Jesus’ Heart of Compassion
Text: Mark 6:34 (cf. Matthew 9:36)
“Your Church Does Not Need an Evangelism Program.” That title for one of my evangelism workshops often surprises constituents, but it is a fact. Programs come and go. Some of them are very effective; others are not. They have their place in the life and ministry of the local church. But a congregation’s most important asset is an attitude of evangelism. Without it the best evangelism program in the world is ineffective. But any church where an attitude of evangelism characterizes the majority of the congregation can and will grow.
What was Jesus’ attitude toward the people to whom he ministered? How did he look at them? What were the lenses through which our Lord focused on the people of his day? Both Matthew and Mark report that as Jesus looked upon a crowd of people, he had compassion upon them, he saw them as bearing a resemblance to sheep without a shepherd, and he taught them many things. Jesus is our sterling example of how to look at the crowd of people among whom we live and minister.
While there no doubt was plenty of criticism that could have been leveled at these people, Jesus looked on their hearts and loved them for what they were in God’s sight. “He had compassion upon them.” Wasn’t his whole reason for coming summarized in these words? That is why he came, that is why he spent his time healing, teaching, and finally dying for their sins. He loved them, and in so doing he expressed the love of his heavenly father for these people.
How do we look at the crowds of today? What do we think about the people driving alongside us on the freeway, sitting at a concert or graduation ceremony, witnessing a wedding or attending a funeral, watching a baseball game? Are we better at making judgments concerning them than we are at having compassion for them? Are we quick to point out their tattoos, outrageous hairdos and apparel? Or, like Jesus, do we have compassion on them? How do we view the people with whom we work, learn, live, and play? What is our compassion level?
One of the reasons that the gospel is “good news” is that when God came down to live among us, rubbing shoulders with our ancestors, the whole effort was characterized by the dominant attitude of nonjudgmental love and grace. Jesus calls us to do the same.
Jesus had compassion on people because they were “like sheep without a shepherd.” That’s a good reason for having compassion. Aren’t we all like sheep? Don’t we all need a shepherd? And hasn’t the God of the Twenty-Third Psalm provided the ultimate shepherd for us all? Sheep are known as being easily led, and preoccupied with their food supply, often eating their way into trouble. They need the supervision of a shepherd who cares about them and moves them to all the right places, including the corral at night, when the danger of preying scavengers is such an imminent threat.
People today are preoccupied with their work and their pleasurable activities and are often misled into trouble. How do we react? Usually our tendency is to find fault, criticize, and pass judgment. Gracious caring love is a better way to go, and it’s certainly recommended by our Lord. Who are the sheep in your pasture? How many lambs has God entrusted to your care and keeping? Where are you leading the sheep in your life and ministry?
At the end of his public ministry, in a moving scene of breakfast on the beach with his disciples, Jesus encounters Peter and asks him three times, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter answers in the affirmative, and after each response our Lord says, “Feed my sheep (lambs)!” John asks how can we say we love God and not love our fellow human beings?
Churches today are interested in filling their pews and their offering plates. But do they have compassion for the people in their neighborhoods? What about the communities in which these churches meet? Is the ministry of the church impacting them? If all our churches were to be suddenly removed from their communities would they be missed? Are we salt? Are we light? Do we really care? Do we have compassion upon them? All of them; the ones like us and the ones who aren’t! Jesus did! In fact the only people who really made Jesus publicly angry were the most religious people of his day. Isn’t that scary?
Jesus had compassion upon the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And what did he do about it? He “began to teach them many things.” I believe they listened, too, because he listened to them first. He saw their needs, and heard their cry. In a few moments he would direct his disciples to feed the five thousand people who sat there and listened to what he had to say. It must have been amazing!
The crowds today seem to have a spiritual appetite as well, though it may not take the orthodox direction most familiar to us. Many of today’s sheep say that they are interested in Jesus, but not the church. Yet, the church is the one place in all the world where people ought to be able to find a warm welcome, and then the truth that can transform lives, from the greatest person who ever lived, who offered us all the greatest gift ever given.
Currently some churches are rediscovering the long lost art of journeying alongside of people who are seeking to know God. In the RCA we are in the formative stages of developing a program that will train church folk to mentor others through a process that finds its culmination in a public profession of faith by the seeker. This is really what we ought to be about, whether we have a specific program for it or not.
I recently heard the testimony of a person whose father was an atheist, and who was therefore not raised in the church. She said that in spite of these limitations, she had an insatiable spiritual hunger within her. When she heard the gospel sung and explained and lived out in the people of a tiny, multicultural church in her neighborhood, she knew immediately that it was what she had been looking for all her life. That congregation of poor, common people gradually loved that woman into the kingdom of God. They had compassion upon her, saw her as a lost sheep, and taught her many things. But they did it in a way that convinced not only the brain but the heart. That’s the way the Spirit of God works, whether the church has an evangelism program or not.
- When you look at crowds of people around you, how do you view them? Have you actually thought of them as “sheep without a shepherd”?
- On a scale of 1-10 with 1 being the lowest, how would you rate yourself in terms of your compassion level? What about your church?
- Can you think of someone who recently came into your church from an unchurched background through its compassionate ministry? How did they make the transition? How did your church help?
- What do you think should be the most important of the many things that we teach to people whom God’s Spirit sends our way? Are we ready to do that?