ‘love’ is a decision of the will, then ‘splanchna’ expresses the deepest feelings of our heart. John seems to assume that to ‘see’ need, for us as it did so often for Jesus in his ministry, will stir our hearts to compassion; but we then have to decide whether to respond to compassion with action, an act of mercy (‘eleos’ in Greek), or to ‘shut down’ those feelings and do nothing. John uses the verb ‘kleio’ here: to this day, if you see a shop in Athens with a sign on the door saying ‘kleistos’, you know that it is ‘shut’.

[2] Philemon: ‘anapauo

It is perhaps surprising that 3 of Paul’s 8 uses of ‘splanchna’ occur in his shortest letter, to Philemon. All three are translated by NIV, with admirable consistency, as ‘heart’. But whereas John was urging his readers to follow Christ’s example by showing compassion to those in need, Paul is using ‘splanchna’ not to mean ‘compassion’ but rather ‘one’s inner self’, or ‘the core of one’s being’, or, more modishly, one’s ‘emotional heartland’. Paul has been pleased to hear good news of Philemon’s “love --- towards all the saints” (John would have been equally delighted!): “I took much joy and encouragement from your love, because, my brother, the ‘hearts’ (‘splanchna’) of the saints have been refreshed through you” (v.7). Paul uses the same phrase again towards the end of the letter, though in a slightly different context. He is asking Philemon to do him a favour, to send back to him Onesimus, his runaway slave, who had been converted through Paul’s ministry, and whom Paul is sending back to his master with this letter: “Yes, my brother, let me receive some benefit from you in the Lord: refresh my heart in Christ” (v.20). It is, perhaps, worth noting that the Greek word translated ‘refresh’ in each of these verses is ‘anapauo’; this is the same word that we saw earlier in Mark 6.31, where Jesus invites the 12, after the exertions of their missionary outreach, to “come apart privately to a deserted place and be refreshed for a little while”. Christian service can be exhausting, and ‘compassion fatigue’ can easily set in. Quality time with Jesus can be the answer, if we respond to his loving invitation (in one of those ‘comfortable words’!): “Come to me, all you who are weighed down with toil, and I will refresh you” (Matt. 11.28 - ‘anapauo’ again). For us, it is the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who leads us into Jesus’ presence for the refreshment we need; but the Spirit often works through other Christians, and there are few things that can lift our spirits, or “refresh out hearts”, more than the loving care and compassion of our Christian brothers and sisters. The Christian who obeys John’s teaching and shows compassion to those in need not only relieves their material and physical needs but also warms their hearts by his love. This principle is at the heart, indeed, is the heart, of true Christian fellowship, each of us warming the hearts of out brothers and sisters by loving acts of compassion, and then having our own flagging spirits warmed again by the love of others - a chain reaction of little explosions of love and light. Nor is it only those most obviously and outwardly ‘in need’ who need such refreshment; perhaps those who need it most are those, like Paul, who are at the forefront of the spiritual battle, the prime targets of Satan’s attacks. For Paul, languishing in prison (even Paul must have ‘languished’ occasionally!), to have Onesimus returned to him would be a real spiritual tonic, as well as a practical help, for, as he says in verse 12, “he is my ‘splanchna’” - a metaphorical use this time, perhaps “he is a very part of me”, or, less literally, “he is close to my heart”.

