Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

88. The Compassion of Jesus *

Seven times in the synoptic gospels, the spring and source of the miracles of Jesus is said to lie in his compassion. It was this which impelled him to extend to sufferers the wonderful divine help which he had the power to give.

In six out of the seven instances, either he pitied the wretched condition of stricken people brought to him or else he felt impelled to bring help to those afflicted by hard circumstance. It is worthwhile to list these, noting the special factors in each case.

There was the leper who followed Jesus into the house, and kneeling before him, shewed his sorry plight, asking in faith for healing. Jesus responded immediately, showing his deep sympathy by the additional and quite a unnecessary action of touching the man’s disfiguring defilement (Mk. 1:41).
Next was the ineffable comfort given to the widow of Nain when her only son was given back to her. “Weep not”, said Jesus, making a clearly implied promise that she should soon have grounds for joy and praise in place of mourning (Lk. 7:13). In the next minute that sorrowful lonely figure was transfigured with a gladness she would not have thought possible.
The two miracles of feeding the multitude are both singled out as examples of the visible compassion of Jesus for the crowd in its distress. Mt. 14:14 tells how, when he crossed the Lake with the twelve, to get them a way to peace and quiet, vast numbers of people followed them round the shore, many even labouring under great difficulties to bring their sick and suffering friends to Jesus. Consequently when he came ashore from the boat, already there were many awaiting him, hoping pathetically that he would use his wonderful powers for their benefit. Without any of the vexation which might well have been warranted, Jesus responded to their prayers and gave the help they craved.
Some time later it was the Lord’s tender feeling for a tired and hungry multitude which led to the feeding of the four thousand: “I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat. I do not wish to send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way” (Mt.15:32). His sympathetic imagination saw not only their present need but also their hardship and misery before they got back to their homes. There was nothing for it but to provide food in large quantity, and at once. And this Jesus did in a way that amazed them all.
The next example followed immediately after the Transfiguration. At first it seemed that Jesus was showing himself to be anything but compassionate. When told about the epileptic boy whom the apostles had failed to heal, he kept the poor distraught father there answering questions whilst the boy rolled on the ground in a violent fit. At last the tortured parent burst out with an appeal there was no thrusting aside: “If thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us” (Mk. 9:22). Both father and son were suffering terribly, in different ways. It was an appeal beyond the power of Jesus to resist, even had he in wished to do so. The poor man’s honesty iH about his present mixed-up state of doubt f’i and faith made further delay out of question. As the attack left the boy unconscious and apparently dead, Jesus lifted him up and gave him back, perfectly well, to his father.
Last in this group is the healing of blind Bartimaeus and his blind friend. Their piteous cries as Jesus passed on his way were not to be gainsaid. So, called to the Lord, they told their story, and their faith. Full of pity for their plight, Jesus did what they asked, touching their eyes so that they might know for sure that their healing came from him (Mt. 20:34).
The Lord’s enemies, quick to note how strong his sense of pity for sufferers was, actually traded on it in such a way as to apply a kind of spiritual blackmail-on a sabbath. They deliberately planted in front of him a man bloated with dropsy (Lk.l4:l,2). Jesus’ solution to such a challenging situation was masterly. All the foregoing examples have to do with the physical distress or hardship of those on whom Jesus took pity. There was in him a tenderhearted appreciation of the plight of these afflicted people which made it impossible for him to turn a deaf ear to their pleas for help or to move heedless away from the sight of their suffering.
The remaining example, like one of those already listed, comes in the story of the feeding of the five thousand, but it concerns the spiritual need of the people: “Many ran afoot thither out of all cities, and out went them, and came together unto him. And Jesus when he came out (from the boat) saw much people, and was moved with compassion towards them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things” (Mk. 6:33, 34). The answer to this need was not more miraculous healing, but instruction. And although Jesus had crossed the lake hoping for rest and relaxation for himself and the twelve, his compassion for hungry sheep looking up unfed was a more insistent imperative. Their need was greater than his own.
Like Father, like Son. This overmastering pity of Jesus for men in need was not to be excluded from his parables, where in two instances out of three it is the dominant characteristic of Almighty God forgiving helpless men their sin and bringing them freely and graciously into His favour. There is the parable of the unmerciful servant who pleaded quite impossibly: “Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all”. The response was immediate, and far surpassing even the most abnormal standards of human mercy: “The lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt” (Mt. 18:26, 27). The bad reaction of this fortunate man was as evil as it could have been. It serves, however, to throw into relief the loveliness of the loving-kindness shown to him. It spotlights the compassion of God.
Similarly, in the parable of the prodigal son, a typical human father would have said: ‘He is an ingrate and a waster, a selfish sinful fool. He is my son no longer’. Instead: “when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Lk. 15:20). It is the same irrepressible divine love forthe undeserving.
In another equally eloquent parable the same story is told. The man who fell among thieves was left helpless and hopeless. Then “a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him” (Lk. 10:33). A superb selfless rescue operation followed. The spring and motive power of it all was .. this surge of compassion for one in dire “ need. Thus the key phrase sums up all that Jesus, the Samaritan Saviour, did throughout his ministry and in the climactic suffering to which it led. All his preaching and teaching, all his works of healing, all his patience and personal example, and all that he endured in pain, torment and shame at Golgotha sprang from a deep dominant feeling of pity for helpless men who must be helped. Must!

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