Lent #5: Abundance of Compassion
Updated: Sep 9, 2020
We are in the last Sunday of Lent. Next week is Holy Week, when we remember through special worship services, Jesus’ journey to the cross. To prepare us to enter into that, we normally fast during Lent. We’ve been talking about spiritual abundance this Lent because following Jesus requires sacrifice, but it results in spiritual abundance. We’ve talked about an abundance of forgiveness, an abundance of hope, an abundance of gratitude, and an abundance of generosity. And today we are going to talk about something that is at the core of what it means to be a Christ follower: an abundance of compassion.
What Jesus is trying to communicate in this word-picture in Matthew, is that God cares deeply about how we live. God cares deeply that we as Christ followers reflect God’s character in the world. What is God’s character? This is the last teaching of Jesus before he begins his journey to the cross. This text sets the stage for our understanding of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, which we call Jesus’ passion. And Jesus’ passion sets the stage for us understanding this passage.
What is God’s character? God is all powerful, ruler of the universe. God’s character is revealed in Jesus, the Son of God. In Jesus, we see God humbling God’s self to leave heaven and come down to our mortal, human, fallen world. In Jesus, God took on human form. Why would God do that? Because God wanted to save us, wanted to protect us, wanted to relieve our suffering and give us new life, and bring light to the darkness. And God, in Jesus, was willing to suffer and die in order for that to happen. God sacrificed everything for us humans and suffered in the process. And we know the story doesn’t end there because Jesus was raised from the dead. So we live in the resurrection hope. God’s character, at the very core, is willingness to suffer and even die in order to alleviate suffering for others, in order to bring hope, new life, and light in the darkness for those who are suffering in this world.
Jesus says starting in verse 34, “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
Jesus is saying that whenever we do these things for others, we are doing them for Jesus Himself. At our Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, we read the Scriptures that tell us what Jesus went through when he went to the cross: He gave us the Lord’s Supper, he was betrayed, he was denied, he was stripped naked, he was imprisoned. One of my colleagues in my Narrative Lectionary Facebook group put our passage from this morning alongside our passion narrative. I want to show that to you.
“I was hungry and you gave me food.” When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26:26, he said, “Take eat, this is my body.”
“I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” Jesus also gave the disciples the cup in Matthew 26:28 saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” And when Jesus hung on the cross, they gave him sour wine.
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” While Jesus was on trial, in Matthew 26:72, Peter denied him by saying, “I do not know the man.”
“I was naked and you gave me clothing.” After Pilate condemned him to death, in Matthew 27:27 & 31, the soldiers stripped him naked.
“I was in prison and you visited me.” Jesus was betrayed. In Matthew 26:50, “they came and laid hands on him and arrested him.” And in 27:2, “They bound him led him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor.”
“I was sick and you took care of me” And just as we sometimes feel God has abandoned us when we fall sick to the point of death, so Jesus also cried out to God in Matthew 27:46, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Through the passion, Jesus Himself has suffered as we do, often even more so than we have. Jesus is called Emmanuel, God with us, and that is true in all of life’s circumstances. Jesus is present with us in our suffering. Jesus is present with others in their suffering. When we care for them, we care for Jesus Himself.
This concept was heavily emphasized in the teachings of the early church. That culture highly valued philosophy. The best philosopher or the wisest man, suppressed his emotions, all of them, even emotions like love and compassion. Philosophy taught that all emotions would lead people away from doing good. The early Christians, however, understood that the way of Christ was different. They argued that people should feel love for all and compassion for those who suffer. They were very upset that the rich were not moved to compassion to help the poor and the suffering, and so they tried to motivate their congregants to feel compassion for the poor and the suffering, by describing in great detail in their sermons the suffering of people in their towns.
Maximus the Confessor also took a philosophical approach and taught that Christians should not silence love for all people, but instead should welcome it because love is the source of all good. He argued that when we welcome love for all people we welcome only good (like “self-control and endurance, long-suffering and kindness, peace and joy”), and we block out negative emotions (like anger, jealousy, and greed). (Susan Wessel, Passion & Compassion in Early Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 2016), pg. 10-11).
But the most common way that early church leaders motivated their congregants to care for the poor and the suffering was to remind them of what Jesus said in Matthew 25: that when they care for the least of these, they are caring for Jesus. For Jerome, there was no difference between the people that Jesus ministered to and Jesus himself. For example, when Jerome praised a monk named “Florentius for his advocacy of the poor,” he never used the word “poor.” He simply said that Florentius “fed, clothed, and visited Christ.” (Passion and Compassion, pg. 18).
Furthermore, Jerome, Gregory Nazianzen, Augustine, and Leo the Great all believed that there was an explicit connection between God taking on human form and moral ethics. They taught that since God became human in Christ, and that Jesus suffered and died, that “every failure to ease human suffering [was] a moral and theological offence against [Jesus.]” They went to great lengths to live this out, to ease the suffering of those who, in that society suffered a lot, and encouraged their congregations to do the same.
This was counter-cultural back then. But the reality is that this is always counter-cultural. We saw in Isaiah, that the Israelites were fasting, but their actions did not reflect God’s character. What does God say to them in Isaiah 58, starting in verse 6? “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” God wanted them to fast from ignoring human suffering. He wanted them to add compassion to their lives.
There will always be a voice or voices in this world telling us that we should not care about the suffering of others, that we should not make sacrifices for other people. Those voices are loud today, and getting louder. They are not the way of Christ.
Instead, Jesus says, “‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. ... Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these...you did it to me.’” Let us feed clothe, welcome, care for and visit Jesus. Let us live with an abundance of compassion. Amen.