For anyone who might think that showing compassion for suffering is a mark of weakness, the example of Jesus is a good corrective.
In the ancient world, compassion was in short supply – both among gods and men. It was rare enough in the everyday world of people, but it was virtually unknown as a divine attribute. The pagan gods of Greece and Rome were heartless, cold and, as a rule, indifferent to human suffering. The story of Prometheus is a case in point. Prometheus was a minor deity who decided to help the struggling, starving human race. Because he took pity on the misery of humanity and gave people the gift of fire to make life a little easier, he was sentenced by the other gods to be chained to a rock for eternity, while his heart was perpetually torn out and eaten by vultures. Nice folks up there on Mt. Olympus! What a contrast the God of the Bible is. His very nature is compassion, and his delight is to show mercy.
Of all the many virtues displayed by Jesus during his public ministry, none is more attractive-or more often exhibited – than his compassion. “Compassion” is a beautiful word that designates an even more desirable quality. The Latin root of the English “compassion” means literally to “suffer with.” Compassion means feeling along with another person, having the willingness to sympathize with the pain of a fellow human who is suffering. More than that, compassion is the pity that stirs one to act to help relieve the suffering of others. This word is used over and over by the gospel writers to describe Jesus’ attitude and actions toward the sufferers whom he met during the course of his life. Jesus felt compassion toward those who suffered physically. Here’s an example. “Moved with pity,” Mark writes, “[Jesus] stretched out his hand and touched him” (speaking of a leper, Mark 1:41). Matthew says that “Jesus in pity touched their eyes” (of two blind men outside Jericho, Matthew 20:34). In another place Matthew adds that “he had compassion on [the crowds] . . . and he healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14). Jesus also felt compassion for people who were suffering emotional distress. One day while walking past a little village called Nain Jesus saw a funeral procession in which a widow was going out to bury her only son. “When the Lord saw her,” reports Luke, “his heart broke” (7:13, The Message), and Jesus restored the woman’s son to life. The gospels are full of examples like these.
A MINISTRY SNAPSHOT
Most of all, Jesus had compassion on people who were suffering spiritually. Here is a brief excerpt from the book of Matthew:
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
That is a wonderful snapshot of the entire ministry of Jesus. It really is descriptive of everything that he did during the three years of his public life. In the early chapters of Matthew’s gospel we find examples of the three characteristic actions that together comprised Jesus’ ministry. First, he preached. He “went about preaching the gospel of the kingdom.” That is, Jesus announced publicly the good news that in him God’s presence and rule had come personally into the world. Jesus invited people to come to him, believe in him, and follow him in order to experience the reality of living a new life under the rule, and care and protection of God.
Secondly, Jesus taught people about how they should live if they were his disciples. He explained in detail all that it meant to follow him. In chapters 5-7 of his gospel Matthew records the heart of the ethical and religious teaching of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount is simply the highest, the most demanding, the most revolutionary expression in existence of what a moral human life looks like.
Finally, because Jesus’ ministry was holistic, to use a contemporary term, he did more than even preaching and teaching. He was also concerned about human physical needs. He cared about people’s bodies as well as their spirits. So the gospels show Jesus frequently engaged in acts of healing those who were sick or injured or oppressed by evil spirits. Matthew 8 and 9, for example, describe a series of eight different miracles of healing that Jesus performed.
So the summary statement that I quoted from Matthew 9 is an overview of Jesus’ whole ministry. The key characteristic of that ministry is its comprehensiveness. Jesus had an all-inclusive approach to meeting the needs of people, both spiritual and physical needs, through preaching and teaching as well as by healing. And he did this everywhere. Even little out-of-the-way places saw Jesus visit them. Matthew says that Jesus went through all the towns and even the villages teaching, preaching and healing. Apparently, Jesus didn’t have an efficiency expert on his team-you know, somebody who would tell him, “You’re wasting your time here, Lord. You’re way too important to go to a little village like that. You need to focus and save your energy. Just invest yourself in the big places. Let’s put on a major crusade in Jerusalem, and then maybe we can get you to Rome.”
But that isn’t how Jesus carried on his work. We get the impression that he simply went where the Spirit led him. He didn’t calculate whether there were few or many people when he preached or taught, or whether someplace was important enough for him to spend time there or whether he was wasting his healing power on nobodies. Jesus helped everyone and overlooked no one.
