Bowels and Mercies

Last Monday a very tattered and incomplete New Testament surfaced from the back pocket of a pair of pants going into the laundry at Manna House. On Tuesday, when I was asked for the Word of the Day, I happened to open this worn New Testament (King James Version) to Philippians 2:1-3, 5.

“If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. … Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”

The question came quickly from a guest.

“What does ‘bowels and mercies’ mean? What do bowels have to do with mercy?”

“Maybe we need to look at another translation,” another guest suggested.

Google quickly gave some other translation options, “tenderness and compassion,” “kindness and compassion,” “affection and sympathy.”

But still we were mystified by “bowels.”

“Maybe it means being moved deep within to be merciful” a guest offered, “Like feeling something in your gut.”

“That makes sense,” I said, and I promised that I would ask our New Testament professor at Memphis Theological Seminary for help with finding the original Greek word translated “bowels.”

Dr. Mitzi Minor responded to my inquiry.

She told me “the Greek word translated as compassion/affection/kindness is quite literally the word for ‘bowels’ in Greek. So, the KJV is literally correct. But it’s a poor translation for us because we don’t usually know that for ancient Greeks the bowels were considered the ‘seat’ of compassion in the body. Sort of like a ‘feeling in my gut.’ And a lot like we use ‘heart’ to indicate ‘love. Imagine 1000 years from now when ‘heart’ is no longer used that way, and someone then trying to make sense of someone now writing ‘I love you from the bottom of my heart.’ They’d think, ‘What does the bottom of the heart muscle have to do with love?’ and likely end up translating the line I love you deeply.’ That’s what’s going on in Phil 2:1. I’d prefer to translate that phrase, ‘If there is any compassion and mercy’ (though I’m also not sure that people really understand ‘mercy’ well either, but I really don’t like sympathy for that word).”

I asked her if this the same Greek word or related to “splagchnizomai” because I had once heard a similar explanation for a description of Jesus’ being moved to compassion in Matthew 20:34,

Yes, she added, that’s the verb form of the noun that is the word in Philippians 2:1.

Given this explanation for “bowels and mercies,” I thought about how the passage on bowels had come from a New Testament in the back pocket of pants worn by someone who would often be denied access to a restroom. Business owners have to be moved in their bowels to open bathrooms to others whose bowels are moving instead of restricting bathrooms to “customers only.”

And I also thought about how this passage is connected with Jesus being a model for compassion. I am encouraged to be moved like Jesus was moved, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”

If only I could feel deeply moved by the love of God known in Jesus’ life and teaching, then maybe my bowels of compassion would move too.

I look around and see the results of a severe case of compassion constipation. Fears of “difference,” of “not enough,” of “foreigners,” drive a restrictive politics and economics, bound up by trying to control and dominate “the other.”

This old New Testament text, in its strange translation, points to another way. A way in which somewhere deep within, perhaps where God resides in each of us, a compassion movement can begin. It urges a different way, where we graciously loosen up and take on the compassion of Christ. Moved by Christ’s love we can see each other as sisters and brothers, as sharing in the same humanity. Love can move us, deeply in our guts, to have mercy.

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