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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Christ Had Compassion

One of those very heartwarming passages in the story of Christ is found in Matthew 9.
And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When He saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest." (Matt 9:35-38)
We really like the compassion of Christ. It is indeed heartwarming. And if, as Jesus later describes, the point of being a disciple of Christ is "for the disciple to be like his teacher" (Matt 10:25), we ought to also have that compassion. So, where was Christ's compassion?

At first blush it looks like Christ had compassion on the crowds because of their afflictions, because "they were harassed and helpless." It looks like His compassion was focused on their tough lives. But that doesn't make any sense with what He says in the throes of that compassion. He references "the harvest". What is that? That references the people ready to receive the Gospel, ready to be "plucked for Christ", so to speak. They were ripe for the good news. For people to come to Christ there must be some pieces in place. There must be a sense of need, and there must be those ready to share the answer. Jesus told His disciples to pray for the latter because the former was already in place. So Christ's compassion is regarding the great need caused by their sin condition, not by their earthly circumstances.

There are, however, some unusual components here.

First, Jesus told the disciples to go and harvest. No, wait, He didn't. He didn't say, "You will be My harvesters." He told them to pray. He told them to pray earnestly. Clearly these disciples were not the harvesters He had in mind. Oh, sure, He did have these in mind, as the very next thing He did was to send them out to do that work (Matt 10:1-15 and following). But He had more in mind. So, before doing the work of harvesting, "pray earnestly."

Second, it is interesting that Jesus said to pray that the Lord would send laborers into "His harvest." Sure, these whom He would send would be going His work, but it wasn't their harvest; it was His. We don't achieve this on our own. It is His.

Third, isn't it interesting that Scripture calls it compassion that Christ wanted laborers to call to repentance the harvest? It wasn't compassion to embrace them in their sin, to encourage them in their spiritual sickness. Compassion in these terms is not found in today's "tolerance" where we approve and encourage their sin. Compassion in these terms is found in giving them the way to turn from their sin. In this sense, then, warning a sinner away from sin is not "hate" as is so often touted today; it is compassion1.

We are, as disciples of Christ, to be like Christ. That includes praying for laborers. That includes taking part in the labor, knowing it is God's work and God's results. That includes compassion that longs for others to turn from their sin to something much, much better -- Christ. That is being a disciple of Christ.
1 Note for those of you folk who find sinners (at least, certain sinners) repulsive. You may see it as some sort of "righteous indignation" you are experiencing, but it is more like "self-righteous indignation" when you find repugnant those who sin. Jesus had compassion for sinners even while seeking repentance from their sin. If you want to be like Christ, that, too, should be your experience. If it is not, perhaps you've forgotten how much you have been forgiven? Because "those who sin" includes you and me.

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