“The Compassion of the Christ”
June 22, 2014
When Jesus saw the crowds, he had
compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep
without a shepherd.
The experience is familiar.
You walk downtown and see homelessness
and brokenness in the middle of prosperity and development. The city has turned
a few unused parking meters into “donation stations” but still the corrugated
cardboard signs ask: “Can you help?”
Online and in the papers we read of one shooting
after another—in schools, in malls, in fast food restaurants. We read of family
members calling for sensible, sane regulations. And we read about politicians
too afraid to challenge the status quo.
The news reports tell of increasing
warfare in Iraq. We remember the great loss of life even as those who took us
there the first time insist we need to return.
And we listen to a growing number of
reports that tell us the planet entrusted to our care is rapidly reaching the
tipping point of climate change even as some still deny reality.
The experience is familiar.
So, too, is our response. Confronted
with great need, with growing violence, with instability and inevitability,
something like exhaustion sets in. We can’t listen, watch, or feel anymore. The
problems on a local, national, or even global level become too many, too great.
It’s hard enough to keep up with
It’s harder still to keep caring.
We want solutions to the problems that
beset us. We care deeply about the suffering in the world, but compassion
fatigue overwhelms us.
The Hebrew people spoke of rahamim, their word for mercy, for
compassion, that derives from a word meaning “womb.” Rahamim evokes a sense of a mother’s deep love for her child. The
prophet Isaiah imagines God speaking to the people and asking: “Can a woman
forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?”
It’s a rhetorical question, of course, and the assumed answer is “No.” And even
as we start to think of exceptions, through Isaiah God continues: “Even these
may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
God’s love is like this. Through this
motherly love, the God of compassion maintains the covenant relationship the
people—remembering those cut off in exile, remembering the poor, the hungry,
remembering those on the margins whom polite society would like to forget.
The ministry of Jesus incarnates the
compassion of God. Confronted with human sickness and suffering, Jesus reaches
out, heals, teaches, and feeds. His compassion leads him to bring to other
human beings the wholeness that we seek, the wholeness that God desires for all
Look at Jesus as he goes from town to
town. Seeing the crowds of people, he has compassion for them because they
are—as we are—like sheep without a shepherd. They are harassed and helpless—and
a more vivid translation pictures them “wounded and lying exhausted.” As one
person says, it is “as if wolves had harried them and left them bleeding
because they had no one to lead and protect them.”
When we are wandering and lost, ground
down by living or by the often soul-crushing news that we hear—God looks upon
us still with mercy from the very womb of the life giving God.
The compassion of Christ comes to us
when we suffer.
The compassion of Christ comes to the
world in its distress.
The compassion of Christ comes—and you
know this, although in some way it surprises us each time we hear it—the
compassion of Christ comes into the world through those who follow in Christ’s
way, through people like you and me. And it is only as we open ourselves to
such compassion that we will also be able to show such compassion to others.
Looking at the harassed and helpless
crowds, Jesus doesn’t say, “O.K. I’ve got this one. I’ll take it from here,” setting
out to make everything better.
No, he gathers his disciples—that is,
those who have been taught, those who have been following along for a while
now—and he sends them out.
That is both a troubling and an
empowering reality, isn’t it?
Troubling because it means that it’s up
Empowering because it means—well, it
means that it’s up to us.
Walter Levin is a businessman who lives
in Connecticut. He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of bone cancer,
and given three days to live. He survived. And Levine says that when he asked
God why he survived, God answered, “I kept you around to help people.”
Maybe that’s the answer that we’re all
given. Maybe that’s the call that we have all received. God “keeps us around”
so that we might be compassionate.
Or perhaps we should say that rather
than “keeping us around,” God sends us
out so that we might be compassionate. In its strongest sense, the Greek
word that we translate as “sending,” suggests a kind of banishing. The apostles
are sent out away from the One they sought to follow, away from their teacher.
They are banished even from the small community that they knew for the sake of
the world, for the sake of the lost sheep.
They don’t have to go alone, however,
and that’s encouraging. It’s always nice to have a little company. Matthew
lists the Twelve in pairs, suggesting that they went out together, with mutual
support. Peter and Andrew. James and John. And there at the end of the list we
learn that even Simon the Cananean had a partner—although, of course, his
partner was Judas.
Hang around Jesus long enough—listen to
him, watch him, be one who is taught—and you will become one who is sent out as
Peter and Andrew.
Simon and Judas.
You and me.
Even when we are sent, we have each
Wouldn’t you think, however, if someone were
to be sent to harassed and helpless people, wouldn’t you think it would be
someone other than you or me? I can think of all sorts of better candidates for
the job. We have our own problems. We, too, are beset and besieged.
And yet, this is what we hear: “Go.”