[3] 2 Corinthians 7.15

Paul uses ‘splanchna’ twice in consecutive chapters in 2 Corinthians, but in very different contexts. We will take them in reverse order, since the second of the two gives us another example of the way Christians can encourage and refresh each other by their loving compassion - the ‘virtuous circle’ of heart-warming service. Paul has been anxiously awaiting the arrival of Titus, who had visited Corinth, to find out both how the Corinthians had received him, and how they had reacted to the severe (lost) letter which Paul had sent them. When he finally arrives (7.6), the news is good. The time of waiting has been particularly hard for Paul (v.5); but “the God who comforts the lowly comforted me by the arrival of Titus, and not only by his presence but by the comfort with which you had comforted him” (vv. 6-7). ‘Comfort’ is one of the recurring themes of this letter: the verb ‘parakalo’ and its related noun ‘paraklesis’ between them occur 29 times. ‘Encourage’ is often a better translation than ‘comfort’, but in this case, since we more naturally think of God ‘comforting’ us - through the ministry of the Holy Spirit “the Comforter” (‘parakletos’) - I have stuck with this translation for all its 4 occurrences in these two verses (the verb 3 times and the noun once). The Corinthians’ welcome and warmth had encouraged Titus, and this in turn encourages Paul: the virtuous circle. The same point is repeated a few verses later. After summarising Titus’ report of the Corinthians’ positive response to his letter (their “godly sorrow” leading to repentance, vv. 7-12), he concludes: “Because of this I have been encouraged; furthermore, in addition to my own encouragement I have rejoiced very much more at the joy of Titus, because his spirit was refreshed by you all” (v. 13). Here again, as in Philemon, we have the verb ‘anapauo’, to ‘refresh’, a near synonym of to ‘encourage’. The Corinthians have renewed Titus’s warmth and vigour, and his joyful spirits have, in turn, brought encouragement to Paul. And so, at last, to verse 15 and to ‘splanchna’: “the ‘warmth’ of Titus’s ‘feelings’ towards you are ‘deeply heartfelt’ (my 4-word translation), as he remembers the welcome you gave him - and I rejoice because my confidence in you has proved to be entirely justified” (v.16). So it is, then, that encouragement and refreshment flow through the veins of the body of Christ as the heart pulses with the love that the Holy Spirit pours into it, the compassionate love of Jesus himself.

[4] 2 Corinthians 6. 11-13
(a) ‘antimisthia

The other occurrence of ‘splanchna’ in this letter comes in the previous chapter (6.11-13), where the context is quite different, and ‘comfort’ and ‘joy’ are in short supply. There is a blockage - a thrombosis - in the mutual flow of love within the body, and Paul pleads with the Corinthians to reciprocate the love which he has unstintingly given to them. These are difficult verses to translate convincingly; NIV gives the sense well, and reads fluently, but I will try to keep a bit closer to the original Greek: “My mouth has been opened to you, Corinthians, [in preaching the gospel], my heart has been opened wide to you [in loving ministry]; you have certainly not been confined to a small corner of my affections; rather it is you who are confining me to a small corner of your affections (‘splanchna’). I speak to you as my children: pay me back in kind - open your hearts wide to me”. The AV’s translation of verse 12, “ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your bowels”, while accurate, is well past its sell-by date! Both the vocabulary and the structure of these verses are striking as Paul tries to push his point home. Perhaps the key word is ‘antimisthia’, literally ‘a payment in exchange’; this word is used in the NT only here and in Romans 1.27 - a very different context, where those indulging in homosexual acts “receive in themselves the proper payment for their perversion” as God’s judgement upon them. Here, however, ‘antimisthia’ expresses in a single word, not the vicious cycle of sin and judgement, but the virtuous circle, the mutuality, of love freely given evoking freely given love in return.

(b) ‘platuno’, ‘stenochoro

Paul underlines this point by using two unusual and antithetical verbs twice each, the second repeated within the two instances of the first - the same ‘A-B-B-A’ structure we saw in Mark 6 - this ‘ring structure’ being an appropriate vehicle to convey the idea of a ‘virtuous circle’! The first of the two verbs is ‘platuno’, to ‘make wide’, derived from the adjective ‘platus’ (whence the ‘platypus’, a bird, so my dictionary tells me, ‘with broadly webbed feet’). Its only other occurrence in the NT, in Matthew 23.5, is literal, when Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees, among many other things, for ‘widening’ their phylacteries to make them more conspicuous. The other verb is also formed from an adjective, ‘stenos’, ‘narrow’, plus the noun ‘choros’, ‘a place’, giving us ‘stenochoro’, to ‘be in a narrow place’, or, as we might say, ‘in a tight spot’. In this sense, Paul uses the related noun ‘stenochoria’ several times (Rom 2.9, 8.35, 2Cor 10.4, 12.10) to refer to the ‘difficulties’ or ‘distresses’ he encountered in his apostolic ministry. Here, however, the emphasis is on the first half of the verb, ‘narrow’, contrasting with ‘broad’ in ‘platuno’; Jesus makes the same contrast, with these same two adjectives, in Matthew 7.13, between the ‘narrow gate’ and the ‘broad gate’, though there ‘narrow’ is good and ‘broad’ bad! Paul’s point is that, if the blood-flow within the body of Christ is to be healthy and sustaining, the Corinthians need to respond to his open-hearted love for them with open-hearted love for him in return. As we have already seen, by the end of the next chapter the circulation seems to be back in full working order.

