To some, tender feelings are a mark of weakness. But for Jesus, feeling pity for the unfortunate, being tender-hearted toward those who suffer, is part of what it means to be authentically human.
During the era when the Christian faith was first introduced into the world, a number of different belief systems were vying for people’s allegiance. One of the philosophies that appealed to many was known as stoicism. The stoics were a group of ancient philosophers who had developed a way of dealing with all the suffering that humans experience in life. It was based upon an attitude called in Greek apatheia, which literally means “not-feeling.” The stoics’ response to the pain and misery of human existence was to practice apathy. How do you handle loss, disappointment, or betrayal? How can you face illness and death? Simple, said the stoics; just stop caring. Especially stop caring about other people. After all, if you don’t allow yourself to care about anyone, you can never be hurt by them or feel hurt for them. So the stoic approach to suffering was to avoid it by eliminating feelings of love or pity for others, and by cultivating an attitude of detached indifference toward life itself.
Jesus of Nazareth was not a stoic. His life offers a vivid refutation of every element in the philosophy of stoicism. No one ever felt the sorrows of the world more deeply than he. No one ever cared more and did more to help suffering people. The example of Jesus’ life makes one thing very clear. The main ideal in life is not to cultivate an attitude of detachment and indifference toward people. No. A life well lived is one marked by pity and compassion for all who are troubled or pain-filled.
This point comes through with special clarity in the gospel stories of Jesus’ miracles of healing. Time and again sufferers came to him for help. Some approached Jesus cautiously, others pressed importunately for his attention. Some came for help themselves, others on behalf of friends or family members. But always they came to Jesus with faith that he could, and would, help them.
PLEAS FOR HELP
Here is one example. It’s a story told by several of the gospel writers, about a dying little girl and her father.
When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. Then one of the synagogue rulers, named Jairus, came there. Seeing Jesus, he fell at his feet and pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” So Jesus went with him.
Mark 5:21-24, NIV
Jairus was a ruler of the synagogue in Capernaum, an important and influential leader in the community. He was well respected, probably well-to-do. But his little daughter, an only child, was sick. More than sick; she was at death’s door.
You know, tragedy is completely unbiased. Sickness and death have no prejudices; they strike just as easily at anyone. Suffering enters the homes of the rich as readily as it does those of the poor. The powerful and important are just as susceptible to grief, as vulnerable to pain, as the lowliest of people. Death came knocking on Jairus’s door that day. It cared nothing about his reputation and position, his religion and influence. It did not regard his daughter’s youth or innocence. Death approached, and when death comes, not all the money in the world, not all the skill of all the doctors, not all the medicines and machines can stop it.
So Jairus turned in desperation to Jesus. He undoubtedly knew Jesus, since Jesus had come to live in Capernaum and regularly attended and even taught in the synagogue there. But whether Jairus approved of Jesus is another question. After all, Jairus was a leader of the establishment, while Jesus was turning things upside down, doing things like healing on the Sabbath and breaking other traditions and rules of the religious elders. But trouble can change your perspective in a hurry. Jairus was no longer concerned about all the criticism of Jesus. He didn’t care much about his own dignity or reputation either. When Jairus caught sight of Jesus surrounded by a crowd, walking there along the lakeshore, he ran up and threw himself at Jesus’ feet and began to plead with him to come to his daughter. The synagogue ruler begging on his knees for the help of the radical prophet – there’s nothing like fear to blow away your religious prejudices and shove theological differences out of the way. When death threatens, everyone believes in prayer – and practices it with desperation!
Here’s another prayer for help that was directed toward Jesus on a different occasion by a very different sort of person.
As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”
He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Lord, I want to see,” he replied.
Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.”
The blind beggar’s approach to Jesus was direct and uncomplicated. No lengthy introduction, no attempt to ingratiate himself with the great man, no preliminaries of any kind, just a loud cry, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The members of the crowd, like some modern celebrity’s handlers, tried to silence the man. He was causing a scene, his shouting was disruptive, his poverty and affliction were embarrassing. But the blind man didn’t care. He wasn’t worrying about what others were thinking, or whether he was making them uncomfortable. Like Jairus, all he could think of was his overwhelming need, and the chance that Jesus represented. Jesus was passing close by. The blind man might never be near him again. So he called out all the louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
It was, of course, an appeal to Jesus’ pity. Neither this man nor the synagogue leader had anything to offer Jesus, anything to bargain with. Money, social position, or prestige – none of these things matter in times of desperate need. Jairus was important and influential. The blind beggar was a nobody. But both men came to Jesus in their crisis. Both pleaded for him to take pity on them and help them.
