What is compassion?

There is a major debate in the Church today over what many people refer to as “the social gospel.”

It goes like this:

On one side, you have people who want to feed the hungry and clothe the homeless, and end human trafficking, and advocate for those who have no voice. They point to Matthew 25, in which Jesus says “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me…. Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” They look at the opulence of Americans and the way many in the church have grossly neglected people’s needs, all the while living in comfort themselves, and they cry out, “someone has to do something about this!” And they are right.

On the other side, you have people who recognize that many in the world are lost and dying without the knowledge that Jesus came to reconcile them to a loving God. They point to Luke 9 where Jesus says, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” They look at all the humanitarian efforts around the world that are helping people out of poverty, but not introducing them to the Savior, and they cry out, “someone has to do something about this!” And they are right, too.

I find myself caught somewhere in the middle. How can I offer someone a handout when I know that what the really need is Jesus? But then how will they believe that God really does love them if they meet a Christian and still walk away hungry? There has to be some way to love my neighbor as myself and still proclaim Jesus as Lord from the rooftops. Doesn’t there?

So I did what I always do when I find some irreconcilable theological dilemma. I turned to Jesus.

What did Jesus’ ministry look like? One camp will tell you that Jesus was always going around loving people and meeting their needs. The other camp will tell you that Jesus never stopped talking about hell and the Kingdom of God being at hand.

And they both would be correct.

But when I study the gospels, especially as I look at moments when the Bible says  Jesus “had compassion,” here’s what I notice: Jesus did meet people’s needs. But he did it in a way that only he could.

“When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on the and healed their sick.” Matthew 14:14

“I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat.” Matthew 15:32 (After this he fed the whole crowd with the contents of one kid’s lunchbox.)

“Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.” Matthew 20:34

Please allow a moment for these verses to sink in. It’s easy to overlook what the Bible is saying because we are so familiar with the gospel stories that we forget how radical these miracles are. But what Jesus did is truly amazing. People that were blind could see. Handicapped people started walking. Leprosy was gone with a single touch. Food materialized from thin air–enough to feed a multitude and still have leftovers.

The awesome part is that this wasn’t just a part of Jesus’ ministry, but something he expected his followers to continue after he returned to heaven.

He said, “These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons, they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” (Mark 16:17-18)

And, “anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)

So forgive me if you disagree, but I think we can do a lot better than giving people a water bottle and a pair of shoes. I’m not saying we should stop doing that, but as Christians, if we believe that’s all we have to offer someone in need, how small is our faith?

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