[5] Philippians 1.8
“God is my witness”

In Corinth, then, there is a blockage, if only a temporary one, in the flow of mutual love which should be coursing through the body of Christ. At Philippi, by contrast, all is sweetness and light, and it is in this letter that our next two instances of ‘splanchna’ occur. Paul begins his letter, as usual, by thanking God, here, for the faithful fellowship of the Philippians in the work of the gospel, and by making it clear how regularly he prays for them (1.3-6). “It is right that I should think so lovingly of you”, he continues - literally, “to be so minded on behalf of you all” - “because I have you in my heart, you who have shared with me ---” in so much (v.7). There is, in fact, an ambiguity in the Greek text here, and it is tempting to think that it is deliberate. Because the verb to ‘have’ is in the infinitive (a Greek idiom which need not be explained here), its subject is in the accusative case, so that it is hard to distinguish it from the object, which must, of course, also be in the accusative. Thus Paul could equally well be saying that he thinks so lovingly of them because they have him in their hearts. The fact that, in the Greek, ‘heart’ (‘kardia’) is singular does not rule out this interpretation, since Greek idiom recognises that, even in a crowd of people all with hearts, each individual only has one. How, then, can we tell which way round to take this clause? The fact that ‘me’ (the actual Greek word!) comes first makes it the front runner in this two-horse race, and, not surprisingly, both AV and NIV translate accordingly. But maybe Paul’s point, and his reason for using this particular idiom (article plus infinitive) is that both translations are true: the rest of the letter makes it clear that Paul is as dear to the Philippians as they are to him - a ‘virtuous circle’! This leads to ‘our’ verse, verse 8. He begins by calling God as his witness, something he does on 4 other occasions as well. He does so when making a statement about himself the truth of which only God can know, because, as we have noted before, “God looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16.7). Only God knows the truth about Paul’s prayer-life (Rom 1.9), and about his motives in not visiting Corinth (2 Cor 1.33), and about the integrity of his ministry in Thessalonika (1 Thess 2.5, 10). Here, only God knows the truth about Paul’s inner feelings, his ‘splanchna’: “God is my witness how much I long for you with the-love-deep-inside-me (‘splanchna’) which Jesus pours into my heart by his Holy Spirit” (v.8, with acknowledgements to Rom 5.5). And this love leads him into prayer (v.9) that, in turn, “your love may abound more and more”. Love breeds prayer, and that prayer then breeds love: another virtuous circle.

[6] Philippians 2.1
(a) structure

Our final two instances of ‘splanchna’ shed more light - if any more is still needed - on its meaning, since, as I said earlier, you can tell a lot about a word by the company it keeps. The first of the two comes in the very next chapter. When I remarked in the previous paragraph that, unlike Corinth, at Philippi all was sweetness and light, I exaggerated: no church is perfect. Someone has shrewdly observed that, if you find a perfect church, by no means should you join it, because you will spoil it. Paul is regularly filled with joy as he remembers the Philippian church in his prayers (1.4), but his joy is not ‘complete’ because, despite their generous love for Paul himself, there is disunity among the members of the body. Chapter 2, then, begins with Paul’s great plea for unity, and he bases it on the central truths of the gospel, and on the emotional and spiritual impact the gospel has had on their lives. He begins, literally: “If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ ---”; but, of course, there are really no ‘if’s about it, and what he means is something like this: “Surely your oneness in Christ has brought you great encouragement? Surely his love is a comfort and consolation to you? Surely you all share in fellowship the many blessings which his Spirit brings? Surely he has filled your hearts with warmth and generous love? Of course he has! So now make my joy complete by being united” (vv. 1-2). Alec Motyer, in his excellent comment on this verse (BST p. 104, coming shortly!) suggests that the first three of these ‘if’ clauses are Trinitarian, referring to Son, Father and Spirit; he cites the well known ‘grace’ at the end of 2 Corinthians (13.13) as a parallel, with its similar mention of “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit”. But this is a two-edged argument, because it suggests that when Paul wanted to be specifically Trinitarian he mentioned ‘God’ specifically. It also goes against the structure of the verse, which has 4 parallel clauses, a rhetorical device, familiar in Classical authors, known as ‘anaphora’, or ‘repetition’. Its use here is designed to give additional force, the force of rhetoric, to Paul’s plea. It seems to me preferable to regard all 4 clauses as referring to what life is like ‘in Christ’, one of Paul’s favourite phrases, which occurs here in the first of the 4, and is, I believe, to be understood in the next 3 as well. This minor difference of opinion, however, does not invalidate Motyer’s very helpful comment: “These blessings”, he writes (the 4 that Paul has listed) “now encourage us to be to each other what God in Christ has been to us”. He goes on to say that “in Christ” the Holy Spirit “who is himself the eternal bond of fellowship within the Trinity --- pours this aspect of the divine nature, fellowship, upon the church”.

