The Compassion of Jesus

Jesus Series - 6

The Compassion of Jesus

(Matthew 9:9-13, 35-38)

Jesus was a remarkably compassionate and approachable person. This address, the sixth in a series on ‘The Challenge of Jesus’, given at a morning service in St. Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 24 August 1997, discusses his concern for the physical, spiritual and social needs of people.

What is Compassion?

The word ‘compassion’ comes from two Latin words, ‘suffer’ and ‘with’. To show compassion means to suffer with someone, to enter into a person’s situation and become involved in that person’s suffering. Compassion is not a theoretical attitude, put a practical involvement. It involves doing, not just thinking or saying. ‘A compassionate response to suffering requires that one be moved by the suffering of the other, act to remove the immediate effects of the suffering, and respond at length to correct the structures which may have given rise to the suffering itself.’ (New Dictionary of Christian Ethics, ed. D. J. Atkinson & D. F. Field [Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity Press], p. 244).

There are two aspects of compassion. We could call them the heart and the hands of compassion. ‘Compassion means both the emotion experienced when a person is moved by the suffering of others, and the act of entering into the suffering of another person with the purpose of relieving it.’ (New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, p.244). The first aspect, the emotion of compassion, expresses a desire to relieve a person’s suffering. But compassion is more than a desire. Emotion must lead to action. Compassion is an act of will - a decision to become actively involved in alleviating that person’s suffering.

Practical Compassion

We see this practical aspect of compassion supremely in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 29-37). A traveller was attacked, stripped, beaten and robbed, and left half dead beside the roadside by his assailants. Two professional religious people - a priest and a Levite - happened to be travelling by that same road later in the day. Seeing the injured victim, they refused to get involved and ‘passed by on the other side.’

Then a Samaritan traveller - a despised person of mixed-race - came that way. When he saw the wounded man by the side of the road, ‘he had compassion on him’ and gave practical assistance to help the victim. Risking being attacked himself if the robbers were still lurking nearby, the Samaritan got involved in a series of practical actions. He bandaged the man’s wounds, put him on his own animal, brought to him to an inn, arranged for him to be cared for, and paid the cost of his accommodation.

Jesus’ whole point in this parable is to underline the importance of practical compassion. ‘Which of these three,’ Jesus asked the lawyer to whom he told the parable, ‘do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ The lawyer replied, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ ‘Go and do likewise,’ says Jesus.

Jesus’ Compassion

Jesus’ whole life demonstrated compassion. The Gospel narratives show that he left his parental home in Nazareth to become an itinerant preacher to those he described as ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 10:6). Forsaking the comforts of home, having ‘nowhere to lay his head’ (Matthew 8:20), he became known as the ‘friend of publicans and sinners’ (Matthew 11:19). As he travelled throughout the towns and villages of Galilee, ‘he had compassion’ for the crowds of people who flocked to him, ‘because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’ (Matthew 9:36). His heart went out to them.

On one occasion, after the execution of John the Baptist, Jesus withdrew by boat across Lake Galilee to a deserted place by himself. But the crowds got to hear of it, and followed on foot around the lake, interrupting his solitude. ‘When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.’ (Matthew 14:14). Instead of grudging their intrusion into his private life, he cared for them and ministered to their needs. Then, when the disciples would have sent the crowd away so that they could go into the nearby villages to buy food, Jesus showed his concern by feeding them, a vast crowd of ‘about five thousand men’, not counting women and children (Matthew 14:15-21). This whole incident illustrates the remark of a Hindu convert to Christianity, Professor Purushotman Krishna, that Jesus ‘must have been indeed the most approachable man of all time.’ (Quoted E. M. Blaiklock, Who Was Jesus? [Chicago, Moody Press, 1974], p. 84).

Compassion and Healing

On a number of occasions Jesus healed sufferers from leprosy, a highly infectious wasting disease that disfigures the flesh, so contagious that its victims were quarantined in lonely places away from human society (Leviticus 13:45-46). Instead of being anxious for his own safety and immunity, we see Jesus being willing to allow them near to him and even to touch them, as he laid hands on them and healed them. Mark describes a desperate solitary leper coming to him, begging him on his knees, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ ‘Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him.’ (Mark 1:40-42). The man was not only healed of his dreaded disease; in the process he was loved and affirmed as a person.


