Jesus came with his revolutionary message of God’s kingdom—a kingdom accessible only by faith. It required loving obedience to the King and Father, as well as loving service to brothers and sisters in God’s family and to every member of the human family. Love was its one all‑inclusive law, a love that Jesus spelled out in his Sermon on the Mount (matthew 5), and a love that fulfilled the Ten Commandments (romans 13:10). The controlling attitude and behavior in this born‑again society was to be compassionate, demonstrate love in action, and to provide caring concern for others—all of which was modeled by Jesus himself.
As God incarnate, Christ flawlessly reflected his Father’s nature, not only the divine holiness but the divine heart. Because he was sinless and most acutely sensitive to sin, Jesus sympathized with sinful people who were suffering the consequences of inherited depravity and personal sinfulness. He was aware that the multitudes he ministered to were made up of sinners, most of whom were spiritually weak and emotionally brittle. He realized too that in the crowds pressing around him were people whose faith was not burning brightly but was at best smoldering (matthew 12:20). Gently, without judgment, Jesus tried to strengthen the weak and ignite their faith. One Old Testament text that he continued to emphasize was Hosea 6:6, where God said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (matthew 9:13; 12:7). Jesus appropriated those significant words spoken by God himself to defend his tradition-violating compassion.
Jesus’s Compassion for Children
The people of Israel were a society that prized their children. Abortion and child exposure—leaving children outside to die—which were practiced by the pagan nations surrounding the Holy Land, were sinfully abhorrent to God’s elect people. They hailed every birth with joy and gratitude.
Growing up with brothers and sisters, Jesus, no doubt, had opportunity and responsibility to help care for his younger siblings. He thus acquired realistic insight into the characteristics and needs of children (mark 3:31–32; 6:3). While the Gospels give no specific information about the family relationships in the home of Mary and Joseph, we have good reason to believe they were sensitive, caring, and God-fearing parents.
As his own attitudes were influenced by the attitudes of his parents, Jesus became a lover of children. During his ministry, he was delighted to welcome them whenever they clustered around him. He had an acute understanding of their need for warm acceptance and adult help. Some of the children in the crowds that followed Jesus were acutely hungry or at least malnourished. Some were sick with all-too-common ailments. Some of them were deformed and blind. Some were in the grip of demonic powers (mark 9:17–18).
The disciples of Jesus were annoyed by restless children and tried to push them to the outskirts of the crowds. They ordered them to be quiet or to go away. Nevertheless the children who sensed Jesus’s love for them, clustered about, waiting to be picked up and held in his welcoming arms. Jesus embraced them and even prayed God’s blessing on them, much to the surprise of his disciples, who he later rebuked (mark 10:13–16). Not only that, he declared that children were to be welcomed in his name and that they—so dependent, so trustful, so teachable, so innocent—serve as models of the faith needed to enter God’s kingdom (matthew 18:1–5). He declared that anyone who causes a child to go astray will suffer severe punishment (mark 9:35–37, 42).
Jesus’s Compassion for Women
Israel was a patriarchal society in which women occupied a subordinate position and in many ways were treated as social and spiritual inferiors to men.
It’s difficult to generalize, because rabbis differed among themselves on this issue, and fathers differed in the upbringing of their daughters. Husbands also differed in how controlling and restrictive they were with their wives. Love and the personality differences of the Hebrew men in the lives of women created a wide variety of experiences. Yet it is undeniable that generally a woman’s lot in that patriarchal society was difficult.
In their younger years, daughters were often treated with suspicion. They were closely supervised in order to prevent anything that might be viewed as unchaste. When she began her menstrual cycle, a woman was unclean and needed purification (leviticus 15:19–30). To touch a menstruating woman was to undergo defilement that required ritual purification. Incidentally, a man was not to touch any woman except his wife, not even if she was his cousin and the touch accidental. When a girl reached a marriageable age, she was bartered by her father. After marriage she could be bartered by her husband. The female role was that of housekeeper, a time consuming and physically strenuous series of tasks. Her other role was that of childbearing with frequent pregnancies—the more children she bore, the higher a wife was held in esteem. After childbirth, a woman was regarded as unclean and in need of purification (leviticus 12). If a wife displeased her husband, he could divorce her, but a wife was not granted the same right (deuteronomy 24:1–4). If she was suspected of adultery, a wife could be subjected to the frightful water ordeal (numbers 5:11–31), but no such provision was made for testing a suspected husband. A woman had no property rights. She could not serve as a witness. She could not share equally in worship. Singing and chanting were done by men exclusively while women listened in their own synagogue compartments. Ten men had to be present for a service to be held. Nine men plus one woman would not do!