(b) ‘splanchna’ and ‘oiktirmoi

It is, of course, the 4th of these parallel clauses that has brought us to this passage: “If there is any tenderness (‘splanchna’) or compassion” (NIV - which seems to have reversed the order of these two nouns, since it is ‘splanchna’ which more obviously means ‘compassion’). There is a tiny linguistic detail here which deserves a mention. The word for ‘any’ (‘tis’ in Greek) occurs in each of the 4 clauses, after ‘if’ (‘ei’). ‘Any’ is an adjective, and so, in Greek, should ‘agree’ with its noun, in case, number and gender. The first three clauses have a singular subject (‘encouragement’, ‘comfort’, ‘fellowship’, NIV), so ‘tis’ is singular in each; but the 4th has two subjects, both plural, ‘splanchna’ and ‘oiktirmoi’ (feelings of pity’), so that one would expect ‘tis’ to be plural - but there it is, still singular. We can, I think, discount the possibility that Paul has simply committed a grammatical howler, so we need to find another explanation. Classicists, when faced with such a problem, have come up with a useful escape-route, and given it respectability by expressing it in Latin: the ‘ad sensum’ construction. This simply means that the grammar is determined by the ‘sense’, or meaning, rather than by number. The NT is full of such instances, a common one being the singular noun ‘crowd’ (‘ochlos’) being followed by a plural verb, since ‘crowd’ expresses a plural idea. So here, it seems that, for Paul, the two plural nouns together constitute a single idea - for which there is another impressive Classical label: ‘hendiadys’, literally ‘one’ (‘hen’) idea expressed ‘through’ (dia’) ‘two’ (‘duo’) nouns. The standard response to a ‘hendiadys’ is to translate one of the two nouns as an adjective, so that here we might say either ‘merciful compassion’ or ‘compassionate mercy’. Whichever we choose, we see once again that ‘splanchna’ and ‘oiktirmoi’ are virtual synonyms.

[7] Colossians 3.12: the vocabulary of grace

This passage, then, has not only helped us to understand the meaning of ‘splanchna’, but it has also provided us with another example of the ‘virtuous circle’. The love and encouragement and compassion which flow into us as we experience, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, what it means to be ‘in Christ’ needs to flow out of us to our brothers and sisters, also ‘in Christ’, in the unity of fellowship. Our final ‘splanchna’ verse, Colossians 3.12, reinforces both these points. We visited this verse earlier, during our look at ‘the vocabulary of grace’, a large slice of which is represented here. We will not look at this passage in great detail, but there are two important points to be made about its context. Earlier in the chapter (v.5), Paul has told the Colossians to “put to death --- sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (NIV), five features of the old nature which should have been ‘crucified with Christ’ (Gal 2.20). Then in verse 8 he adopts a clothing metaphor, which extends to verse 14: “Put off --- anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language”, another 5-fold list, dealing with anger-management this time, rather than sexual self-control. Then in verse 10 he tells them that they have already “put on the new [man]”. “Therefore”, he begins verse 12 - one of the key words in Paul’s vocabulary - “[be what you already are] and put on---” - and another 5-fold list follows, full of the vocabulary of grace we looked at earlier. At the head of the list, fresh from its appearance in Philippians 2, comes ‘splanchna oiktirmou’, AV’s ‘bowels of mercy’, but better translated, perhaps, as ‘merciful compassion’ (NIV omits the reference to ‘mercy’). Then follow ‘goodness’ (‘chrestotes’, suggesting, as we noted earlier, ‘Christlikeness’), ‘humble-mindedness’ (just as Jesus “humbled himself” - Phil 2.8), ‘gentleness and patience’ (‘makrothumia’ again, ‘big-heartedness’. Paul concludes (‘wraps up’?) the clothing metaphor in verse 14 with “above all these, to bind them all together [like a belt], put on love”: all these characteristics are different ‘aspects of love’, and so, of course, of the love of Christ. The eternal love of the Father, demonstrated by Jesus on the cross and mediated by the Spirit in our experience, now needs to flow out of us to the world around us, in particular within the Christian family, the body of Christ. We need to “forgive each other” (v.13, ‘charizomai’, as we saw earlier, ‘to show grace to’) “just as the Lord has showed grace to you”. That loving grace of forgiveness should be the lifeblood of Christ’s body, the church.

