“Pity” is a word that often carries a negative connotation in our culture.
We speak of someone having a “pity party” when they are feeling sorry for themselves. Self-pity is not a positive trait to be admired.
In the Bible, we read of those who allowed circumstances to lead them into self-pity, like Jonah, Elijah, and even Moses on one occasion.
Pity can also be construed as a condescending attitude toward another person when we look down upon them with an arrogant, self-righteous, and disdainful attitude.
Yet, pity can be a positive trait to be practiced and praised.
Yesterday, in my sermon I referenced 1 John 3:17, which is rendered in the KJV this way.
But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?
“Bowels of compassion” sounds very strange to our ears. However, the Greek word literally means “entrails,” which the ancients believed were “the seat of the emotions.” We’ve all had a physical reaction to some emotional event that leaves us feeling a flutter in the pit of our stomachs.
Other translations render the phrase “shutteth up his bowels of compassion” this way:
“shuts up his heart from him” NKJV
“closes his heart against him” NASU
“shuts off his compassion against him” NET
“has no pity on him” NIV
The USB Handbook offers this observation. “In some languages, one can use an equivalent metaphorical expression, for example, ‘shuts the door of his heart against him,’ ‘dries his heart against him,’ ‘his heart hurts not concerning the other,’…’has no feeling whatever (for him).”
Pity for another’s plight is sympathy and empathy. Dictionary.com defines “pity” as “sympathetic or kindly sorrow evoked by the suffering, distress, or misfortune of another, often leading one to give relief or aid or to show mercy.”
This passage reminds us that pity issues itself in action. Barclay correctly observes, “Fine words will never take the place of fine deeds; and no amount of talk of Christian love will take the place of a kindly action to a man in need.”
John, often dubbed as the apostle of love, asks this sobering, reflective, and rhetorical question regarding the one with no pity for his brother’s predicament, “How does the love of God dwell in him?”
The world around us offers multiple opportunities almost every day to express a genuine, righteous feeling of pity toward “the least of these,” as Jesus expressed it.
Worthwhile charities need funding. Gospel preachers in foreign lands, often struggling financially, appeal for support. Widows in our congregations may be scraping by on a meager social security check. Homeless shelters that offer food, clothing and housing request contributions. And the pandemic has left some without jobs, and income to provide the basic needs for their families.
As the holiday season approaches giving opportunities will abound. There will be more requests for charitable contributions that we can meet. We cannot do everything. But we can do something.
Having a heart open to helping others will find expression in tangible, concrete, specific ways. We can demonstrate the love of God and the spirit of Christ in our benevolent deeds.
Note the text says this is contingent on “having material possessions.” You can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t give beyond your means. But when we have been blessed with material and financial prosperity, we ought to do what we are able to do.
“Let no one underestimate the need of pity,” reminded the Hoosier novelist, Theodore Dreiser. “We live in a stony universe whose hard, brilliant forces rage fiercely.”
–Ken Weliever, The Preacherman