“The Imperative of Compassion”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Listen again to Matthew 9:36. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
When Jesus sees the crowds, when he gazes at them, listens to them, when he physically, emotionally, and spiritually enters their “harassed and helpless” world, he has “compassion for them.” In The Message, that line reads, “his heart broke.”
Matthew 9:36 doesn’t just chronicle one moment in Jesus’ life. It reveals the very heart of God. To me, that one particular verse is For God so loved the world…, I have come that you might have life…, and Father forgive them all rolled into one.
Jesus reveals that God’s heart overflows with compassion for the Creation. Compassion means to suffer with. True compassion permeates and surrounds suffering. And that’s what Jesus does. It’s who he is as God Incarnate. In Jesus of Nazareth, God enters the nitty-gritty of the Creation, the dullness, the joy, the suffering – all of it – just to say, I see you. I love you. And I am always with you, in your suffering as well as your celebration.
Now, the compassion of God in Christ has a caveat. And that caveat does nothing at all to limit or diminish grace. Indeed, that caveat invites us to experience and to participate in the fullness of God’s grace.
After looking at all these folks who suffer, whose needs for healing and hope far outweigh their resources and abilities, Jesus speaks to his disciples. And I would paraphrase is comment this way:
The time is at hand! There is deep readiness in the world to see and hear what God is revealing. But right now, there aren’t enough folks who are driven by compassion. Too many are motivated by greed and fear. They’re driven by a desire to conquer and control. The wealthy and powerful of the world view suffering as weakness, so they thoughtlessly overlook and abuse those who suffer. So, pray with me, says Jesus. Let’s ask God to send people of compassion into the world to be with those who suffer, to feed them, to clothe them, to heal them, to cry and to laugh with them, to love them.
Maybe the disciples see it coming. Maybe they don’t. But when Jesus asks them to pray for laborers in the harvest, he expects them to do more than sit still and shut their eyes while they “have a prayer.” Disciples don’t just pray for help. Disciples don’t just entertain thoughts about how much need exists. Disciples are those who live as answers to those prayers. That’s the caveat. When Jesus tells the disciples to pray for laborers, he is calling them into the harvest. He is challenging them to embrace the knee-buckling burden of discipleship by going out and embodying God’s compassion and Love for the Creation.
At the end of the Prayers of the People, I often ask God to help us not only to acknowledge people and situations in need of prayer, but to go and be with those folks, to enter those situations personally. Sure, we often pray for people who are far away, for people already well-attended by family, or for situations beyond our immediate influence. The extent of our involvement in many of those individual lives and wider circumstances is often limited. But remember the historical Jesus. He lived in one very specific and long-ago place. Given his temporal limitations, he did all he could possibly do. As Jesus’ disciples, we are the expansion of those limits. As people shaped by the gifts of Easter and Pentecost, we have the authority of Jesus’ fearless compassion and his eternal Spirit. His work is God’s work. So, our work is his work.
A North Carolina friend of mine recently shared the story of a brief encounter she had while sitting in a waiting room. In that waiting room, a talking head on TV delivered a news report. A woman sitting next to my friend became agitated, even angry. She began to talk with my friend. The two quickly realized that they had very different political opinions.
“Maybe we should pick another subject,” my friend said. The other woman agreed. They talked about kids and grandkids, instead. In that conversation, my friend learned that this woman had a grandson who had been killed in a car accident. Just one year ago. On the day he graduated from high school.
My friend said that the conversation “ended with a hug.”
“I know this doesn’t address political differences,” she said, “but it certainly made us both feel better toward one another.”
Isn’t that the point? To see a human being and not an opinion?
More and more in our culture, we are nurturing and even depending on a kind of pathological need to win, to be “right,” to gain some ideological upper hand. In an age of suspicion and vengeance, when meeting someone for the first time, we tend to wonder, “What are this person’s political views? What’s his or her theology?” A relationship that begins with those questions has the chance of becoming a friendship only if the two people discover that they’re on the same side of some aisle.
When relationships start with the humanizing question, “What’s your story?”, they can begin with compassion and understanding. Even if it’s one-sided, the people involved have a greater chance to move toward gratitude and generosity and away from judgment and competition.
I think that’s what discipleship is all about. Jesus calls and empowers us to be instigators of compassion. That means taking the initiative to be people of grace with and for the people around us. That’s not easy. It takes practice. It takes discipline to live according to the ways and means of grace. That’s why people who do so are called disciples. They practice the disciplines of compassion, patience, forgiveness, justice, gratitude, and generosity.
It sounds strange, but when Jesus sends his disciples out, he tells then not to go to the Gentiles or Samaritans. “Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he says. I hear Jesus saying not to venture too far from home – not just yet. Speak first to those who share your history, who speak your faith language. Practice with them. Some of them may even join you in spreading compassion.
Friends, a “harassed and helpless” creation cries out for disciplined, heart-broken voices. Suffering and compassion are being dismissed as weaknesses to be exploited by those who hold power, and by those who are fearful of and angry at those who do. Jesus is calling us to be different, to live in our particular place and time according to the imperative of compassion. It really doesn’t matter what side of an aisle we’re on. Wherever we are, disciples are called to be guided not by platforms and party lines, but by empathic Love for all humankind and for the earth itself.
Whenever we feel pressured to act without compassion, or to justify words that tear down rather than build up, as disciples of Jesus, we must acknowledge that we are being tempted to follow something other than Jesus. We must learn the humbling discipline of sucking up our pride, of reining in our egos, of resisting the craving for any victory that comes at the expense of Love.
“The kingdom of heaven has come near,” says Jesus. For the sake of others, live in God’s kingdom of compassion. If you do, you will find fellow travelers to keep you company, to keep you motivated.
And if you don’t – if we don’t – who will?