Compassion for our Self-Centered World
Matthew 9.36 - “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Matthew 14.14 - “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.”
Matthew 15.32 - “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat.”
Matthew 20.34 - “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.”
One of the most trying challenges of following Christ is constant service to people, even constant exposure to people.
The hospitality (e.g. powerful witness) of country folk, e.g. the Amish people, is well known. The same holds true within Jewish, Islamic and many forms of tribal social structures. Some groups, some people are just hospitable, and some are not. If the Englishman’s home is his castle, the city-dweller’s home is his private, fortified castle (e.g. comfort zone). The person who arrives unannounced and unexpected is not likely to be given a warm reception.
The same challenge of too much exposure to people is likely to bedevil the couple where one spouse spends most of the day with hordes of people and the other spends the day largely alone. Come evening, the same holds true--some want a quiet evening; the other wants to talk, socialize, invite friends in or go out to parties.
We can often get burnout when we hear of yet more suffering, famine and disaster on the nightly news and this stems from the same sort of exposure. Before the advent of mass media, the average family was called upon to worry about local conditions and affairs and only occasionally about national and international matters. Prior to the postmodern media revolution, news normally took months or even years to receive. We find it easier to philosophize about evil and suffering than to weep over or do much about it.
Jesus faced the same pressures (e.g., Matthew 9.35, throughout Galilee Josephus, a Jewish historian writing about a generation after Jesus, provides the data about the cities and population of Galilee; he indicates about 3 million people). Jesus often withdrew for prayer and rest, so clearly recognized the need for rest. Nevertheless, under strain Jesus had compassion on the crowds (9.36). We are pressed by life’s demands, which calls for compassion, not withdrawal. One of the most powerful features of Jesus’ confrontation of the world was His compassion. We perceive at least three powerful reflections of this:
I. Compassion is Jesus’ Fundamental Response to Varied Human Needs (9.36):
(1) Jesus was touched by the masses and their needs, precisely because they are leaderless, harassed, bullied, bruised and helpless. Like sheep without a shepherd, they are exploited, adrift and moving as a flock but rarely knowing why or where.
(2) Instead of mindless, He says that they are leaderless (the hysterical masses) that He could have written off as immature and ignorant, but instead He has compassion on them.
(3) The resentments, rebellion, diverting amusements, foolish passion and stupid habits of the heart can be condescendingly dismissed by the elite society. Where, then, are the leaders? The sad truth is that they are often in the same state as the led--which ultimately means that they are not leaders at all.
This is what Jesus sees as He contemplates the great crowd. Throughout scriptures God brings comfort to the downcast and succour to the downtrodden. He attacked their great leaders and responded with compassion “sheep without a shepherd.” “He alone is our Shepherd.” His compassion serves to authenticate His Messiahship as faithful and powerful as any miracle.
II. Compassion of Jesus Issues in A Call to Pray: Jesus’ compassion on the crowds resulted in His “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few; ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into His harvest field.” (9.36-38) The metaphor changes from sheep farming to harvest. The word harvest does not mean “harvest time,” as is often true of judgment (Matt. 13.49; Isaiah 17.11; Joel 3.13). The real point is “harvest crop,” as expressed by “plentiful.” Jesus is stating that there are many people open to the Gospel. The fields of people are plentiful and waiting to hear the Gospel of the Kingdom.
What then should be done? Should we reproduce the evangelizing force? Should we devise a major strategy of recruitment or should we produce a few strategically located seminaries or Bible colleges? Or should we being by establishing two or three industrial foundations to help pay for these plans? All of these proposals are secondary. The first step is to pray--pray to the Lord of the harvest field that He would send out workers into the field. If we have a scarcity of servants, we must raise our eyes to Him to remedy the situation.
The world is full of evil and sin. Whether in the first world or the third, second or fourth; whether it is “civilized” areas or more primitive situations; whether in democracies or under totalitarian regimes; whether in countries where there are a great number of Christians or in countries where raw animism still dominates. Who is sufficient to meet such needs? Shall mere oratory or entertainment or more by the power of doing good deeds transform lives and whole societies? Nothing will suffice but the power of God; and therefore, we must entreat Him to work. God could save everyone or anyone but He has always used other means; and that is why we are asked to pray, asking Him to rise up workers for the kingdom (see esp. Ezekiel 22. 27-29,31). This is no suggestion merely to pray and not work. Jesus’ compassion called for prayer, and our following Him in the 21st century cultural maze calls us to recover prayer power!
