“Pietàs” – sculptures of Mary grieving over her crucified Son – were so called because of the meaning of pietà in Italian: “compassion.” Other English words for pietà are “mercy, pity and piety,” all of which are conveyed when one gazes upon Michelangelo’s Pietà.
In practical terms, we express pietà to another when we show compassion – when we say, “I care for you and want to help you through your pain.” When looking at the tender expression on the face of Mary in Michelangelo’s Pietà, we see what human compassion should look like.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to mask an expression of pietà, or compassion. Like actors in a Greek drama or guests at a masquerade ball, masks are all too easy to come by in a world where superficiality often reigns. Some people appear to be sincere, compassionate, loving and committed, when in reality their compassionate appearance is nothing but a mask – a front for their true feelings.
On the other hand, there are people who wear no mask at all – people who are pietà personified. We encounter such a man in the Bible, the subject of a story told by Jesus.
The story in Luke 10:30-37 is about a man who was beaten and robbed by thieves. A Jewish priest came along. Sadly, he wore the face of compassion – a pietà mask – a face not animated by a true heart of compassion, and he looked the other way and passed by.
The next person to come along was a Levite, one set apart in Israel to serve God alone. But when the Levite came upon the dying traveler, he “looked, and passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:32). He wore a pietà mask.
Finally, along came a Samaritan. There was no love or compassion lost between Jews and Samaritans. And this became the point of Jesus’ story, for it was the Samaritan who saved the Jewish traveler’s life. This compassionate Samaritan wore no mask. Instead, he was pietà personified – the compassionate neighbor Jesus calls us all to be.
The compassionate Christ
No one ever accused Jesus of wearing a mask – of being self-serving, duplicitous, hypocritical or two-faced. He is the eternal template for the marriage of a compassionate heart with compassionate hands. With Jesus, what you see is what you get – true compassion.
Here are some of the ways that Christ was compassionate:
- Compassionate toward the spiritually lost. “But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion on them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).
- Compassionate toward the sick. He healed innumerable individuals of their physical afflictions, including the leper who asked Jesus to “make [him] clean” (Mark 1:41), releasing him to a new life.
- Compassion toward the needy. “I do not want to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way” (Matthew 15:32). Hunger, weariness, grief – Jesus was compassionate toward all who were in need of the basic necessities of life.
- Compassionate toward widows and mothers. Jesus felt the grief of a widow whose only son had died – telling her “Do not weep’ (Luke 7:13), as He restored the son she had lost back to life.
The compassionate Christian
The world has a right to expect the followers of Christ to be like their Master. For that reason, Peter admonishes us to “[have] compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous” (1 Peter 3:8). That doesn’t mean we are to act or to look compassionate. Rather, we are to be compassionate. Beginning in the heart and flowing through the hands, we are to be like the compassionate Christ reaching out to those who are hurting and lost in our world today. And the world is hurting today – from loss of life and property through the devastating wildfires to the loss of jobs or health or loved ones from our current COVID-19 crisis – now is the time for us to reach out and be His hands and feet to those in need.
True compassion comes from Christ living in your heart and then putting action into that emotion. When He fills your heart, any pietà mask will disappear forever, and you will find the joy of serving the Lord by serving others and showing them that you care.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Jeremiah is found and host of Turning Point for God.)