Some healing evangelists handle people roughly or insensitively, emphasising God’s power rather than God’s love. We notice from incidents like this that Jesus’ healing ministry was an expression of his compassion. The verb translated ‘filled with compassion’ or ‘moved with pity’ (Mark 1:41) literally means ‘moved in his intestines’, ‘deeply stirred’ - an inward, gut reaction to this man’s plight! I believe that this element of compassion was a key in Jesus’ healings. Francis MacNutt, one of the leading practitioners of the Christian healing ministry during the Charismatic Movement in the 1970s, strongly emphasizes the role of compassion in healing:

‘Jesus cured not just to prove he was God, but because he was God abounding in love and compassion; sinners and sick came flocking to him because he reached out to touch every one of them. . . . I have seen extraordinary things happen when a climate of love was present. . . . Time after time we find people healed, not only through direct prayer, but simply because of their love for each other. God seems pleased to work in a climate of love. . . .’ (Healing, Notre Dame, Ave Maria Press, 1974, pp. 150-57).

Jesus seems to have been equally at ease showing kindness to small groups of friends and to vast crowds of strangers. Mark’s Gospel shows him in an intimate scene, invited into the house of Simon and Andrew, where he healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law who was in bed with a fever (1:30-31). Sadly, in many families today such compassion for in-laws is conspicuously absent! Immediately after this incident, after sunset, which marked the end of the Jewish sabbath, ‘the whole city was gathered around the door.’ And Jesus ‘cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons’ that were oppressing them (1:32-34). Whether a person was with just a few others or part of a large crowd, Jesus treated each one personally, showing concern for each suffering individual.

Delores Winder, herself healed from acute osteoporosis of the spine and the effects of four spinal fusions at a Kathryn Kuhlman meeting (see H. R. Casdorph, The Miracles [Plainfield, New Jersey, Logos, 1976], pp. 147-57), has had a tremendous impact in the renewal of Presbyterian churches throughout the United States and New Zealand through her healing services. The thing that has particularly impressed me about her healing ministry is the intensity of her love for each person she is ministering to - as if that person was the only person in all the world.

Compassion for Sinners

Jesus’ compassion was not confined to cases of physical need or suffering. He earned the nickname ‘friend of sinners’ because of his tenderness towards those who were ostracized from respectable society or burdened with moral failure. Matthew, author of the Gospel, owed his conversion to Jesus’ personal invitation to follow him, when he was working as a despised tax collector for the Inland Revenue Service, symbol of the hated Roman power occupying Palestine at the time (Matthew 9:9). Matthew held a party to celebrate his conversion, to which he invited Jesus, along with ‘many tax collectors and sinners’ - his former partners in crime. Criticized by Pharisees of the religious establishment for keeping bad company, Jesus spoke of the priority of compassion for the needy in society:

‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (Matthew 9:12-13, quoting Hosea 6:6).

Once the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus in the temple, challenging him to uphold the law of Moses, which sanctioned stoning to death for this offence (though for both partners, not the woman alone, Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:22). Jesus didn’t reply, but bent down to write on the ground, humbling himself to be beside the woman in her fear and vulnerability. ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’, he said to the proud men gathered around to condemn her. One by one they slunk away, leaving only Jesus and the woman. Then he straightened up and said, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She said, ‘No one, sir.’ Jesus replied, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’ (John 8:2-11).

Here we see that compassion is not weakness, but associated with courage and authority. It is a life-transforming quality. Love and holiness are closely linked. ‘God’s righteousness is also his compassion,’ says Jewish New Testament scholar David Flusser; ‘he espouses especially the cause of the poor and oppressed.’ (Jesus [New York, Herder & Herder, 1969], p. 65). Jesus’ identified with this woman - even to the point of being ready to be stoned with her. Because he had shown mercy to her he had the moral right to say to her as she stood up, unexpectedly reprieved from death, ‘Go and live a new life, and don’t sin again.’

Purposeful Compassion

Jesus didn’t limit compassion to personal relationships. He left nothing to chance. His ‘Nazareth Declaration’, announcing his strategic plan at the very outset of his public ministry, quoted the comprehensive charter of the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2):

‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Jesus’ compassion addressed both the spiritual roots and social consequences of people’s problems. He brought hope, where people had abandoned hope. He declared forgiveness, where people were tormented by guilt. He brought inner release, where people were oppressed by evil spirits. He brought healing, where there was sickness. He fed the hungry, where there was hunger. Compassion is concerned for people’s spiritual and social problems.

We are challenged by Jesus to be compassionate and merciful, as he was. Indeed, we live in an era of grace, in which we are called to show compassion rather than condemnation. There is a line in the Isaiah prophecy that Jesus did not go on to quote. He stopped by proclaiming ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’. His ministry of compassion has postponed ‘the day of vengeance of our God.’ (Isaiah 61:2). Jesus has interposed a time of grace and compassion before the judgement. In Jesus God has shown mercy to us. We should therefore be active in showing compassion to others.

Rob Yule
24 August 1997

© 1997, St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand