During Jesus’ ministry he displays a wide variety of responses — anger, grief, frustration, joy, laughter, submission, compassion. Within the Gospel narrative all of these can be paralleled in the responses of other human beings, except for compassion. In the Gospel stories of Matthew, Mark and Luke only Jesus and God demonstrate compassion. In other words compassion demonstrates the presence and activity of God as much as the divine quality of holiness!
The term in the New Testament identifies a visceral response of undeserved mercy in the face of human need, normally expressed by deity. Mark defines Jesus’ response to the needy leper (1:41) by this term. The need of the great multitudes for spiritual direction and physical nourishment (6:34; 8:2) fills Jesus with compassion for them. In response he teaches them and feeds them. After the Transfiguration Jesus is asked by a father to "take pity on us" and free his son from the ravages of a demon (9:22). After the father’s affirmation of belief in him, Jesus immediately commands the demon to leave and the child is left fully healed and restored. In Luke’s parable of the Prodigal Son, the father responds with compassion when he sees his son coming home (15:20).
We discern a similar pattern with the term "mercy". Blind Bartimaeus appeals to Jesus for him to exercise mercy and heal him (10:47-8). After Jesus has released the Gadarene demoniac from the legion of demons, Jesus commands him to return home and tell his family and friends "what the Lord has done for you and how he has shown you mercy" (5:19). Mercy again is a divine quality.
When we trace the concept of compassion in the Pauline Epistles, we discover an interesting shift. Paul expects that followers of Jesus will demonstrate compassion (Col. 3:12; Philemon 7, 12, 20; Phil. 2:1). This divine quality should mark the way we related to other Christians especially. However, the example of Jesus in the Gospels would direct us to have the same attitude towards all people in distress and need. As we perceive the desperate condition of people around us, God’s compassion and mercy should move us to share the Good News as well as extend help for physical needs.
In Jesus’ ministry there was no artificial division between evangelism and social action. It was all one and the same built on the foundation of his tremendous love and compassion for people.
- In Mark 6:34 Jesus’ compassion for the crowd arises because he sees them as "sheep without a shepherd". Consider the ways in which pastoral leadership essentially must be a ministry of compassion.
- In what ways has God demonstrates His compassion towards you today?