Both the modern culture and the Church have very clear ideas of what it means to be compassionate. Compassion is usually equated with gentleness, sweetness, and a willingness to “meet people where they are”, and to “love unconditionally”. While these descriptors sound “comforting” and “Christian”, they do not actually represent the concept of compassion that Jesus practiced. In fact, these attitudes are false faces of compassion.
If Jesus were to get a job in a parish or ministry today, he would likely be fired in short order. His approach to dealing with people was repeatedly marked by what we would consider to be harsh, inconsiderate and uncaring behavior. He constantly violated modern precepts of compassion, which might more aptly be described as sentimentalism, enabling and co-dependency.
Lazarus, whom you love is dead
In the eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel, Mary and Martha send word to Jesus, who is one day’s journey away, that Lazarus, whom Jesus loves, is sick. The implication is obvious. They want Jesus to come quickly and heal Lazarus. Instead of hustling back to Bethany, Jesus stays in Jerusalem for three more days. During that time Lazarus dies.
As Jesus finally approaches Bethany, Martha goes out to meet him. She can do the simple math – it took Jesus four days to make a one-day journey. The implication of her words to Jesus is obvious: “If you had been here, Lazarus would still be alive. And, by the way, you can still fix this!”
The truth is that Jesus has allowed Lazarus to die. He has also allowed Mary, Martha, friends and family to endure the pain and grief of death. To add insult to injury, Jesus does not apologize for being late or putting them through hardship. Instead, He works in them, in their difficulty, to deepen their own faith, and so glorify God. And we all know how the Lazarus story ends.
You of little faith
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and the disciples set out to cross the Sea of Galilee. Jesus falls asleep in the back of the boat while a storm rages on the water. The disciples, who count among their number experienced fishermen, fear the boat will be swamped; they fear they will all die. They wake him, saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” After calming the storm, Jesus turns to the disciples and rebukes them, asking, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” (Mark 4:40)
Jesus’ reaction to the disciples, again, appears to lack compassion. After all, the scriptures reveal that the boat was taking on water and in danger of being swamped. To any observer, the situation was dire. Yet, He offers no comfort, no encouragement, and no gentleness. Instead, He rebukes them. He essentially says to them, “You guys have no faith at all.” But, He is demonstrating two lessons that would be important to them later: first, that the natural realm is in submission to the spiritual realm, and second, that external circumstances should not dictate internal peace. The Gospel tells us that the disciples were afraid because their eyes were on the problem (storm) rather than on the solution (faith).
Pick up your mat
In John 5, Jesus goes to the pool at Bethesda where the sick and lame would gather in the hope of obtaining a miracle. The Jewish tradition was that an angel would occasionally stir the waters of the pool, and the first person into the pool after the angel stirred the water would be healed.
Jesus walks up to a man who the Gospel tells us has been by the pool for 38 years, hoping and waiting for a healing. Jesus offers no comfort, just a simple question, “Do you want to be made well?” We might expect the man to exclaim, “Yes!” Instead, he explains in detail how somebody always beats him into the pool when the angel stirs the water, thus stealing his healing. The man’s story is almost heart-breaking to read.
Jesus does not offer the man a single consolation for his situation or for his 38 years of difficulty. Neither does Jesus encourage or exhort him. Instead, Jesus issues a simple, direct, totally impossible command: “Rise, pick up your mat, and walk” (John 5:8). Can you imagine? After a lifetime of laying on his back, someone comes along and basically tells him: “Get up. Walk. And, by the way, take your stuff with you!”
In a postmodern era, Jesus would have detractors on every side. Jesus does not measure compassion in a merely temporal, circumstantial way. His measure of compassion is eternal and transcendent. His goal, His mission, His compassion, is rooted in something deeper than feeling. It is based in goodness.
Jesus is not afraid of being misunderstood in the moment – not if it moves us to a deeper relationship with Him. Not if it transforms our hearts and sets us free from sin. Mary and Martha learned the depth of God’s heart as Jesus wept with them, and they came to know the miraculous power of God. The disciples would need to have interior peace and freedom in the midst of trial in order to lead the early Church and to witness Christ to a hostile world. The crippled man needed to know that his life was not lost and that his history was not his destiny.
Compassion, in Jesus’ eyes, is a will for our good – both in this world and in eternity. If we are uncomfortable, uneasy, off balance, even offended by Jesus’ seeming lack of sentiment towards our problem, His compassion is deeper. His compassion is for our hearts, our souls and our salvation. His compassion moves us to conversion.
Our compassion for others should do the same. It should consider the good of the other, not just their immediate circumstances. Our compassion should not be focused on making others “feel better”; rather, it should move them closer to Christ.