The coming of compassion (Fourth Advent)

Century after century, God’s people awaited the coming of their Messiah, the anointed king. They had suffered catastrophic defeat, exile, and captivity. Even after returning from exile, the land that was supposed to be their promised inheritance wasn’t under their control. They were subjected to domination by one Gentile kingdom after another. Generation to generation, the people longed for relief. Hadn’t God delivered them in the past? How long would they have to wait for God to deliver them again?

By the time of Jesus, the people were under the thumb of the Roman Empire. It’s not clear how many people began to think of him as the Messiah. What does seem clear, though, is that people had a different idea of what the Messiah should do than Jesus himself did. He had no intention of marching into Jerusalem to kick the Romans out. Quite the contrary: he went to Jerusalem to die. And no matter how many times he tried to tell his disciples this, they persisted in their more triumphalist dreams.

Here, however, on the last Sunday of Advent with Christmas fast approaching, I don’t want to focus on the death of Jesus but on the life of Jesus. Sometimes, we treat Christmas as something of a prelude to Good Friday and Easter; to us, “Messiah” points forward to Jesus’ saving death. But Jesus as Messiah was king, who preached a paradoxical kingdom and embodied it in his ministry. And what his disciples saw again and again was the radical compassion of that ministry.

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One of the most poignant scenes in the gospels is found in Matthew 11, when the imprisoned John the Baptist sends a message to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (vs. 3, CEB). Think about it: this is the man who baptized Jesus, who called him the Lamb of God, who pointed others to him, and whom Jesus himself identified as the coming of Elijah. This man, languishing in prison, wants to know if Jesus is truly the One or if the whole thing has been a mistake.

Jesus’ response may sound a bit cryptic. He tells John’s messengers to “report to John what you hear and see. Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them” (vss. 4-5). Jesus could have said more directly, “Calm down, John; yes, I’m the Messiah.” And surely John already knew all about the things Jesus was describing. Why then did Jesus answer the question this way?

This was, I think, Jesus’ way of saying, “Look, cousin, you know the prophecies as well as I do. What do you read in Isaiah? What’s supposed to happen when the Messiah arrives? The ministry will be all about those who are on the margins. You know what that’s supposed to look like. Not only will the poor and powerless hear the good news of God, but the power and compassion of God will be on full display in miracles of healing. Does that answer your question?”

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This is what the kingdom of this king was about. Again, think about the gospel of Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount, in chapters 5 through 7, is a prime of example of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom, which he then embodies in subsequent chapters. In chapters 8 and 9, Matthew tells how Jesus heals a leper, the servant of a Roman centurion, Peter’s mother-in-law, a demoniac, a woman with a chronic bleeding disorder, a dead girl, two blind men, and another demoniac who couldn’t speak.

In many of these cases, Jesus did things that would have made him ritually unclean. He touched a leper and a little girl who was presumed dead. He was willing to enter a Gentile’s home. He was touched by a woman who was bleeding. It’s as if to make the point that healing isn’t just about physical illness, but about the social and religious rifts caused by judgment and rejection.

And at the end of this succession of healing vignettes, Matthew gives us a telling summary:

Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matt 9:35-36)

Compassion. The Greek word Matthew uses here (splagchnizomai) suggests that Jesus looked at the harassed and helpless people and had a gut reaction that compelled him to help. This isn’t just a footnote to Jesus’ character: every time the word is used in the New Testament, it’s either used by Jesus (as in his teaching parables) or about Jesus.

Nor should the importance of compassion be a surprise to those familiar with the Hebrew scriptures. After the debacle of the Golden Calf and Moses’ destruction of the original stone tablets, Moses interceded with God on behalf of the people. And later, as God caused his glory to pass before Moses, God proclaimed, “The LORD! The LORD! a God who is compassionate and merciful, very patient, full of great loyalty and faithfulness…” (Exod 34:6).

Compassion is of the character of God and of his Messiah, of the king and his kingdom.

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The world in which we live is still deeply broken, still in need of healing of every kind: physical, social, spiritual, political. The coming of the kingdom of heaven was embodied in Jesus’ ministry of compassion. To anticipate the coming of the Messiah is to await the coming of the one who not only grants us eternal life beyond death, but healing, restoration, and new life in the present.

We are invited, not only to receive that ministry of compassion, but to join it. We are called to be a compassionate people, moved by the suffering of others, particularly those who have been marginalized. As Christmas approaches, I invite you to think not about the presents to be wrapped and placed under a tree, but how you might give the gift of compassion to another.

For in large ways and small, God’s kingdom is embodied in the doing of God’s compassionate will.