As some of you know, for my continuing education this summer I attended a seminar on Christ-centered compassion. I suspect that there were some who when they first heard of this topic had to wonder, “Why have a full week-long seminar on compassion? We are supposed to be compassionate and so what more is there to consider?” I must confess when I first saw this topic, I had similar thoughts. And in fact, if it were not for having the utmost respect for the professor who was leading it, I may well have passed on it. I’m very glad I did not.
This seminar prompted me to look at compassion much more closely than I had considered before and to ask difficult questions. Does having compassion require having emotional feelings or is it simply acting? If I see a homeless person selling a paper, should I feel something for him as I give him or her my two dollars? Or is it enough to simply give him or her the money?
Then the issues became more challenging. Should we have compassion on those who seem to not need it? Should I have compassion on the rich person who has manipulated the economic system so that he has become even richer while making it all the more difficult for a poor person to find a decent job? Should I have compassion on the ladder climbing executives who has no difficulty trampling those beneath them in order to secure more power and influence? The answer that most people would give is ‘NO! They have what they want and so they don’t need my compassion!”
However, this is exactly the position of the rich man in Mark 10 who came to Jesus who asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him to obey the law and the man said that he had done all those things since he was a boy. Jesus then told him to sell all he had and give it all to the poor. The man went away sad because he was very rich. But the verse that strikes me is Mark 10:21. “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” Here was a man who had it all! He was rich and he was morally a very good man. He was likely respected and honored in his community but his wealth was more important than following Jesus... and Jesus had compassion on him.
I learned this summer that the application of compassion is far more difficult than what I realized. However, I was also reminded from the very beginning that we have two things that make all the difference when we face challenging issues regarding compassion. First, God is a God of compassion. He has compassion on a fallen and sin-filled world even when it doesn’t deserve it. He had so much compassion on us that he sent his one and only Son to die to save us. If God can do that, then we had better take seriously the call to have compassion on others.
Secondly, the other reason I have hope in compassion is that compassion is part of the clothes with which we are clothed as followers of Jesus. Colossians 3:12 says, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Compassion is part of what we get from the Holy Spirit as part of “uniform” of being a disciple. It’s not up to my ability and power alone. The Holy Spirit clothes us with compassion, making it possible for us to be compassionate, even when we don’t want to or the person doesn’t seem to be deserving of our compassion.
God is compassionate and calls us to be compassionate, but the good news is the first fact never will change and the second part is possible because of the Holy Spirit in us.