Compassion is Hard Work


A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on July 22, 2012.

Psalm 23; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

You may have thought of this before, but I admit to you that if it has ever crossed my consciousness, I can’t remember it. But this time it did. In reflecting on this passage from Mark’s gospel, where Jesus tries to provide for some “me time” for himself and his disciples, to go off by themselves where they can rest from their just-finished mission trip, but can’t pull it off because the crowds are clamoring for his attention and healing powers – this story that tells us he went from village to village, city to city, farm to farm and healed people, even those who reached out and touched the fringe of his garment as he walked by them – this passage I have read many, many times, the question came to me: why did Jesus bother to do it?

Why did he heal the sick and raise the dead, only for them to get sick again or die a second time? Why did he feed the crowds when several hours later their stomachs would be reminding them they were hungry again? Why did Jesus spend so much of his time and energy doing these things when ultimately they made no real and eternal difference?

Just because he had the ability, it doesn’t mean he had to do it. Why did he bother?

I suppose, if Jesus hadn’t done these things, he might not have gotten our attention otherwise. He would have just been another subversive crucified on yet another Roman cross. Happened all the time back in that rough-and-tumble world of political and military oppression.

And it is true that some of the healing stories are the most compelling in the gospels, especially the ones where we are told that Jesus brought the dead back to life. It is hard for me to envision the raising of Lazarus, for example, without getting goose bumps. Every time I hear Jesus cry out, “Lazarus, come forth!” the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Dead four days. Stinking, rotting flesh falling off his bones, and yet Lazarus walks out of his grave as if he had just taken a little siesta.

Still, I don’t think Jesus’ motive for doing this was to excite people like you and me. Goose bumps are short-lived, not to mention overrated. Emotion does not sustain. Nor do I think he performed these miracles simply to prove his power, his ability to do it. There had to be another purpose in mind. Why did he bother to give so much of his time and spiritual energy to that which he knew would not last?

Not only that, you do such a thing often enough and people come to expect it. And are they really grateful for what he did? What do you think? Were they in Jerusalem to protest his trial, his beating, his scourging and execution? No sir. They’re just blissfully enjoying the fruit of his compassion.

There’s the story of his healing the ten lepers. Only one returns to thank him for his compassionate healing. Only one, and a Samaritan to boot. Jesus wonders where the other nine have gone, even though he had sent them to the local priest to be declared healed of this terrible disease. Ten lepers and only one who expresses his gratitude. It makes you wonder how many other people Jesus healed, and who didn’t bother to thank him for his effort.

I mean, Jesus knew he had a bigger, more eternal purpose in his ministry. We can’t be certain as to when he first became aware that the cross would inevitably take him, but surely he knew that his bucking up against the entrenched religious/political system was going to eventually get him in trouble. It is obvious, from what he tells his disciples, that he has the kingdom in mind when he says what he says and does what he does. Jesus had an eternal perspective that no one else had then or has had since.

In fact, that was at the heart of his teaching. Yes, he did instruct his followers as to how they are to live here on earth, but doing so is to be a reflection of how things are in God’s kingdom. Following Jesus is our attempt to fulfill what he said in the Lord’s Prayer, that part about asking God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. That’s what his teaching is all about. Nothing he said had anything short of eternal consequences in mind.

Everywhere he went, in addition to his healing ministry, he wove his stories of the kingdom of heaven. Why didn’t Jesus simply spend all his time sharing parables and telling his stories? Why bother with a healing ministry when he knows that all these people he cares for are going to die eventually?

Why give the ability to walk to a crippled person when that person will one day go to his grave? Why cure the leper, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and sanity to those who, in their way of looking at it, are demon-possessed, if he knows it won’t last? Why bother spending his time and energy doing these things when he knows they are so temporary?

Have you ever wondered about this?

I’m not sure I ever have, but I do now. We are aware, you and I, that Jesus did these things, but have we simply taken them for granted, believed them as a matter of course without ever asking ourselves why? Especially – especially – when we all know that exhibiting this kind of compassion is such hard work?

And it is hard work indeed.

Why do volunteers from our church go to the food pantry at First Christian every Friday when they know that the majority of those who come for help are stuck in patterns of decision-making that will keep them constantly coming back for more? Why do we host the homeless through Family Promise when we are aware that the same kinds of bad decisions that got them into their predicament in the first place are going to rear their ugly heads again when it comes to some other issue in their lives?

There’s a reason some people are “the least of these,” and little we do for them is going to change their circumstances to the point that they will ever be anything different. After all, didn’t Jesus say it himself, that the poor you will have with you always? Why bother being compassionate when those toward whom we direct our compassion will always be at our doorstep?

Oh, they may not be the same people, but they will still be the same kind of people... asking for help, sometimes expecting our help, occasionally demanding our help, and frankly, rarely being grateful for what we do.

