Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

A process for developing personal compassion to engage in compassionate community for a more compassionate world

Welcome to the third Compassionate Sunday. We’re working through the Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong, one step per month. February is devoted to The First Step: Learn About Compassion. If you’d like to share what you’ve learned about compassion in February (or before), share a post in the link list below or join the discussion in the comments or on Facebook.

Last week, I pledged to read the synoptic gospels as a way to reconnect with the religion of my youth and to learn about the compassionate teachings and actions of Jesus. I completed my task and it was helpful for my study about compassion in expected and unexpected ways.

Karen Armstrong makes the case in the preface and first chapter of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life that the Golden Rule is a core concept of all the major religions. The Golden Rule is stated quite clearly at a few points in the gospels. Here, Jesus says it in Mark from the King James Version (My Bible as Literature professor said that later bible translators knew more about the ancient languages, but that the KJV writers knew most about the English language):

And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. Mark 12:30,31.

I was disappointed when I read Mark that there were fewer compassionate quotes than I imagined there would be. I talked to a pastor friend who promised me that I’d find more in Matthew and Luke (I did!). And, she reminded me to not look just at what Jesus said, but also what he did (healed, fed, taught, allowed people to approach even at crowded and busy times).

I was also surprised at the number of passages that were harsh, that seemed the opposite of compassionate. Oddly, this increased my compassion for a group of people that I dislike — Christians who display harshness toward all who don’t think as they do. You can find fodder for that form of Christianity in the gospels; discovering that helped reduce my abhorrence for those people.

Fortunately for me, the problematic passages responded well to the advice that Karen Armstrong gave about reading the Bible:

Christians were equally selective in their exegesis of the Hebrew Bible, focusing on texts that seemed to predict the coming of the Messiah…and paying little attention to the rest. . . . Christians in Europe were taught to expound every sentence of the Bible in four ways: literally, morally, allegorically, and mystically. . . . For the Christians as for the rabbis, charity was the key to correct exegesis. Saint Augustine (354-430), one of the most formative theologians in the Western Christian traditions, insisted that scripture taught nothing but charity. Whatever the biblical author may have intended, any passage that seemed to preach hatred and was not conducive to love must be interpreted allegorically and made to speak of charity. (p. 57)

I explored the word ‘exegesis’ for a Wondrous Words Wednesday post.

Working with each difficult verse in the four suggested ways resulted in charity every time. As my pastor friend said, “It’s all about the context.” That’s true in her tradition and it was true in mine. I learned to consult the Anchor Bible in the minister’s study before I went to high school. Emphasizing context is not a feature of every tradition, however, and I can find some compassion for those who get stuck or struck by a different way of reading the gospels.

I’ll end with this compassionate quote just because I liked the over-the-top description of “good measure” :

Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven: Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again. Luke 6:36-38.

Have you read the synoptic gospels back-to-back? What were your impressions?

If your background is not Christian, I would love to know where you would turn to learn about compassion from your tradition and what you would expect to find there.

Signature of Joy Weese Moll


Pressed Down, Shaken Together, Running Over #CompassionateSunday — 8 Comments

  1. I read 12 Steps last week. As usual, I read too fast and didn’t get as much out of the reading as I might have. I plan to pop in here and see how you have carried on with the reading.

    I like how you were encouraged to focus on the actions of Jesus in addition to his words. I try to remind myself that his words were quite radical for his time (in terms of having compassion for the Stranger.)

  2. I also had to look up the meaning for exegesis.

    Learning compassion came from looking at the examples of my mother and aunt. My aunt goes to the local jail on the weekends and encourage the inmates to change their lives. She talks and listens to them.

    They help and encourage even when they could be doing other things with their time.

  3. Though I’m not reading along, I am enjoying following your journey, which gives me pause to think. At the end of last year, I had joined a small group exploring mindfulness, which embraces compassion along with becoming aware of the moments you live.

    Great post, Joy!

  4. I am not sure what you mean by the synoptic gospels, but I know what you mean by the gospels giving off different impressions of Jesus and his disciples. Today in church our pastor commented after reading a passage from Mark that he didn’t think it was an error the way he placed certain stories together, as if to make one point and then drive it home.

    Thanks for your thoughtful posts.

  5. Pingback: Synoptic Gospels #WondrousWordsWednesday | Joy's Book Blog

  6. Pingback: The Ninth Step: Concern for Everybody – Joy's Book Blog

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