Compassion: More Than a Bleeding Heart
One year right after Christmas I was flying through Atlanta on my way to Tampa to speak at a Bible conference. I had a few minutes in the airport so I picked up a copy of the Washington Times (December 26, 1994, p. A2). One of the articles gave a synopsis of the sermon on Christmas Sunday at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. The preacher began his message this way:
“This morning I want to talk about incarnation and children. But let me begin with the comments of a drug dealer to a minister. . . . ‘Rev, when a kid gets up in the morning and heads off to school, I am there. When he comes homes from school, I am there. When he comes out to play, I’m there. . . . They know where I am, Rev. Where are you?’”
“Rev, where are you?”
I’m a Rev. That question is for me.
Evil is all around us.
Where is the church of Jesus?
Where is the church of Jesus?
I write these words at a moment when our nation is deeply divided. We disagree with each other and often we don’t trust each other. Across the political spectrum we are beginning to realize that what is wrong with America is moral and spiritual. I think people are beginning to see that it is going to take more than money to rebuild our cities and our homes, our families and marriages, and to preserve our children into the next generation.
We need a new birth of compassion.
Compassion means to suffer with another person. The word has a strong personal element. To have compassion means more than just feeling sorry for somebody. It means to get down where they are in the midst of their need and to suffer with them in the midst of their pain. When Noah Webster published An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, he began his definition of compassion this way: “A suffering with another; painful sympathy.”
I like that, but I find it very challenging.
As an illustration of this “painful sympathy,” Noah Webster quotes Luke 15:20, “His father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him." That verse is very significant because it shows us that compassion is more than just a feeling. It’s not just an emotion. It’s more than feeling sorry for people in trouble. Biblical compassion means that you see the problem, you are moved by the need, you go out to where the problem is, and you get your hands dirty trying to help one person after another get their problems solved and raise them up to a higher level of life.
We see this in a number of places in the life of Christ.
Matthew 14:14 tells us that Jesus had compassion on the great crowd following him so he healed the sick and then fed the 5000.
We need more “Painful Sympathy"
Matthew 15:32 says that Jesus felt the same compassion on another crowd and so fed the 4000.
When Jesus saw the two blind men of Jericho, Matthew 20:34 tells us that he was filled with compassion and healed them on the spot.
Mark 1:40-41 offers the most telling example of what compassion meant to our Lord Jesus.
“A leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.”
Here is the most shocking part of that text: Jesus touched a leper!
Jesus touched a leper!
In doing that, he broke all the customs and rules of that day. According to the Old Testament, if you had leprosy, you were unclean. People were so scared of lepers that they made them live in a colony away from the rest of society so they would not contaminate anyone else. But when Jesus saw the man with leprosy, he was so moved that he reached out and touched him.
Please understand something. For our Lord Jesus Christ, compassion was not a feeling; it was a commitment to get involved with hurting people. Real compassion is more than a feeling. Real compassion moves from feeling to action.
We are used to thinking of Jesus as the Son of God, and so he was. But I call to your attention what the Apostle Peter said in Acts 10:38 as his one-sentence summary of Jesus’ ministry:
“He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”
How’s that for the earthly life of Christ?
"He went about doing good.”
We need a new birth of compassion.
Short, concise, right to the point.
Most of us would not react kindly if someone called us a “do-gooder,” but the original “do-gooder” was our Lord Jesus Christ.
One day a man came to see our Lord with a curious question:
“Who is my neighbor?"
In one sense, that question seems to answer itself. Just look around. Your neighbors are all around you. They live on your street, you go to school with them, you shop at the same stores, eat at the same restaurants, you drive the same streets they do, you work with your neighbors, and you see them when you go to church.
Your neighbors are all around you
Your neighbors are all around you.
Simple answer, or so it would seem. But buried within it is a deeper theological question. All the Jews knew that God commanded his people to love him with a whole heart. But Leviticus 19:18 adds an important application:
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
If loving God is hard, loving your neighbor is equally hard but in a different way, especially when you add those last two words, “as yourself.” So the question comes, “Who is my neighbor?” In answer to this important question, Jesus told a story that we call the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37).
Jesus said there once was a man on the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho. Thieves fell upon him, beat him, stripped him, robbed him, and left him for dead. And before too long a priest, a minister of God, came by, saw the poor man lying there, and the priest walked on the other side so he wouldn’t have to get involved. He had to get to the temple. A few minutes later a Levite came by, a theologian, a Doctor of Theology, a student of God’s word, a man who was supposed to know the character of God. When that Levite saw the poor man lying by the side of the road, he crossed to the other side so he wouldn’t have to bother with him. He was already late for his weekly Torah discussion group.
