Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Moved With Compassion

Mk. 1:40-45[1]

The theme of our lessons for Epiphany is the way Jesus revealed the presence of God’s kingdom, already working among us to make all things new. Everything he did—preaching the good news, relieving the sufferings of the sick, and invading the territory of the demons, was to demonstrate that God had begun to intervene in human affairs to set things right and restore life as God intended for it to be.[2] Perhaps one of the most important ways in which Jesus revealed the presence of God’s kingdom was by the exercise of compassion. Jesus offered God’s kingdom of liberty, healing, and new life to everyone, most importantly to those whom society had shunned—the hopeless, disempowered, oppressed, broken, wounded, and lost. Jesus demonstrates God’s presence to heal, liberate and set right precisely by showing mercy and compassion to the outcasts.[3]

Cleansing the leper is an excellent demonstration of God’s compassion. Understanding the suffering of anyone with a disease makes it possible for us to see this as an act of compassion. But understanding the reality of “leprosy” in the ancient Jewish society makes what Jesus did go way beyond what we would call compassion. The many skin diseases known as “leprosy” effectively made a person an outcast from most if not all meaningful relationships.[4] Those who were “lepers” were considered to be religiously “unclean” and contaminated irrevocably. Their suffering was believed to be punishment from God for some particularly odious sin. And because they were irrevocably contaminated, “lepers” were also “contagious,” so all contact had to be avoided.

Jesus demonstrated the compassion of God by crossing the barrier that isolated the leper and touching him. What we have to understand is that for most people in that day, Jesus not only was risking contracting a horrible disease, but also was putting himself in danger of himself being irrevocably contaminated and outcast from both God and humankind. And still, Jesus touched him. More than that, he sent the “leper” to present himself to the priests and offer the prescribed sacrifice; all of which was necessary for him to be declared “clean” and therefore be able to re-enter his life. Everything Jesus did revealed the compassion of God![5] This is especially true of his cleansing of this person who was shunned from life due to his illness.[6]

But that is also what we are called to do—to reveal the presence of God’s kingdom among us by acts of compassion. The ancient Church Father Origen of Caesarea quoted Jesus as saying, “Because of the weak I was weak, and I hungered because of the hungry, and I thirsted because of the thirsty.”[7] Along these lines, Henri Nouwen says that following Jesus in the compassionate life is “the life of downward mobility.”[8] By that he meant that following Jesus in demonstrating the compassion of God means taking a path that leads “toward the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners, the refugees, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless.”[9] This vision of relieving suffering, including those who are excluded, providing for those in need, of complete wholeness for humanity and all of creation as well is an important part of what we call the “kingdom of God.”[10]

I’m just not so sure most of us have the compassion to actually do that! There are some among us who go out of their way to bear the burdens of others. For most of us, it’s a matter of a weekend working with people just like us on a Habitat House. Or meeting with a committee of people just like us planning ways to help the suffering. But most of us are not really willing to “risk our own peace and comfort” to show compassion for those who are truly outcast by actually becoming a part of their life, their suffering, their rejection in order to help them.[11]

Before you assume too quickly that you are different, ask yourself if you would have touched the “leper”, knowing it might have meant giving up all your meaningful relationships, knowing that it might have meant being banished from all meaningful interaction with others, knowing that it might have meant consigning yourself to a lifetime in which your only community was others who were similarly outcast. I think the answer is plain enough for most of us. Which means we still have miles to go in our quest to become followers of Jesus.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/15/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, 202; see also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 94-116.

[3] Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 142; cf. also ibid., 106: “The healing Jesus intervenes out of the compassion of God, who suffers with those he has created when they are sick, and desires them to be well.” Cf. also R. David Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet , 104.

[4] See David E. Garland, “I Am the Lord Your Healer: Mark 1:21-2:12Review and Expositor 85 (1988): 327-343.

[5] Cf. A Declaration of Faith, PCUS, 1977; PCUSA, 1991, §1.3: “Jesus’ involvement in the human condition is God’s involvement. His compassion for all kinds of people is God’s compassion.”

[6] Cf. Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 178: Jesus compassion manifests “solidarity with the helpless and the poor” and is “the path of the divine love in its essential nature.”

[7] Origen, Commentary on Matthew, 13.2. This is one of the “unwritten sayings” or Agrapha of Jesus not recorded in the Gospels but reported by early church leaders. See

[8] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 100.

[9] Nouwen, Here and Now, 101

[10] Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water, 12, calls this vision of God’s salvation “a perpetual Jubilee in the Spirit”: “a vision of an all-inclusive people, gathered in the power of God, filled with the love of God, and empowered to do the works of God. It is a vision of Jubilee sharing, Jubilee caring, and Jubilee compassion for all who are crushed and broken by social and economic structures.”

[11] Cf. Declaration of Faith 8.4: “We believe God sends us to risk our own peace and comfort in compassion for our neighbors. We are to give to them and receive from them, accepting everyone we meet as a person; to be sensitive to those who suffer in body or mind; to help and accept help in ways that affirm dignity and responsibility.” Cf. also Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 179: “Anyone who ‘has compassion’ participates in the suffering of the other, takes another person’s suffering on himself and suffers for others by entering into community with them and bearing their burdens.”

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