A part of the unique superiority of the New Covenant is that God gives us resources to help us do the things he calls us to do. In the case of our calling to tell the good news about Christ, one powerful resource he has given us is motivation. The motivations we have considered so far are Christ’s instructions (here), example (here) and love (here). Today we will explore compassion.
In Mark 6:34 Jesus saw a crowd of people who were like sheep without a shepherd. This phrase refers to people without a leader (Numbers 27:15-17). Interestingly, however, when Jesus said this Tiberias Caesar was emperor in Rome, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and Caiaphas was High Priest of the Jews. In other words, there were plenty of people filling leadership offices, but still the people did not have the leader they needed. None of these were going to guide them into the right direction.
Right now Joe Biden is president of the United States, Greg Abbott is governor in Texas, and there are many religious leaders in various roles. Some contemporary leaders are clearly better than others, but I contend that in spite of them all, most people today are still like sheep without a shepherd. For the politically minded among us, I would have written the same thing during a Republican administration. No human being is going to give people the leadership they ultimately need. That’s why God sent Jesus as the Christ—the Anointed One—the King.
The coming of Jesus is good news for many reasons, one of which is that the King of the Universe has compassion on the leaderless people in the world (Mark 6:34). I used to think I had a lot of compassion because my heart would be touched when someone was having trouble doing something. I later realized that is sympathy, not compassion. It’s not that sympathy is bad. It’s just that it doesn’t go as far as compassion. Compassion leads us to do something to help the person. Every time the Gospels say Jesus had compassion, it is followed by an action.
The way Jesus’ compassion for the leaderless people in Mark 6 led him to act is that he began to “teach them many things.” One might criticize someone if words are all they offer people who are hurting or in trouble. Jesus is not open to such criticism, however, because his compassion often led him to tangible actions to help people (Mark 8:2-8). But we need to recognize there is also great value in the words he gave people. He was providing them the leadership they needed. To revert to the language of kingship, Jesus gave them guidance for their lives in the form of his wise royal counsel and decrees.
Matthew’s account of this event includes some additional aspects of it. He describes the people not only as sheep without a shepherd but also as “harassed and helpless” (Matthew 9:36). “Harassed” is a passive verb, which indicates that someone was harassing them. The context of Matthew 8-9 indicates that the reference is to all the trouble the Evil One had brought into their lives through paralysis, sin, fever, disease, danger, demons, and death. Our King has compassion for all such things (Matthew 9:37).
Matthew also describes a couple of additional ways Jesus’ compassion led him to act on this occasion. First, Matthew tells us that Jesus said all those harassed, helpless, shepherd-less people constituted a harvest (Matthew 9:37). This means they were ripe for entry into the kingdom of God (cf. John 4:35-38; Romans 1:13). This goes hand in hand with Mark’s description of Jesus teaching them many things. People who are open to coming under the reign of God need to be taught what that means.
The second thing Matthew describes that Mark doesn’t is the need for more workers. Many of us find ourselves wondering about the scarcity of the harvest these days. Jesus focused instead on the scarcity of workers. The compassionate response of Jesus that Matthew describes is that he made provision for additional workers. Specifically, he: 1) said workers were needed, 2) called us to pray for workers (Matthew 9:37-38), and then 2) equipped the twelve and sent them out as workers (Matthew 10).
If we only had Mark’s account of how Jesus’ compassion led him to teach people, that would be enough to tell us we should have compassion for people too, and that it should lead us to teach them about the kingdom of God (as well as helping them in other ways). But we gain additional insight from Matthew’s account where Jesus’ compassionate response to the hurting people was to provide for additional workers. If we have the compassion of Jesus, we will pray for workers, get equipped to be workers ourselves, and go out to teach people about the kingdom, just like Jesus did.
I believe we get such compassion from Jesus himself. If we are devoted to the Lord, then looking at his life and example will inspire us to be like him. Related to this, we also get compassion from the Spirit. Though compassion is not listed as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5, I believe it is one. Philippians 2:1 comes pretty close to saying so when it lists compassion as one of several divine resources that empower us to live the way Paul describes in the verses that follow. When we are led by the Spirit, allowing him to change and lead us as he desires, the compassion of Christ will increasingly emerge in us.
If seeing the compassion of Jesus opens your heart to people, you are growing in compassion. If seeing people’s lostness (sheep without a shepherd) opens your heart to pray and engage them in hopes of telling them good news, you are being led by the Spirit. In these and other ways, compassion serves as another powerful motivation from God for speaking to others about Christ.