Jesus was the original “do-gooder."
Soon after that came a Samaritan. When Jesus says that, he was talking about a despised group. The Jews hated the Samaritans. They would never say anything good about them. But Jesus said this half-breed, hated Samaritan came along and saw that poor man lying there. When he found out that he was still alive, he took his wine and poured it on his wounds. He dressed his wounds, picked the man up, put him on his donkey, took him up to the inn, paid the proprietor, stayed the night with the man, and the next morning he took money out of his own pocket, gave it to the inn keeper saying, “If there is more, I’ll settle the bill when I come back later.”
We would have called 911
Let me make two observations about this story. First, what this Samaritan did was truly above and beyond normal human obligations. Today if we saw a beaten man lying by the road, we would first call 911 and then do what we could while we waited for help to arrive. But there were no EMTs on the treacherous road winding through the mountains from Jerusalem down to Jericho. If this man were to survive, the Samaritan would have to take the whole burden on himself.
Either he got involved or the man died.
There were no other options.
Seen in that light, many of us might have hesitated. After all, we’ve got things to do, places to go, people to see. I don’t know anyone who isn’t busy these days. The demands of life lie heavily on all of us. And you can’t save the world. You just can’t.
Lighting a Candle in Toledo
Not long ago Marlene and I spent a weekend in Toledo with David and Kelly Kaiser and with all the good people who serve with them at Western Avenue Ministries in the South End of town. It is one of the toughest areas in the country. I wrote about our experiences in a blog entry called I Haven’t Turned a Trick in a Week. The area is rife with drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, slumlords, and broken families living below the poverty line and getting by on government assistance. I’ve never seen a more difficult area in my travels across America. And yet David and Kelly seem happy to be there. They and their co-workers face the challenges with faith, hope and optimism born of something that is “not of this world.” Here’s how I summarized it:
Then you look at the faces of the little children who come with their mothers to Baby University.
Innocent, beautiful children raised by parents who sometimes are hardly more than children themselves.
It is so heartbreaking.
But if the work is hard and slow, the victories are real and sometimes the work of grace is amazing in a broken human life.
If you’ve been turning tricks to make a living, it’s a huge victory to go a week without turning one.
That’s worth cheering.
So our friends at Western Avenue continue their good work. Not everyone can do what they do. Some people visit and never come back because the devastation wrought by sin is so great that they can’t take it. At one point last night, Kelly Kaiser said, “You can’t look at it that way. Don’t let the darkness overwhelm you. Just light a candle and let it shine.”
I think that last point bears on the story of the Good Samaritan. No matter who you are or how much you care or how hard you work or how much you pray, you can’t save them all.
You can’t rescue every baby.
You can’t save every marriage.
You can’t help every homeless person.
Light a candle in the darkness
Even if you are Mother Teresa, you can’t rescue every hurting child in Calcutta. It just can’t be done. But that is no reason not to help those whom God puts in your path.
You light a candle in the darkness.
So why did the Samaritan get involved when the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side?
It’s not a matter of busyness nor is it a matter of preparation. I suppose one could argue that his background as an outcast made him more likely to respond to human need. That’s possible, and it may in fact be true, but Jesus does not stress that point.
The priest had no idea that morning about the man by the side of the road.
Neither did the Levite.
Neither did the Samaritan.
All we know is that his compassion moved him to action. At that particular moment, this particular Samaritan saw this particular man robbed, beaten and left for dead, and he decided to get involved. We need not ask what he would have done if he had seen 10 men lying by the road or if he had seen 100 men robbed, beaten, and left for dead.
He cared enough to help the man he actually did see. That’s all that matters.
No One Can Do It All
There is a second point to notice. The Samaritan could not have known what he was getting himself into. I’ve already noted that few of us would have done what he did. But don’t miss the point. When he saw this man by the road, he evidently didn’t do a mental calculation and say, “I’m going to end up paying for this man’s hotel bill.” That would come somewhere down the road. As a practical matter, he couldn’t have known what was required. The only decision he had to make was, “Should I get involved or should I pass by on the other side of the road?"
We rarely know what compassion will demand of us. Which is why we ought not to be overly calculating before we get involved. Sometimes the help we give will be brief and easy to do. Other times we will discover that the demands are long-lasting and heavy to bear.
We rarely know what compassion will demand of us
Most of the time we can’t do it all by ourselves. Even in this story, the Samaritan didn’t stick around and try to nurse the man back to health himself. He left him in the care of the innkeeper and then went on his way.
No one can do it all, and no one is being asked to do it all.
But we can all do something.