‘polusplanchnos’: James 5.11

There is one final member of the ‘splanchna’ family that we have not yet looked at; it occurs only once in the NT, in James 5.11, and helpfully draws together some of the threads of this rather rambling study. This short passage begins in verse 7, where James sets out the subject of the paragraph in the first word, one that we studied earlier: “Endure patiently---” (‘makrothumo’). Then comes a ‘parable’ (a comparison): “Look (‘idou’) how the farmer endures patiently, waiting for the rains---” to swell the grain of his crop. Then comes a repeated “you, too, endure patiently”. Then in verse 10 he provides another incentive to endurance: “As an example of endurance in suffering, my brothers and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Look (‘idou’ again) how we call ‘blessed’ those who endured. You have heard of the sufferings of Job, and you have seen how the Lord at the last brought an end to his sufferings, because the Lord is ‘wonderfully-compassionate’ and merciful”. James seems to have coined this first adjective, ‘polusplanchnos’, the ‘polu-’ prefix, as with ‘polueleos’ earlier, just meaning ‘much’ or ‘very’; the second adjective, ‘oiktirmon’, is a regular stable-companion of ‘splanchna'. There is no ‘therefore’ in this paragraph, as there probably would have been had Paul been writing it; but the logic of James’s appeal to his readers is, nevertheless, clear. Why should we ‘patiently endure’ in the long-distance race which is the Christian life? Firstly, because of the promised reward, the ‘precious harvest’ (v.7), the expectation of which sustained the farmer in his labours. Secondly, because of the inspiring example of those ‘blessed ones’ who have run their race before us, and now, as a “great cloud of witnesses clustering around us” are urging us on to “run with perseverance the race that we have lying before us” (Heb 12.1). And, thirdly, because we can rely utterly on the faithful love of God, who is “wonderfully compassionate and merciful”, and who, even when we are tested by all the evils of the fallen world in which we must run our race, will never fail us or forsake us.
‘mercy’, ‘pity’, ‘compassion’

When James says that “the Lord is compassionate and merciful”, it is clear from the OT context (Job and the prophets) that he is referring to God the Father rather than to the Son. This should remind us of the beautiful self-portrait God paints for us in Exodus 34.6, which we looked at when studying ‘makrothumia’ earlier, and it is possible that James’s four-fold use of ‘makrothumia’ and its verb ‘makrothumo’ in verses 7-10 reminds him of it also: “The Lord God is compassionate (‘oiktirmon’) and merciful (‘eleemon’), longsuffereing (‘makrothumos’) and full of mercy (‘polueleos’)”. It seems then, that James coined the neologism ‘polusplanchnos’ on the analogy of ‘polueleos’, influenced by the regular appearances of ‘splanchnizomai’ and ‘splanchna’ in the NT - though he could not have known all of them, since he died in 61 AD. This self-portrait of God the Father, of course, was beautifully brought to life - incarnated - by Jesus the Son, “the visible image of the invisible God” (Col 1.15): like Father, like Son. And where are those same qualities of mercy and compassion visible today? Surely, in his church - his body and his children - as the Holy Spirit pours out in our hearts the compassionate love and mercy that are the family likeness. Paul begins all his letters by wishing his recipients “grace and peace”; but uniquely to Timothy, in both letters, he wishes “grace, peace and mercy” (‘eleos’). It has been helpfully said that the distinction between ‘grace’ and ‘mercy’ is that ‘mercy’ is God’s not giving us what we do deserve, while ‘grace’ is God’s giving us what we do not deserve. Without mercy we could never even begin the Christian life: “it is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not” (Lam. 3.22, AV); without grace, we could never live the Christian life. ‘Mercy’, then, is a life-giving quality, but acts of mercy may be performed quite dispassionately, as a matter of policy, perhaps, of duty. ‘Pity’ is the right and proper response to suffering, but it can be rather superficial, even complacent. But ‘compassion’ can only come from deep inside us, and when scripture reveals to us a compassionate God it shines a light on his inmost being, a light which should lighten even our darkest days with the glorious truth that “the heart of the Almighty is most wonderfully kind”. To paraphrase Paul: “And now abideth mercy, pity, compassion, these three; but the loveliest of these is compassion”.