A meditation by Timothy George presented to the Annual Gathering of the Baptist World Alliance, Nassau, The Bahamas, July 12, 2019.
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples,“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Matt. 9:35-38, NRSV
If you were asked to describe the deepest dilemma of the human condition in just one word, which would it be? Sin, sickness, oppression, anxiety, distress, alienation, separation, hatred, violence, war, enmity? The list is long. The word I would choose is rift — something split apart, a fault line in the human soul spilling over into human society. There is within the human spirit, within the human community, a cleavage, a distension, evidence of something hurt and broken beyond the capacity of self-repair. “Sheep without a shepherd,” the text says, lost, helpless, battered, and bruised, weary and worn out, worn down and exhausted.
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share.
Simon & Garfunkel, "The Sound of Silence."
Into that world, so different from ours, and yet so very much alike, comes Jesus Christ. What is the response of Jesus to those distressed souls, to those lost sheep so scattered and torn? “When he saw the crowds he had compassion for them” — the theme of this text — the “endless, bottomless, boundless grace and compassion of Christ,” as an old Puritan pastor (John Owen) put it. Yes, boundless, for his compassion took him to all the cities and villages of the Galilee, more than two hundred of them, according to Josephus — the big ones like Capernaum and Tiberius, which ringed the Sea of Galilee, and also the out of the way, bump-in-the-road places like Cana, where Jesus’ first miracle took place; Nain where a mother received her son brought back to life again; Magdala where he met that Mary who would be the first preacher of the resurrection.
In all of these places, Jesus pursued his three-fold ministry: teaching, preaching, and healing. Teaching the Holy Scriptures — the Law, the Prophets, the Writings — and himself as the fulfillment of their promises. Preaching the good news of the kingdom, the theme of his very first sermon: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). And healing, healing those afflicted in both body and soul. Jesus was the divine Son of God, and he could do long-distance healing, as he sometimes did. But his preferred method was to heal by touching. He touched the lepers, the lame, and the blind. He touched a girl who was languishing at the point of death and restored her to health. On one occasion, a woman in the crowd who had been hemorrhaging for most of her life reached out and touched the border of his robe, and she was healed.
The Greek word which means “to feel compassion,” splagchnizomai, is found only in the Synoptic Gospels and is used of only Christ himself, or one of the characters in the stories he told, like the Good Samaritan, which tells of a man who had compassion on a fellow traveler, one who had been attacked and brutalized by thugs. Jesus did not love people in the abstract. He loved them by assuming their vulnerabilities and entering into their brokenness. The Samaritan did more than recognize the plight and analyze the problem. He became involved in the messy medical work of a first responder. Compassion is not a mild word. It is not pity, nor sympathy, nor even empathy. The word literally refers to those visceral organs in the lower part of the abdomen — one’s innards. Older translations referred to the “bowels of compassion” — gut-wrenching love (see 1 John 3:17, KJV).
Jesus came to say to us, show to us: this is who God is. In that primordial confession of Israel’s faith we find in Exodus 34, God passes before Moses and reveals to him that special personal name, Yahweh. Who is Yahweh? He reveals himself as the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding, overflowing in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, forgiving wickedness and sin (Ex. 34:6-7). Later, in the time of captivity, during a dark night of the soul, these very attributes of God were radically called into question, as we read in Psalm 77:7-9. Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Has he in anger shut up his compassion? Is his mercy “clean gone forever” (KJV)?
Is it clean gone? Who among us has not asked these very questions in the wee hours of the morning? Or when the doctor takes our hand and says, “There’s nothing else we can do.” Or when justice is denied and evil overwhelms. In response to those questions — which are our questions — we find this statement, which encapsulates the basic message of the Christian faith more succinctly than anything else in the Bible: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
Note well, God did not become a text nor an idea, much less an ideology. It is true enough to say that the Word became a human being, but even that is not deep enough. The Word took on flesh — that part of our human reality that is most vulnerable, most susceptible to suffering and sorrow. In Jesus Christ, God has come into the very depth of our brokenness. Hebrews 4:15 reminds us that we do not have a high priest unable to enter into our weakness. Rather he is one who was put to the test in every way that we can be put to the test, which means that there is no bed in hell you can make for yourself, or find yourself thrown into, but that Jesus Christ has not already climbed down and crawled into it before you ever got there.
The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats expressed this in one line that has more gospel in it than one hundred feel-good sermons: “Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement. For nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent” (Yeats, “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop”). We have been asked to think about the connection between compassion and evangelism. We cannot have one without the other — evangelism without compassion is proselytism, which rings hollow in a world hungry for authenticity; compassion without evangelism is not compassionate enough, for God has set eternity in our hearts, and the call of Christ requires a response: “Come, follow me!” We do have something to declare, a message to proclaim. We are not ashamed of the gospel, for it “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).
But sometimes we need to listen before we can speak. I recall a story Dr. Gardner C. Taylor once told about an experience early in his ministry. An elderly deacon in the church had lost his beloved wife and was suffused with grief. Dr. Taylor went to see him, but as he arrived he discovered that his young ministry intern was already there. He overheard the young minister trying to comfort the bereft deacon, speaking to him about how this loss was really the will of God, about the golden streets of heaven, and the like. What he was saying was not so much theologically unorthodox as it was pastorally insensitive. Later Dr. Taylor admonished the young minister, gently but firmly, that one should not speak so glibly about matters of eternal moment. “Do not rush in with your pious platitudes and silver-lined sentiments,” he said, “until first of all you struggled yourself for your own footing in the awful swellings of the Jordan.”
D.T. Niles was a leading Methodist minister from Sri Lanka and an apostle of Christian unity in an earlier generation. His 1951 book, That They May Have Life, remains one of the great manifestos on evangelism for global Christians everywhere. In this book, Niles wrote the line for which he is best remembered: Evangelism is witness. It is one beggar telling another beggar where to get food. The Christian does not offer out of his bounty. He has no bounty. He is simply a guest at his Master’s table and, as evangelist, he calls others, too. The evangelistic relation is to be ‘alongside of,’ not ‘over-against.’
Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where he can find bread. Behind this statement are the final words Martin Luther ever wrote. Found at his deathbed in 1546, scrawled on a scrap of paper, half in Latin, half in German, Luther wrote: “Wir sein pettler. Hoc est verum.” We are beggars. This is true. We share the incredible good news of Jesus Christ out of our own beggarly neediness, pointing men and women everywhere to the unspeakable gift of God’s overcoming grace and all-sufficient love. And so we leave this beautiful Bahama-land and return to wherever it is that God has placed us in the service of his church, carrying with us the call to prayer and the great invitation — issued not in our own name, nor even in the name of Baptist World Alliance, but of our compassionate Savior who spoke to the broken world of his day, and speaks still to ours, in that great invitation which closes this section of Matthew’s gospel:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Matt. 11:28-30, NRSV