Jesus, however, was sensitive to the needs of all people whether male or female. He exhibited an all-inclusive compassion that broke through the traditional gender restrictions and taboos. In order to heal her, Jesus allowed a woman, who had been bleeding for twelve years, to touch him. He didn’t react with a shudder and he didn’t follow the prescribed routine for cleansing. Instead of condemning her for such a male‑contaminating act, Jesus gently led her to understand the difference between a belief in a kind of magical contact and a saving faith in divine grace (luke 8:42–48).
Another woman, a prostitute, approached Jesus while he was eating in a Pharisee’s house. She poured precious ointment on Jesus’s feet and washed them with her tears. Compassionately, Jesus, who knew her penitence and faith, defended that bold, extravagant action and sent her away with a benediction of peace (luke 7:36–50).
Jesus again disclosed his compassionate attitude toward women, and particularly those who were marginalized by their own sin, when he refused to engage in the stoning of an adulteress caught in the very act. Jesus, with pitying tactfulness, handled this sordid situation righteously yet forgivingly. He absolved the woman of her guilt, warned her against future temptation, and sent her away to live a changed life (john 8:1–11). He didn’t condone sin. Not in the least! Yet lovingly he offered pardon and hope to those women whom society pushed aside as moral refuse.
Widows especially elicited Jesus’s compassionate help. The Old Testament provided specific commands that widows were to be treated with kindness and respect (deuteronomy 14:28–29; 24:19–21; 26:12–13; isaiah 1:17). Nevertheless some families may have neglected to provide companionship and care for their widowed relatives, thus moving them to the outskirts of the family.
A typical example of Jesus’s attitude toward widows was his encounter with a funeral procession outside the city of Nain. A young man had died. He was the only child of his grief-stricken mother who faced loneliness and in all probability destitution. When Jesus saw the funeral procession and heard the mother sobbing, he was moved with compassion. “His heart went out to her” (luke 7:13). He didn’t wait for any appeal. He acted. He touched the coffin, risking ritual contamination, and commanded the corpse to rise. Miraculously, the son obeyed as life returned to his body. Imagine the mother’s gratitude as uncontrollable joy replaced inconsolable sorrow! (vv. 11–17).
In Jesus’s sermon in Nazareth as he inaugurated his public ministry, he referred to a widow (an alien from Sidon) as an object of God’s saving grace. That reference, made intentionally, not casually, contradicted the prejudices of his audience (luke 4:25–26).
The Sidon widow was not the only bereft widow whom Jesus used as an example to challenge his contemporaries and today’s readers. In Jesus’s day, men had only a meager knowledge of God and a superficial fellowship with him. The plight of women was far worse. Therefore Jesus, in defiance of tradition, allowed them to be among his followers and actually engage in the service and support of his ministry (luke 8:1–3). Women, together with men, were being taught about God’s grace that rules out gender distinction. With compassion, Jesus told women, individually as well as collectively, the truth about God and his kingdom. He took time to instruct Mary of Bethany (10:39). Significantly, he gently rebuked Martha the sister of Mary, counseling her that it was better for a woman to learn about God than to be preoccupied with household chores. In so saying, he was turning the traditional role of women upside down.
At Jacob’s well, he gave a brief course in theology to a Samaritan woman. No wonder his tradition-bound companions were astonished. He was talking to a woman alone and in public! She was a despised Samaritan woman, someone of a race that pious Jews viewed as heretics! (john 4:1–30).
Christ was motivated by one thing—compassion. He saw people in the whole gamut of their need. He saw people not in abstract categories such as males and females, Jews and Gentiles, aliens and citizens, adults and children. Jesus saw people as individuals made in God’s image, each a member of God’s human family and a potential member of his spiritual family.