After forty years of ministry, I’ve heard just about every story in the book. They come to our church’s door looking for assistance. I’ve gotten to the point where I can tell almost immediately if they’re on the up-and-up, and most of the time, unfortunately, they aren’t. We’ve often said in our church office that if some people would use the same level of ingenuity in a job that they utilize in trying to get money out of other people like us, they could do quite well.

There was the young woman who came with a baby, telling us her little one was hungry. We found out later the baby wasn’t even hers. We discovered this when an alert was sent out by the other churches she had already visited. There was the young man who told me that he needed a very specific amount of money in order to get a license so he could accept a construction job that had been offered him. The next day I saw him approach a woman on the parking lot of a store in west Little Rock, five or six miles from our church office. He asked her for the very same amount he had gotten off me the day before.

It happens all the time, and it has happened from time immemorial. Jesus encountered these people too a long, long time ago. Many of the needs with which he was confronted were no doubt quite legitimate. It was a tough world in which he lived. Yet, many of them may very well have come to him because he was giving out his grace like it was free candy. And if I can see through people in situations like this, imagine how Jesus could do it.

Yet, he spent day after day, hour after hour, going into the marketplaces and villages responding to the needs he encountered. And we still are left wondering... why?

I think I might know the answer to that question. I think. Bear with me a few moments, if you will, as I explain...

I have come to the conclusion that Jesus did all those things as an example of what he wanted his followers to do for all the generations to come. That includes you and me.

There’s a story in the Book of Acts about a woman named Dorcas (chapter 9). Ever heard of her? She lived in Joppa, and was known in that city for her compassionate spirit. She made tunics for people who could not do it for themselves. She knitted afghans, baked cookies, held the hand of the sick and visited people who were homebound. “She listened to the heartbreaks and joys, toils and triumphs of the people in the church in Joppa.”1

One day Dorcas died. Of all people, why Dorcas? She had so much to give, so much yet to experience. Why Dorcas? Amidst these kinds of questions, her friends and family washed her body, prepared it for burial, and laid her in a room upstairs in her home. Two of her friends heard that Simon Peter was in the area, and they went to him. Could he come without delay and help them?

When they arrived, her widow friends showed Peter the tunics that Dorcas had made, and the other clothing she had knitted. I’m sure they told him stories as well, stories that went with each of the garments. “She made this for my first-born.” “Dorcas knitted this for my ailing mother.” That sort of thing. After listening for a moment, Simon sent them away, knelt down beside Dorcas’ body, and began to pray. Then, he did a most remarkable thing. He said, “Tabitha (that’s her Hebrew name... you would expect that of Simon, wouldn’t you?), Tabitha, get up.” And she did.

How did Simon Peter have the faith and courage to attempt such a thing? Well, think of all the times he saw Jesus do it. Flashing through his mind and heart were the instances in which Jesus showed compassion for the unfortunate people he met. In keeping with such a ministry of hope and healing, Simon Peter, right then and there, in that moment of opportunity, decided to pay forward the Spirit of his risen Christ.

And look at it this way... Had Jesus not conducted his ministry as he did, Simon Peter would not have raised Dorcas from the dead. Had Simon Peter not raised Dorcas from the dead, she would not have become a symbol of resurrection life in the community where she lived. Had Dorcas not become such a symbol, her story would not have been recorded in the Book of Acts, and you and I would not know of it.

You see how this goes, don’t you? From generation to generation, every act of mercy is built upon that which preceded it. So when you and I, as Jesus followers, help someone else in his name, the kingdom continues its influence in this world Christ came to redeem.

Jon Walton informs us that “Compassion... means to suffer with, to put yourself in the place of another, to enter into their experience. It is the primary characteristic of incarnation. It is what God was doing in Christ when God reconciled the world to God’s self. It is much more than kindness, far more radical than simply being nice. It is fulfilling the requirements of a godly life as described by Micah: doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God, and doing all in a way that is almost imperceptible except for the compassion of it. It is to take to oneself the sufferings of another so deeply that you empty yourself and take the form of a servant, in the manner of Jesus, who did precisely that, even unto death.”2

Yes, compassion is hard work. I would never tell you otherwise. In fact, I would go so far as to say, that when it comes to ministry, it is the hardest thing we do. Is it worth it? Don’t ask me, ask Jesus. My guess is you won’t do that, however. You won’t ask Jesus, if for no other reason than you already know what he would say in answering your question.

Father, may we have a compassionate spirit, as Jesus does, and when given the opportunity to pay it forward, we ask that it might encourage those who follow us to do the same. It is the work of the kingdom. May we be found faithful in doing it, we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Notes

    1Jon M. Walton, “Living By the Word: What About Dorcas?” (The Christian Century, April 17, 2007), p. 16. 

    2Ibid.

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Tags: Compassion, Healing, Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven, Randy Hyde, Sermons