The Compassion of Jesus

Jesus healing - 13th century
Jesus and his ministry of healing, from a 13th century church mosaic.

Compassion is a concern for the well-being of others. It is the basis for altruism and the most virtuous motive one can possess. Compassion is activated within the human heart when witnessing another person’s suffering. Compassion spurs us to help. It is through compassion that people feel seen and known. Compassion brings care, empathy, and sympathy together as a bridge to connect with another person or group of people in need. Without compassion, there is no life.

While on this earth, I believe Jesus was the very embodiment of compassion. To reflect on Christ’s compassion helps us to raise our own compassion quotient and avoid succumbing to the whims of indifference to human need.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)

The compassion of Jesus responds to human need. In his earthly ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing, Jesus went through all the towns and villages. He neither waited for people to come to him nor wanted anyone to fall through the cracks. During this work, Jesus was moved by the depth of people’s needs. The word for “compassion” in the Bible means “to be moved in the pit of your gut.” It is to be filled with pity and heart-broken over the unmet needs of people.

What moves and stirs compassion deep down in your gut? Jesus went about the towns and was brokenhearted over people who were harassed and helpless, locked into patterns of life that were harmful and damaging.  Jesus came to this earth to seek and save people, offering forgiveness of sins and a new life. Jesus willingly offered compassion – his motivation was neither from duty nor guilt. Compassion is the proper motivation for all things.

Jesus went out and ministered, then was moved by what he saw.  Compassion comes upon us as we go out and enter people’s lives, seeing first-hand the depth of need represented.  Show me a person with compassion, and I will show you a person who takes the time and effort to know another.

“Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest,” implored Jesus. (Matthew 9:38)

The compassion of Jesus issues in a call to pray. Christ saw the masses of people and told his disciples to ask God to send workers because the harvest is plentiful.  Jesus knows there are large numbers of people waiting to hear the good news of the kingdom of God. So, he said to pray earnestly and compassionately.

Compassion is the motive which brings us to prayer. Compassion impels us to pray that workers be sent to people who are ripe for hearing good news. We must not listen to the hellish lie: That certain people don’t really want the good news of the kingdom of God; that my neighbor, or co-worker, or family member is not spiritual and doesn’t care about forgiveness of sins, or grace – that there is nothing within them to respond to compassion. The devil does not want us to have merciful compassion for them, to be moved to intercede for them in prayer, nor to become a harvester in the field of people.  Jesus said the harvest is plentiful, and it is through compassionate prayer that the work will be done.

Jesus called his twelve followers together and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every kind of disease and sickness. (Matthew 10:1)

Ethiopian Jesus the Healer
Ethiopian Orthodox depiction of Jesus the Healer

The compassion of Jesus caused him to send out his disciples. The call to prayer is central; it is also not everything. As faith without works is dead, so prayer without mission is empty. The people Jesus authorized for ministry were the twelve, and they were a motley crew, indeed!  For example, having Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot on the same team together would be like sending Joe Biden and Donald Trump as a pair out for ministry. Yet, the compassion of Jesus changes lives and brings people together from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.

The disciples were told, in their initial mission as followers of Jesus, to go only to the house of Israel – Israel’s house needed to be put in order first before they could ever think of going to Gentiles. There were Jews all around them, and Jesus goes after them first.  Remember Christ’s final instructions: You will be my witnesses first in Jerusalem, then Judea, and Samaria, and the rest of the world (Acts 1:8). We begin by reaching out to people in our own backyard.

Jesus told the disciples to do exactly what he had been doing: preaching and healing, proclaiming the message that “the kingdom of God is near.”  The kingdom is not only something in the future; the kingdom of God has already broken into the present time, and the evidence of it is the transformation of people’s lives now. The blessings and promises of kingdom life are presently available.

Jesus sent the disciples out and told them not to take anything with them.  They were to leave all their baggage behind. The disciples were to be stripped of everything so that they had the ability to see people and their needs and be moved with compassion as Jesus was. The kingdom of God was near to them, so they did not need to add anything for the mission (Matthew 10:1-15). Jesus did not want his disciples assuming they already knew what people needed. Instead, they must be present to people and discover their needs without bias. As compassion is freely received, it is to be freely given.

Compassion is the appropriate response to human need.  Yet, we do not always react with compassion. The following are a few approaches which prevent us from becoming compassionate, and some ways of cultivating a compassionate life:

  1. A defeating and discouraging environment. Contempt breeds contempt. Anger produces more anger. Hatred feeds hatred. Abuse drives out compassion. The environment around us makes a difference. If we find we must check our hearts at the door and avoid compassion to just make it, then we need a change of environment. Life is too short and the world too compassion-starved to maintain a situation that drags us down and hinders the kingdom of God within us.
  2. An unhealthy pace of life. A person cannot have a compassionate heart if they are running too fast to see other people’s needs. When spare moments are used to try and figure out how to keep all the balls in the air and all the plates spinning, there is no way to dole out compassion to others. Slow down. No one comes to the end of life and wishes they had logged more hours of work at their job. Develop a plan on how to slow down enough to tune into the needs of others and have emotional energy for them.
  3. Excessive caregiving. Compassion fatigue is a real thing. Resentment can build toward the very people we care for because of constant giving without receiving. When the emotional gas tank is empty, it is possible to become cold-hearted. Yet, some keep going anyway – and ruin their engine. Caring for others must be meticulously balanced with caring for self. There is a time for everything, including rest and recuperation.  Jesus regularly practiced the disciplines of solitude and silence. If he needed those restorative practices, so do we.
  4. Objectifying people. Whenever we put adjectives in front of people, it is a clue that compassion is lacking. Referring to “those” people; “lesbian” neighbors; “black” folks at work; my “obnoxious” relative; or, the “poor” family down the street; are all examples of objectifying people and putting them at a distance from ourselves. Your neighbors are your neighbors, your family is your family, and the people in your life are just people, period. Compassion arises as we look for what is common among us, not different. Compassion brings solidarity with others, not separation and division.

May you allow God the time to form a compassionate heart within through being with Jesus. May compassion toward others be the defining characteristic of your life.

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