Jesus’s Compassion for Others
As Jesus was compassionate toward women and children, so he was toward those on the edges of society. In first-century Israel, tax collectors and publicans were understandably despised and hated. They were Jews who acted as agents of the Roman government. Their task was to gather a specified amount of money from fellow Israelites with no exceptions. If they could extort anything beyond what was due, they pocketed the extra for themselves. So when Jesus wanted to stress the seriousness of sin in the church, he taught his disciples to treat the person as they would a tax collector if they didn’t repent (matthew 18:17). People must have been scandalized when Jesus ate with a tax collector and even invited one to be an inner-circle disciple! (mark 2:13–17). They must have been furious when Jesus invited Zacchaeus, a notorious publican to receive God’s redeeming, forgiving mercy! (luke 19:1–10). While telling a parable, Jesus must have perplexed his audience when a tax collector rather than a Pharisee received God’s grace! (luke 18:9–14). The crowd must have been furious when Jesus, the friend of tax collectors and sinners (7:34), declared that the tax collectors and prostitutes who had responded repentantly to the preaching of John the Baptist would enter into God’s kingdom ahead of the self-righteous religious leaders! (matthew 21:31–32).
According to Jesus, divine compassion could and would change members of the ostracized out-group into members of God’s in-group.
In his saving mercy, Jesus also broke through other barriers. He didn’t hesitate to touch lepers who were to avoid all human contact (matthew 8:1–4; mark 1:40–44). He exercised his power on behalf of needy individuals regardless of their race. He healed the son of a centurion, an officer in Rome’s oppressive army (matthew 8:5–13). He healed the daughter of a pagan, a Canaanite woman (matthew 15:21–24). He talked with a Samaritan woman and shared with her the liberating truth about God and the worship that was pleasing to God (john 4). He chose a Samaritan as a model of God’s own compassion—a Samaritan who had compassion on a victim of theft and violence (luke 10).
Jesus welcomed the common people who gladly listened to him (mark 12:37). The Jewish religious leaders looked down on the people with contempt because they were religiously illiterate (john 7:49), but Jesus who was moved with compassion taught the crowd, fed them repeatedly, healed their sick, and freed those who were possessed by demons (mark 5:1–17; 8:1–10). Jesus’s pity toward the poor in their sickness, in their hunger, and in their suffering emerges in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (luke 16:19–31) and again in his vision of judgment (matthew 25:31–46). His heart and his arms were open wide, as they still are, to the lowest, the least, and the lost (luke 15).
Jesus’s Compassion for the Spiritually Needy
Certainly Jesus was concerned about hunger, disease, and injustice, but he was more concerned about people’s relationship to God and their destiny in the world to come. When he read from Scripture in the synagogue at Nazareth, he quoted Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed, free to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (luke 4:18–19).
By quoting this passage from Isaiah, Jesus announced his twofold mission. First, he would literally help restore sight, give comfort, and liberate those in bondage to destructive habits and addictive behavior. Second, he would bring spiritual renewal, enlightening the spiritually blind (john 6), liberating the spiritually shackled, comforting the spiritually guilt-ridden and distressed.
While his pity took in the whole gamut of human affliction and his healing miracles provided relief, his concern was also spiritual. His society was permeated with religion, but the religion established by God for the blessing of his people had degenerated into a legalistic straightjacket. So he denounced, with fiercest vehemence, the Pharisaic traditionalism that took away the “key to knowledge” (luke 11:52) and left its soul-empty adherents in ignorance of God.
Jesus was shaken to the center of his being by his vision of their fate in eternity—exiled from the light, the love, and the life of God in darkness and despair forever. Again and again He begged the crowds to flee from the wrath to come. He spoke with a heart-melting eloquence, using the most vivid imagery to jolt the complacent, the indifferent, and the unrepentant out of their apathy. A contemporary rendition of Jesus’s words would be something like this: Don’t stumble zombielike into a destiny worse than the judgment poured out on Sodom and Gomorrah (matthew 11:24). Don’t refuse the grace of the pardon-offering God who can destroy both body and soul in hell (matthew 10:28). Such a terrifying prospect filled Jesus’s heart with grief. Even though Jesus ate and drank with sinners, and even though he shared in the happiness of wedding feasts, he never lost sight of “the dark line on God’s face.” He had entered our world as the embodiment of mercy, willing to die in order that lost sinners might not perish but have everlasting life.