(Fr. Wells had one for us this week after all, thanks be to God)
Today's Epistle from Ephesians 3 contains one striking verse which is echoed in at least two of our greatest hymns. “To comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height...” appears in Hymn 344, “O Love, how deep, how broad, how high,” and also in the final stanza of Hymn 409:
The breadth, length, depth, and height to prove.
It is tempting to speculate in detail what Paul had in mind with these four dimensions of the love of God in Christ. John Stott is surely correct when he says, “It seems to me legitimate to say that the love of Christ is 'broad' enough to encompass all mankind, especially Jews and Gentiles, 'long' enough to last for all eternity, 'deep' enough to reach the most degraded sinner, and 'high' enough to exalt him to heaven.”
We should not overlook the fact that this entire passage is a prayer. On occasion Paul shared his prayers with his readers, so here he wrote, “I bow my knees unto the Father ... that he would grant you...” It has been said that never has a prayer been framed with such a bold request. (The prayers of the Bible are never timid!) Paul asks for no small thing; he asks the impossible. He asks for his readers that they “may know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with the fullness of God.”
We know well that the love of Christ is beyond all human knowing. Why would a holy and perfect God, who lacks nothing and needs nothing, extend His love to worthless rebels and undeserving ingrates? Why would that love go all the way to the suffering and degradation of a criminal's death? The love of Christ shown on the cross is not only beyond explanation; this love amazes and overwhelms.
To ask that human beings, limited and boxed in with finite notions of “what is fair” and “what makes sense,” should understand this great love is like asking for one's cat to learn algebra. But Paul does ask exactly that! To know the love of Christ is to grasp its unmerited nature, to be given the unexpected status of righteousness and sonship, to be transformed internally as well as externally.
Not stopping there, Paul asks another impossible thing: “that you may be filled with the fullness of God.” He asks that this inward transformation be total, complete, and perfect. In our present imperfect state, here is what we have to look forward to. That is the power of God which works in us.
Probably the best point to begin with today's Gospel is in he words “he had compassion on her.” Jesus immediately grasped the plight of this poor woman, already a widow and now childless because her only son is dead. Under the circumstances of the place and time, she was left in desperate circumstances, dependent on the kindness of her neighbors.
The verb “had compassion” is a familiar one in the Gospels. Luke uses it three times: not only here, but to tell us of the father who had compassion on his prodigal son, and of the good Samaritan who had compassion on the man who fell among thieves. Matthew uses this verb to tell us, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). This verb “had compassion” was used by Matthew and Mark to tell us why Jesus fed the five thousand.
We must resist the temptation at this point to say, “Ah, how wonderful that Jesus was compassionate! This shows how truly human he was!” This thing which we call compassion, or mercy, or kindness (we will return to the point that it is a verb rather than a noun) in the Biblical vocabulary is no sign of humanity but of deity. In Psalm 145 we read,
The LORD is gracious and merciful; long-suffering, and of great goodness.
The LORD is loving unto every man; and his mercy is over all his works., So it is not the humanity of our dear Lord which is presented in this text, but rather His Deity. The general impression we receive from the Scriptures is that humankind rarely displays compassion. Only where the Gospel of Jesus has transformed lives and made some impact on society do we observe anything that can be called compassion.
Cain still lures Abel “out into the field” and smites him. We unite ourselves with Cain and ask, “Am I my brother's keeper?” as we complacently live with the abortion holocaust, There are many priests and levites who pass by the man left for dead in the ditch, but very few good Samaritans.