“When Jesus saw the crowds, He had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36)
If we are ever asked the question, “What is the one, great motive of Christian ministry in all its forms?” the simple answer is “compassion”. The Gospel writers repeat over and over again that compassion is the crowning characteristic of Jesus’ life. Throughout the Gospels we are told that Jesus showed compassion both to crowds and to individuals.
The Greek word, “compassion” (splanchnizomai), means to yearn with deep feeling towards others. The word originally referred the inner parts of the body and came to suggest the seat of the emotions – particularly the emotions of compassion, pity and love. The Gospel writers use this word to speak of Jesus’ attitude to those in need.
It is interesting that Matthew describes Jesus itinerant ministry in the cities and towns of Galilee as having been prompted by His compassion. Josephus tells us that were probably around three million people living in 204 cities and towns in the region and that Jesus moved about all these places, “teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and disease amongst the people” (Matthew 9:35). Whether people were in sprawling towns, tiny hamlets tucked away on the hillsides, or the large cities that ringed the lake of Galilee, Jesus went to them and met their needs. His compassion drove Him to seek people out and to teach and heal them.
One of the ways that Jesus demonstrated His compassion was by touching people. A leper came to Jesus and begged for healing. Jesus, “filled with compassion”, reached out to touch and heal him (Mark 1:40-42). Likewise, He touched the eyes of the blind as well as the woman who had the issue of blood. In the moment of His greatest agony upon the cross, Jesus had compassion on his mother and entrusted her to the care of the apostle John (John 19:26, 27). His compassion led him to reach out to people who were unattractive, unkempt and some who were literally out of their minds (Mark 5:1-20).
The compassion of Christ to those in need stands in stark contrast to the attitude of other religions. The Greek gods were essentially indifferent to human plight. They were incapable of feeling (apathes). Similarly, Hinduism has little place for compassion, especially for those who belong to lower castes. Again, Muhammad’s name is associated with jihad, violence and struggle rather than compassion. Jesus stands out as a solitary figure in his commitment to love others, even His enemies.
It is particularly interesting that Matthew tells us that Jesus felt compassion for people who were left “harassed” and “helpless” as a result of bad leadership and religious instruction. He condemns Israel’s leaders for failing to feed the people God’s truth, which had left them torn or mangled as if by wild beasts (eskulmenoi) and prostrate on the ground as though struck by terrible blows (erimmenoi). Just as Christ’s mission was to show compassion towards people who live with broken dreams, are weary of this world, and who have fallen on the thorns of life, our lives must be models of compassion too.