That is an appeal which will never be directed toward Jesus in vain. These men’s pleas did not fall on deaf ears. Needy, hurting people never found Jesus too busy to listen to them, or too important to respond. No one who came to him for help was ever turned away empty; no one was ignored. Sufferers of every kind can be sure of one thing. If they turn to Jesus Christ they will find him compassionate and willing to help.
PITY AND POWER
Pity is an interesting word. It’s actually related in English to the word “piety.” In the ancient world, piety referred to the duty every right-thinking person owed to parents, country, and especially to God. Piety described the behavior that was appropriate for people to show toward those who were above them, those to whom they were indebted for their lives and well-being. Worship, obedience, respect and honor all were expressions of proper piety. The pious person was the one who acted according to what was expected of him or her.
We tend to think of pity almost exclusively as a feeling. To pity another person is to feel sorry for them. You see someone who is in pain, or you hear about a person facing some terrible problem, and you feel bad. It may be no more than a momentary cloud, but you have at least a twinge of pity. But like the piety to which it is verbally related, real pity is more than just a feeling. It should lead to action, appropriate action. We not only need to feel pity toward those in need; we need to take pity on them and do what we can to help.
Jesus listened to the appeals of sufferers, and then he responded to them. He felt bad for them, he was touched by their pain. Their misery aroused his pity and compassion. But that wasn’t all that happened. Jesus also acted. His heart moved his will, and his will triggered action. Besides just feeling, Jesus did something; he healed. He gave the blind man his sight. Because he was more than simply a tender-hearted man, Jesus’ pity brought health and wholeness and life to those who turned to him for help.
None of his miracles was more dramatic than what he did for the young daughter of Jairus. Jesus immediately set out with the synagogue ruler for his house, but there was a frustrating delay along the way as Jesus stopped to heal yet another sufferer. Then the news came: no need to bother the rabbi any more. The words were brutal in their terrible finality: “Jairus, your daughter is dead.” With that sentence Jairus’s last desperate hope died.
But only then did Jesus speak for the first time to Jairus. What he said sounds odd, perhaps even cruel or insensitive. “Don’t be afraid, only believe.” “Do not fear, Jairus,” he says. “Just keep on trusting me. Don’t stop trusting now even though it seems too late.” When they arrived home they found a scene of noisy commotion and hysteria, and Jesus said something even more strange. “This little girl isn’t dead, she’s just asleep.” Was he speaking literally, trying to make a diagnosis, as it were? The onlookers thought so. They laughed at him for what they thought was an ignorant and foolish remark. Of course the little girl was dead. Her body was lying there cold and still. But Jesus was speaking figuratively. What is death to us is only sleep to him. Jesus is confident that that was only a temporary condition, and he knew that he himself would waken her from it.
Which is exactly what he did. Shooing everyone else away, he went into the girl’s room where she lay, took her by the hand and spoke to her: “Talitha koum!”; “Little girl, arise!” Jesus spoke in Aramaic, their native language. Greek was the universal language in that part of the world, the language in which the New Testament was eventually written. Most people in Galilee could speak Greek. But Aramaic was their heart tongue. And when Jesus summoned this child back to life, he called to her in that language. His words must have made a great impression upon the disciples who heard and witnessed them, for they wrote them down verbatim in the gospel account of this story.
But it’s more than just a story, of course. More even than a marvelous miracle that is meant to astonish us. This is a sign pointing to the nature of God’s kingdom, God’s rule, God’s presence. Miracles in Jesus’ life function chiefly as reminders to us that things like sickness, hunger, evil and death itself are incompatible with God’s presence and rule. These horrible experiences come to us in sin’s wake, but they cannot remain where God is. They were not part of his original creation; they will not be part of his kingdom when it comes in its fullness. Miracles offer us a glimpse of the shalom (peace, wholeness) of heaven and the world to come, even if those experiences here of health and peace are only temporary. But someday the Lord’s kingdom will come once and for all.
Jesus’ pity; as believers it is our future hope. Because he feels for us, he will heal us all, if not today, then when he awakens us from our last sleep. But his pity is also our present guide. Look around you. Do you see someone who is in pain? Let your heart go out to them. And do something, do whatever you can, to bring hope and healing to them right now.