“Go,” Jesus says.
who are hopeless;
those who are weary;
those who are afraid;
people like you and me at some point;
the most unlikely people.
deepest discontent, when we are least satisfied with life as it is, when the
pain of the present is finally too much we hear the simple but straightforward
look at this city, this nation, this world—when “compassion fatigue” looms at
the edges of suffering—at just such times we, too, hear “Go.”
says, and gives us a message of good news: “The kingdom of heaven has come
And while this is good news, we might be
left thinking, “Wait a minute. Shouldn’t we be doing something? What difference
can the nearness of the distance of the kingdom of heaven make to the problems
of our world?”
What is Jesus talking about here?
Let’s recognize at first that he’s not
talking about “heaven” or someplace where all good people will go when they die
if they just do this or believe that. Jesus really isn’t talking about some
“place” at all.
The message that the followers of Jesus
are to proclaim—our good news is
about life here and now—which is not to say that there isn’t also something
“there and then” but that is different news than this and a different sermon.
Matthew was writing to a Christian
community that was composed mostly of Jewish people. And following the Jewish
practice of not speaking the name of God, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of
the “the kingdom of heaven” rather than “the kingdom of God” that we hear about
in, say, Mark and Luke. The kingdom of heaven, the realm of God—the same
thing—it is the new reality that is seen in an end to exile, the defeat of
evil, and the presence of God with God’s people. It has come near. God’s rule
is in the midst of being established in the world that God created and loves.
We are called to announce this as good
news. And because it is good news, because the kingdom of heaven has come near,
we are called to act in certain ways.
“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse
the lepers, cast out demons.”
Of course, it’s quite clear that very
few of us are involved in doing any of these things. We have no “board of
exorcists” here—and we can only imagine the difficulties the nominating
committee would have if we did. The men of the church don’t gather once a month
on a Saturday morning to go out and raise the dead—we just eat breakfast.
So we shouldn’t let those first-century specifics
become rigid requirements. These are actions that bring God’s wholeness to the
world. These are actions that show God’s compassion. They are signs that the
living God is establishing a new realm in the midst of a broken, decaying, and
And this is the point.
Many voices are ready to say that God
has abandoned this world and so it doesn’t really matter what we do: we can
structure our economy and our society to let the ranks of the poor swell in our
city, state, nation, and world as long as our comfort is assured; we can
continue to follow the path of ecological destruction for the sake of just such
an economy; we can let guns and violence proliferate as we seek our own
From Jesus we hear just the opposite.
Not only has God not abandoned this world, God is drawing nearer than we would
have expected. So, what we do matters. How we act matters now and it matters
for the realm of heaven that is being established on earth.
Will we solve all the problems? Of
course not. It is a foolish kind of contemporary progressive Christianity that
thinks by our actions alone we will bring the realm of God to earth, that
suggests were are getting closer and closer to accomplishing that objective.
That is not our calling. That is not within our ability.
God’s realm will come in God’s own time.
But we are to announce that this realm
of God is drawing near.
We are called not to be solutions, but to
be signs of that nearness—to point to what is happening all around us.
What might it look like when we seek to
be signs of the realm of God that has come near?
It is not simply a matter of rearranging
the deck chairs on the Titanic, nor is it, as someone else put it, oiling the
wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff.
The Anglican bishop and New Testament
scholar, N.T. Wright, has put this as strongly and as clearly as anyone:
though it may seem…—accomplishing something that will become in due course part
of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of
art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of God’s
creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or
to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support…all of this will
find its way into the new creation that God will one day make.
When we stand with people seeking a just
When we provide one meal to hungry
people at the Free Lunch Program…
When we celebrate the equality of all
people as we did on the PedMall yesterday and proclaim the love of God for all
people as we do here all year long…
We will not solve all the problems. By
the grace of God we might solve some and others will be solved by other people.
And some will remain. We will not solve all the problems, but by our actions we can be signs to the
world of a new way, signs to the world of God’s compassion.
We are sent out, not as conquerors, not
as the righteous judges of the world in order to impose our religious perspective
on others. We are sent out to lost and wounded and exhausted sheep as sheep ourselves. We are sent out like
sheep among wolves. In this situation, we need practical wisdom and a sense of
In the other gospels, after Jesus sends
his disciples out we later read of how they returned, filled with wonderful
reports of what they’ve done. Not so with Matthew. Oh, we know they must have
come back, but there are no glowing reports, no news of success. Instead, we’re
left with the sense that, once sent, the followers of Christ are still out
there announcing good news. We get a sense that they are still out there,
showing compassion with wisdom and in peace.
Sure, the followers of Christ keep
getting together, keep showing up at places like this to pray, to sing, to
hear, to remember. We need to do that. We just get too weary otherwise.
But as you leave this morning, look
Out our doors, into the streets, there
go the followers of Christ, sent into the world.
And—good news, amazing news—you are one
of them—in wisdom and in peace, a sign to this world of the compassion of the