The Compassion of Jesus

Read: Matthew 9:35-36

Your response to the world’s suffering depends on what you force yourself to notice. Thankfully when Jesus looks at a lost world, feels compassion, and then does something.

In the ancient world, compassion was in short supply. It was rare enough in the everyday world of people, but it was virtually unknown as a divine attribute. As a rule the gods of Greece and Rome were heartless, cold, and indifferent to human suffering. And people followed suit. Some ancient philosophers taught that having sympathy for one’s fellow human beings was not only unnecessary, it was actually a weakness. St. Augustine illustrated the difference between pagan and Christian attitudes with a remark by the Stoic philosopher Seneca: “Compassion is the vice of a feeble soul.”

How different is the God of the Bible! His very nature is compassion, his delight is to show mercy. The Latin root of compassion literally means “to suffer with.” Compassion is the ability to feel along with another person, the willingness to sympathize with the pain of one’s fellow humans. More than that, compassion is the pity that stirs one to act in order to help those who suffer. Here is St. Augustine again: “What is compassion but a kind of fellow-feeling in our hearts for another’s misery, which compels us to come to his help by every means in our power?” (City of God, Book IX, chapter 5).

The Bible often tells us that God is compassionate, but in the person of Jesus it shows us. Jesus’ whole ministry could be summed up in this one word. He felt compassion toward those who suffered physically. Listen to these excerpts from the gospels: “Moved with pity he stretched out his hand and touched him” (speaking of a leper, Mark 1:41). “Jesus in pity touched their eyes” (of two blind men outside Jericho, Matthew 20:34). “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 Jesus saw a funeral procession in which a widow was going out to bury her only son. “When the Lord saw her his heart broke” (Luke 7:13, The Message), and Jesus restored the woman’s son to life.

A Ministry Snapshot

Most of all, Jesus had compassion on people who were suffering spiritually. Here is a brief excerpt from the end of the ninth chapter 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. (Matthew 9:35-36)

This little snapshot of Jesus’ activity shows us the three characteristic actions that comprised his public 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. Second, 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, for example, Matthew records the heart of the ethical and religious teaching of Jesus in The Sermon on the Mount. Finally, because Jesus was also concerned about people’s physical needs he frequently healed those who were sick, injured or oppressed by evil spirits, as described in the stories we’ve been looking at in Matthew 8 and 9.

But what stands out here in this summary statement about Jesus’ ministry is its comprehensiveness. Jesus had an all-inclusive approach to meeting physical and spiritual need. And he did it everywhere. Matthew says that Jesus went through all the towns and even the villages teaching, preaching, and healing. Apparently Jesus didn’t have a consultant on his staff to tell him he was wasting his time visiting these little, out-of-the-way places and urging him instead to stick to the big cities.

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 or not a place was important enough for him to spend time there. He didn’t worry that he was wasting his time in these Galilean backwaters. Jesus went everywhere and helped anyone. That’s how he did his ministry.

Jesus Looked

So that’s the snapshot. Jesus is a busy man. He’s actively engaged across the length and breadth of the land. But then something happened that caused Jesus to stop for a moment. “When he saw the crowds,” Matthew writes. In the midst of his hectic life—all that preaching, teaching, and healing—Jesus paused. He lifted his eyes, looked out, and saw the crowds. Maybe they were the crowds of people who were thronging to him for help. Maybe they were just the crowds of passers-by on the busy roads and streets.

How you feel about things and think about the world, even what you invest your time in doing, depends a lot on 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 and out; we don’t stop and take the time to see the needs of the world. We fail to notice those outside the narrow circle of our own self-interest. So we don’t really see the crowds, the masses of people throughout the world, or even in our own town or city, who are in trouble, who are suffering.

It’s really a matter of where you’re looking, isn’t it? Our problem isn’t just that we don’t help people as Jesus did. It’s that we don’t even take time to look at them. We just don’t stop to see. We tune out the painful realities of human suffering by tuning in to entertainment day after day. Or we distract ourselves with the feverish pursuit of fun or accumulation, until there is no time left to think about the world and its needs.

Jesus Felt

Jesus did more, though, than just look at the crowds of suffering people. He also felt for them. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.” There is that word again: compassion. For us, a good way of translating it 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, or caring or love. For the Hebrews compassion was also identified metaphorically with an organ of the body. But they located it a bit lower. To them compassion was something you felt in your intestines. So when Matthew says that Jesus had compassion on the crowd his expression literally means that Jesus’ guts were churning as he saw these suffering people.

I wonder, 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? Think of one of his stories. 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 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 is compassionate. He cares for us. He even 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 all be in big trouble. Our salvation itself is rooted in the feelings of pity that God has for lost, lonely, helpless, hapless people. Do you realize that the first thing God feels toward sinners isn’t anger? Yes, God is hurt and offended by our sins. God is holy and just. There is 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.

Shepherd-less Sheep

Matthew adds one other thing here, an explanation that underscores why Jesus felt compassion for the crowds—because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” In other words, as much as Jesus felt pity for physical suffering, what most roused his compassion for the people around him was their spiritual confusion and disorientation. Jesus feels for ordinary folks like you and me, people who are stumbling along through life, who are in trouble because of wrong choices or bad decisions or just plain moral weakness. His heart goes out to us.

I really think the biggest human problem of all isn’t cancer, or unemployment, or broken families, or war—as real and terrible as all those things are. I think our biggest problem is that without Christ, we’re lost. We’re wandering around, looking for answers, wondering what went wrong. Why can’t we seem to make life work? Why are we so prosperous, yet so unhappy? Jesus 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 he is the Good Shepherd. Only he can save.

Think about this: Christian mission begins with the fact that Jesus feels compassion for lost and hurting people. And because his heart goes out to a broken world, Jesus wants us—those who know him, who have been found by the Good Shepherd—to do something about it.

About the Author

david bast

Rev. Dave Bast retired as the President and Broadcast Minister of Words of Hope in January 2017, after 23 years with the ministry. Prior to his ministry and work at Words of Hope, Dave served as a pastor for 18 years in congregations in the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of several devotional books. A graduate of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary, he has also studied at both the Fuller and Calvin seminaries. Dave and his wife, Betty Jo, have four children and four grandchildren. Dave enjoys reading, growing tomatoes, and avidly follows the Detroit Tigers.

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