So that’s the snapshot. Jesus is a busy man. He’s got a lot to do. And he’s actively engaged in this ministry of various activities across the length and breadth of the land. But then something happened that caused Jesus to stop for a moment. First, he simply paused and looked at the crowds of people all around him. “When he saw the crowds…,” Matthew writes. In the midst of his busy life-the preaching, the teaching, the healing-Jesus stopped. He lifted his eyes, looked out and saw the crowds. Maybe they were crowds of people who were thronging to him for help. Maybe they were just the crowds of passers-by in a busy road or street.
How you feel about things and how you think about the world has a lot to do with where you are looking. Most of us have a tendency toward tunnel vision. We zero in on our own lives, our own immediate concerns, our own families, our own communities. We never look up, we don’t lift our gaze toward the horizon. We fail to notice those outside the narrow circle of our self-interest. So we don’t really see the crowds, the masses of people throughout the world or even in our own town or village who are in pressing need.
I think of a place like India. Traveling there is an overwhelming, attention-grabbing experience. In the center of New Delhi, the capital of India, there is an electronic clock that continually registers the population growth. As we passed by it I watched that clock ticking over: “950,876,234, . . . 35 . . . 36.” You could literally watch the population expanding. So many desperately poor and suffering people. Can you see them? Jesus can.
And what about the spiritually needy? Do you know that there are over one billion people alive today who have yet to hear the name Jesus Christ? Almost a quarter of the world’s population are not Christians for the most basic of all possible reasons: they don’t have any idea who Christ is. They’ve never heard of him! More than a hundred years ago a noted Christian leader said, “Why should anyone in the world have the chance to hear the gospel twice before everyone has heard it at least once?” That’s a good question. Have you ever thought about it?
So it’s really a matter of where you’re looking, isn’t it? Our problem is that we don’t do what Jesus did. We don’t really lift our eyes to the world. We can tune out these painful realities of suffering and ignorance by simply tuning in to television soap operas and sitcoms day after day, night after night, until there is no time left over for us to think about the world and its needs.
Jesus did more than just look at the crowds of suffering people. He also felt for them. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” There is that word again: “compassion.” Like us, people in the biblical world identified the emotion of compassion with a certain part of the body. For us, a good way of translating this word would be to say “Jesus’ heart went out to them” or even “his heart broke for them,” because the heart is the organ that we identify with compassion, caring or love. For the Hebrews compassion was also identified metaphorically with an organ of the body. But they located it about twelve inches lower than the heart. To people in the biblical world compassion was something you felt in your intestines; in your gut, in other words. So when Matthew says Jesus had compassion on the crowds his expression literally means that Jesus’ guts were churning as he saw these suffering people. He felt this deep sense of identification with them and concern for them. And that’s why he acted to help them.
What is your image of God like? I think far too often the image we have of God is of some remote, stern, unfeeling figure, some unbending, impersonal force or power. What was Jesus’ image of God? He saw God as a father whose son had strayed off, but who stood day after day looking for him, and when he saw the boy coming home he couldn’t contain himself but ran out to throw his arms around him and welcome him back. That’s what God is like. He is not impassive, unfeeling. He has compassion. He cares for us. He suffers with us.
I don’t know about you, but I’m awfully grateful for that because if it weren’t for God’s compassion we would never be saved. Our salvation itself is rooted in the feelings of pity God has for lost, lonely, helpless and hapless people. Do you realize that the first thing God feels toward sinners isn’t anger or contempt? Yes, God is hurt and offended by our sins. Very true. God is holy and just. There will be punishment and judgment for the unrepentant. Again, yes! But none of that changes the fact that the first thing God feels for his lost and suffering children is compassion. What Jesus felt for people, the ordinary mass of folks like you and me who stumble along through life, who are in trouble because of wrong choices and bad decisions and moral weakness and the mistakes we make – what he feels for us is compassion. His heart goes out to us.
You know, I think the biggest human problem isn’t cancer, or unemployment, or poverty, or broken marriages – as real and terrible as all those things are. Our biggest problem is that without Christ, we’re lost. We’re wandering around, looking for answers, wondering what’s wrong. Why can’t we seem to make life work? That’s how people felt in Jesus’ day too. What most roused his compassion for them was the spiritual confusion and disorientation of people all around him. He felt for the crowds, says Matthew, because they were “like sheep without a shepherd.” How’s that for an apt description of the crowds in our own world? Mind you, these people were religious. They had plenty of religion. What they didn’t have, though, is a relationship with Jesus himself. Their deepest, most basic need was to know Christ, because only he is the Good Shepherd, only he can save us, care for us, and lead us in the way of truth and life.
Do you know him? Have you felt his compassion for you? Have you responded to it by giving him your life? Why not do that today?