So we come to the end of the story Jesus told, which actually ends in a question and then a simple commannd.
“Which of these was the true neighbor to the man in need?”
I just smiled as I wrote that because it’s not a trick question. It’s as if Jesus is saying to a group of schoolchildren, “If you know the answer, just shout it out.”
Even the kids know the answer to this one.
Even the kids know the answer to this one
Tell this story to children anywhere in the world, and hands will go up all over the room.
"It’s the Samaritan!”
Then comes the simple application: “Go and do likewise.”
You see, in the story Jesus told, the real question is not, “Who is my neighbor?” but rather “Whose neighbor will I be to those I meet today?" The onus is always on me, not on those in need. In the story Jesus told, it’s not about the man in need. It’s about those who had a chance to help and didn’t, and the one man who did what he could even though he could have walked away.
Compassion is not something you talk about. Compassion is something you do. If you want your neighborhood to be changed, get involved. Your neighborhood could be changed, but you have to do it the hard way, the slow way, the quiet way, the unseen, difficult way. But in God’s economy, that’s the only way it works.
Let me give you three words of application:
1) We need to pray aggressively.
A few years ago a prominent Christian magazine published an article called “Rediscovering Prayer.” It should strike all of us as ironic whenever the church “rediscovers” prayer.
How did we lose prayer so that now we need to “rediscover” it?
How did we lose prayer so that now we need to “rediscover” it?
History tells us that every revival has been preceded by fervent, united praying among believers. The spiritual and moral decay in our culture has brought us to a point of desperation and now our desperation has become our greatest ally. When we become desperate enough, we will seek the Lord.
My question is, are you desperate enough to start praying? We need some teenagers, young adults, children, singles, married couples, and we need an army of senior adults who are willing to become prayer warriors.
Will you pray for your spouse?
Will you stand in the gap for your children?
Will you seek God’s face for your pastor?
Will you pray earnestly for your friends?
Will you bring your neighbors before the Lord?
Will you pray for missionaries around the world?
Will you lift up the leaders of your government?
“Jesus told you to come and help"
I can imagine someone saying, “Pastor Ray, I thought you were preaching about compassion. What does this have to do with compassion?” I remember one Sunday when a woman came to me after a service to explain why she hadn’t been in church recently.
“Pastor Ray, you haven’t seen me for the last two months because a young baby was born that has not grown as it should. After eight months the baby weighs only 11 pounds. The baby requires special care. On Sundays the last two months, I have been with that family. Pastor, thank you for telling the people to pray. I could not do it without their prayers."
I didn’t know a thing about this until the woman spoke to me. The mother couldn’t understand why people from the church were going over twice a week to help feed and take care of the little baby. She said, “Now I understand. Jesus told you to come and help." Thank God for an army of Christians around the world who without fanfare or publicity, without any desire to be known abroad, are sacrificing and reaching out and touching the hurting people around them. We need to have more people praying aggressively because we’re living in a sea of hurting people.
2) We need to be radically personal.
I come back to the sermon from the National Cathedral on Washington. The preacher said that four years earlier a minister and his wife adopted a crack baby. He and his church were already committed and engaged in community outreach. But he and his wife felt called to do more. He said that when the baby was brought home, her cry was like a cat’s meow. But now she is healthy, bouncy and happy. Whenever the pastor is asked how they did it, he just smiles and says, “We loved the crack right out of that baby." It can be done. It will be time-consuming and expensive, but it can be done.
It can be done
3) We need to begin this week.
May I suggest one simple step of application? Many of us would like a personal ministry, but we don’t know where to begin. There are people in your life who need the help only you can give. Some of them need a word of encouragement, and you are the only one who can give them that word. Some of them are staggering beneath a heavy load, and you are the only one who can lift that burden from their shoulders. Some of them are about to quit, and you are the only one who can keep them in the race. Some of them have been hit with an incredible string of trials, and you are the only one who can help them keep going.
Ask God to give you Missionary Eyes
Those people are all around you. Your only problem is that you don’t see them. Pray that God will give you Missionary Eyes. Those are eyes that see the real needs of the people you meet. Pray that God will bring at least one person across your path who needs the help only you can give. That’s a prayer God will answer, for there are folks all around you who are just barely making it. You see them where you work, and you live next door to them. Your children go to school with their children. They are out there waiting for someone to give them help. God has helped us for a purpose: that we might take what we have received and share it with those who desperately need it.
How do you change the world? Not through programs and not even through preaching done at a distance. You change the world one heart at a time, one life at a time. Compassion that isn’t personal isn’t compassion. God help us to be men and women of compassion, to reach out and touch a hurting world in Jesus’ name.
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