III. The Compassion of Jesus Issues in A Mission Carried Out By His Disciples: (10.f.) Jesus’ call is always a training force for His Church (compare Luke 10.1-23 and Matthew 10). Jesus’ call preserves a number of features of relevance only this Pre-Passion, Pre-Pentecost phase of outreach. “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel” (10.5,6). Note the cultural dynamic - Jews and Samaritans (John 4) did not get along very well; Jews and Gentiles could not be expected to get on any better. Here Jesus exposes the depths of the prejudices (Luke 9.52-56) and reveals that there is no particular region for witnessing. Even after Pentecost, the Church, including the Apostles, need some time before they are able to integrate a Gentile mission into their thinking (compare Acts 1-12 and 13-28; we must write Acts 29 in the 21st century). The first fifteen verses of this chapter preserves a number of features for all genuine Christian missions, thus exposing what Jesus meant by compassion.
Jesus’ compassion issues in missions; and when we find out we will understand the relationship, thus what prompted the mission.
(1) Mission is an extension of the saving reign of God. “As you go, preach this Gospel that “The Kingdom of Heaven is near.”
(2) Their verbal message was the proclamation of the nearness of the Kingdom. Their deeds were to display the nearness of The Kingdom. In short, their mission was to multiply the activity of their master.
(3) Jesus delegates authority to His disciples.
(4) After Pentecost signs and wonders are performed by a wide variety of believers (Acts 2.43; 4.30; 5.12,16; 8.18; II Cor. 12.12; Jesus is ultimately “The Apostle” Hebrews 3.1).
(5) Paul receives his mission on the Damascus Road (I Cor. 9 and 15).
(6) The invading power of the kingdom of God must be balanced against other biblical emphasis including the prevalence of suffering in the fallen world. The Church will remain in tension over how much power and how much weakness should characterize her until the consummation of all things.
(7) Signs and Wonders must not be treated as a kind of key to evangelism and mission.
(8) Leaders must disassociate themselves from some of the worst extremes of their followers any emphases that points out extreme forms of emotionalism and frenzy. This is totally dislocated from the scriptures, such as the conflict between leaders of The Great Awakening, George Whitefield, the Wesleys (and our own Cane Ridge Revival) and The French Prophets who cherished supernatural phenomena, wild displays of emotional frenzy, and utterances they claimed were from God (resurgence of signs and wonders, von Wimber at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Church Growth School). The saving reign of God is being extended in many dramatic displays of life transforming power, sometimes in the context of persecution and suffering (Romans 8.35).
IV. The Discharge of Christ’s Compassionate Mission Must Never Be For Personal Financial Advantage: Jesus says that His disciples “have received without paying for anything, freely; therefore you must give freely as well, without charging for anything.” (10.9-10). Here we must note a strange arrangement which we can make sense of what values are preserved by the tension. The disciples are not to charge for their compassion/mission. They received “freely and freely they must witness” (Acts 8). His kingdom comes as He sees fit, when He sees fit and He displays His power in forgiveness, healing and transformation; it is never because He has been coerced, bought or domesticated.
This scripture raises several questions: (1) support for ministers and (2) the relationship of preaching the kingdom to expressing compassion via feeding, healing, meeting others needs. “A servant is worthy of his hire.” Too often too many church members believe that “you keep him humble, Lord and we’ll keep him poor.” (reflect on 10.8-10) All ministry is an expression of the compassion of Jesus, a reflection of what He understood the mission of the Church should be. Here the free dispensing of kingdom benefits and the obligations of the recipients of those benefits to provide for kingdom messengers challenge us. This charge represents the deepest realities of the Gospel.
V. His Mission Results In A Divided Response (10.11-16): Just because the mission is to be motivated by compassion does not mean that everyone exposed to its message will be won over. Far from it--it divides people (e.g. Politics, Religion). Rejection of the disciples of Jesus, because they are His disciples, ultimately invited judgment. This turn of individuals, churches, civilizations; all institutions which are the foundations of unity (10.14). “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.” (10.14)
Judgment becomes explicit in the final verse of this section: “I tell you the truth, it will be bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the Day of Judgment than for that town” (10.15). Sodom and Gomorrah, proverbial examples for wickedness, (Genesis 19; Isaiah 1.9; Matthew 11.22-24; Romans 9.29; Jude 7) suffered catastrophic judgment on account of their sin; but on the final day, Jesus insists, as much as they will be condemned, the homes and towns that rejected Jesus and His emissaries will face more fearsome judgment yet (see esp. 11.20-24).
But I thought the issue was Christ’s compassion, yet you are threatening judgment and hell! Here we see the Love of God and The Justice of God fused together in our Lord. (John. 3.16; Romans 5.9; I John. 4.8,16,19-20; 5.12) If we are faithful to our Lord and His Scriptures we must also deal with His wrath (Ephesians 2.3; II Corinthians 5.14).
James D. Strauss