Book Study: Letters to Marc About Jesus - Week 3

The third letter from Henri Nouwen’s “Letter to Marc about Jesus” is the longest and perhaps the most important of the seven addresses to his nephew. Nouwen deals with the subject of a compassionate God based on his experience with Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheimer Altar in Colmar, Germany. What does it mean that Jesus is the compassionate God?

From the Middle English: via Old French from ecclesiastical Latin, the word “compassion” means “to suffer with.” Nouwen believes that “the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus is the most fundamental, the most far reaching event ever to occur in the course of history” (Page 27). He adds, “to look suffering and death straight in the face and to go through them oneself in the hope of a new God-given life: that is the sign of Jesus and of every human being who wishes to lead a spiritual life in imitation of him. It is the sign of the cross; the sign of suffering and death, but also of the hope for total renewal” (page 30).

With the events in Paris and Beirut and Central Africa last week, the questions the author raises made me pause to think about what it means for God to suffer with us. “How can God really love the world when God permits all that frightful suffering? If God really loves us why doesn’t God put an end to war, poverty, hunger, sickness, persecution, torture, and all other misery that we see everywhere?” (Page 31-32).

Nouwen found the truth of compassion when he lived among the poor of Central and South America. For these men and women, Jesus became as a friend who walked with them through thick and thin – no matter what. Nouwen writes: “the great secret in life is that suffering, which often seems to be so unbearable, can become, through compassion, a source of new life and new hope.”

What would this world of ours truly look like if we reached out to our enemies with compassion instead of bombs? With empathy instead of hateful speech? With kindheartedness instead of the ego driven need for power and control? I dare say that it would be a world which we have only dreamed about! 

But by the power of God, that dream is possible for nothing is impossible with God.

I close with a parable from the Hindu tradition that I believe speaks not only to Nouwen’s point but also our response to the terrorists who wish us harm. It is entitled: “The Saint and the Scorpion”.

One day a sadhu went to the river to bathe. There he noticed a scorpion struggling in the water. Scorpions cannot swim and the sadhu knew that if he did not save the scorpion, it would drown... 

Therefore, carefully picking up the scorpion, the monk rescued it from drowning and was just about to set it down gently on land when the scorpion stung his finger. In pain, the sadhu instinctively flung his hand and the scorpion went flying, back into the river. As soon as the sadhu regained his composure from the sting, he again lifted the scorpion out of the water. Again, before he could set the scorpion safely on land, the creature stung him. This drama went on for several minutes as the sadhu continued to try to save the life of the drowning scorpion and the scorpion continued to sting his savior’s hand before reaching the freedom of the riverbank.

A hunter watched as the saint carefully and gingerly lifted the creature out of the water, only to fling it back in as he convulsed in pain from each fresh sting. Finally, the hunter said to the sadhu, "Forgive me for my frankness, but it is clear that the scorpion is simply going to continue to sting you each and every time you try to carry it to safety. Why don't you give up and just let it drown?

The sadhu replied: "My dear child, the scorpion is not stinging me out of malice or evil intent. Just as it is the water's nature to make me wet, so it is the scorpion's nature to sting. He doesn't realize that I am carrying him to safety. That is a level of conscious comprehension greater than what his brain can achieve. But, just as it is the scorpion's nature to sting, so it is my nature to save. Just as he is not leaving his nature, why should I leave my nature? My dharma is to help any creature of any kind - human or animal. Why should I let a small scorpion rob me of the divine nature which I have cultivated through years of prayer and enrichment?

Dear Reader, what do you think?

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