Why is compassion important?
Compassion is important simply because it’s important to God. If you don’t believe me, let me try to convince you. Here is just a small sampling of verses.
21 “He who despises his neighbor sins, but blessed is he who is kind to the needy.”
13 If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.
31 “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”
22 “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the Lord your God.’”
11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.
5 “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.”
17 “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
There are hundreds more verses in the Old Testament. What about the New Testament? Let me share two.
7 On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. 8 For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. 9 James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. 10 All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
Paul and Peter had different ministry emphases. Peter was a minister to the Jews. And Paul, for the Gentiles. But it’s interesting. While they had very different callings, different ministries, there’s one thing they can agree upon. The leadership in the church, they say, one thing Paul, one thing Peter, one thing you mustn’t forget. Remember the poor. And Paul says, of course, that’s the very thing I was eager to do. No one has to remind Paul. God had already laid that burden on his heart.
To me, this passage is significant. This is a burden that God laid on my heart a number of years ago and I’m thankful that I can finally share it with you. Our church might have a focus on college ministry. The church down the street might say, we specialize in family ministry. Another church might say, we focus on troubled teens, but I believe, regardless of each church’s specific calling and gifting, every single church is responsible for the poor. It’s not the responsibility of a committee within a church. It’s every Christian’s responsibility. In some concrete, tangible way, like Peter, like Paul, we must remember the poor.
The final passage I want to share is Matthew 25.
35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
This passage is about Final Judgment when Jesus returns and he will separate the sheep from the goats, the truly saved from those who thought they were saved but were not. And in this chilling passage, the criteria for salvation is one group fed the hungry, and clothed them and visited them in prison and gave them water to drink and the other group didn’t. Showing compassion is not an option. If the love of God has transformed you and you are born again from the Spirit, you will have compassion for your neighbors in need.
The most encouraging part of this passage is the fact that when you do provide food and water and clothing to the least of these, you do these things unto Jesus. What an amazing thought! The beggar on the street, the starving kid in Africa, the homeless on Skid Row, these are not just our neighbors, but as you serve them, Jesus is there. He receives these acts as if you and I were doing them directly to Jesus. Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me. Let that verse sink in during the holiday season.
I want us to turn our attention back to Matthew 14. This passage about Jesus feeding the crowds is sandwiched between 2 other accounts. The first account is about Herod and the second is about Jesus walking on water. I believe this structure helps us to answer the question–
What are the chief reasons we don’t show compassion?
I believe this chapter gives us 2 reasons: 1) we’re selfish and 2) we care too much what others think about us. Let’s start with the account of Jesus walking on the water in v22-33.
Having just fed thousands of people, the disciples must have been exhausted, but there is little physical rest when you are a disciple of Jesus. They find themselves on a boat in the middle of the storm. It’s the fourth watch so that means it’s about 3am and they must be dead tired after rowing all night. In the midst of the storm, Jesus appears out of nowhere. I find it odd that Jesus is not in the boat with them. Did they forget Jesus? Are they running away from Jesus because he’s tiring to be around? They are working so hard against the winds and the waves and Jesus is not with them.
Don’t we often find ourselves working hard, fighting the storms and then realize later, hey, where’s Jesus? Even as a church, we can rush off ahead and discover after the fact that Jesus was never with us.
Whatever the case, Jesus appears and he is walking on water. And of course, the disciples are freaked out. Disciples react as we all would–it’s a ghost! They were afraid. But Jesus says in v27, take courage, it is I. Don’t be afraid.
You gotta hand it to Peter. He is the only one who tests Jesus. If it is you, Lord, tell me to come to you on the water. And Peter experiences the exhilaration of being the only person who ever lived to walk on water.
Why did the rest of the 11 disciples remain in the boat? Fear. Fear of dying, which is a fear of losing oneself. And the fear of looking foolish, which is a fear of man. For many of us, the next worst thing to dying is looking like a fool because that feels like a slow death. Peter has no problem looking like a fool because he doesn’t care what the other disciples think about him and so we commend that in Peter. He’s the only one who stepped out. But as soon as the winds came, he feared losing his life and he began to sink. Jesus responds in v31. He reaches out his hand and says, you of little faith, why did you doubt?
Staying in the boat is safer. You don’t have as much chance of drowning. And certainly, you have less chance of looking like a fool before others. Fear of losing self and the fear of man. These are two reasons why we may never show compassion to others. Showing compassion takes courage. It takes courage to step out of the boat. It takes courage to leave our comfort zone. We don’t want to take risks or be uncomfortable because you and I are selfish.
Many of you are in the prime of your lives. You are expected to be selfish. You are expected to maximize your study time and maximize your GPA and increase your chances of going to the best grad school and landing the best job. All of that takes time and commitment to oneself.
Showing compassion involves saying no to self on occasion and stepping out in faith toward someone in need. That takes time. Selfishness is the number one reason why you and I rarely show compassion.
And number two, if you are enslaved by the opinion of others, you will find it difficult to show compassion. We see this in the lives of the 11 disciples who didn’t want to risk looking like a fool by stepping out of the boat and we see it more prominently in the first account of Herod starting in v1.
Herod is a picture of a man enslaved by the opinion of others. Herod had divorced his first wife in order to marry Herodias and John the Baptist condemned this arrangement, which led to his imprisonment. It says in v4 that Herod wanted to kill John, but he didn’t. Why? Because he was afraid of the people because John the Baptist was popular. He feared there would be some kind of uprising if he killed the man many considered to be a prophet.
Then, on his birthday, the daughter of Herodias danced and Herod was so pleased that he promised to give her anything that she wanted. That’s a bold promise. He probably expected her to say, I want a pony or a new wardrobe. But because of the promptings of the mother, Herodias, who hated John the Baptist, the daughter asked for John the Baptist to be killed. This is the last request that Herod wanted to hear because he was afraid of the people. And although he didn’t want to do it, Herod had John the Baptist killed basically in order to save face in front of a few dinner guests.
Herod is a ruler but he is a ruler with illegitimate power. He has no real power because he is enslaved by the praise of men.
We don’t show compassion because 1) we are selfish. And 2) we care too much what others think about us. The second reason is related to the first. If you care what others think of you too much, your entire orientation is self. You are self-focused. How am I looking before my peers? Are my parents proud of me? That girl I have a crush on, what does she think about me? I better comb my hair and work out so that she will notice me. What do my coworkers think about me? Am I pulling my weight on my team so that others like me? What does my boss think about me? My review is coming up so I need to put in extra hours so that I can get that promotion. What do other church members think about me? And we can be so focused on how we are perceived by others that we never ask the most fundamental question–I wonder what does God think about me? And we lose sight of the needs of those suffering around us.
Managing your reputation among people is a full-time job. If you live this way, there will be no room in your heart for compassion. You’ll end up staying in your puny little boat where it is safe and dry. And because you are unwilling to step out, you will never experience the exhilaration of walking on water as you serve others.