Oftentimes, we understand things more clearly when we compare or contrast them to other things. This is certainly true of how we understand the compassion of Jesus. As powerful as the imagery of his compassion may be, it is even more profound when seen in the light of the culture in which Jesus expressed that compassion.
How does the Bible display the compassion of Jesus? Sometimes we see his compassion in contrast to the values of the ancient patriarchal culture (where all authority and rights were invested in males), as Jesus routinely came to the aid of women who, in that culture, had limited value and rights (see Mark 5; the woman with the bloody hemorrhage). Sometimes his compassion was contrasted to the harshness of Rome’s iron heel, as seen his description of the qualitative difference of life in his kingdom (see Matthew 5–7) as opposed to Rome’s.
Most often, however, we see Jesus moved with compassion in stark contrast with the ritual practice of religion in Judaism. This contrast is illustrated well by an incident recorded in Mark 3:1–6—an incident which, like so many others, occurred on the Jewish Sabbath.
I think it is fair to say that, since Jesus performed a disproportionate number of his miracles on Sabbaths, he was trying to engage the religious leaders on what he considered to be a major issue—the value of ritual versus the value of a human being. Notice Mark’s record:
He entered again into a synagogue; and a man was there whose hand was withered. They were watching Him to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. He said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and come forward!” And He said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” But they kept silent. After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately began conspiring with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.
It is important to set the context from Mark 2:23–28, which describes Jesus allowing his men to “harvest” and crush grain on the Sabbath because they were hungry. When questioned by the Pharisees for allowing his men to “work” in violation of Sabbath law, Jesus responded with a story of David, one of Israel’s great heroes, who also violated religious ritual when he and his men were faced with hunger. The message was clear: people matter more than religious regulations.
In justifying his own actions, however, Jesus went further than merely citing past precedent. He made what must have seemed to the Pharisees like an outrageous claim:
“So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).
Amazing. Now, immediately after making this claim, Jesus appears to provoke yet another Sabbath confrontation. Knowing that the Pharisees were looking (Mark 3:2) for grounds on which to accuse him, Jesus enters the synagogue and, with great intentionality, calls forward a man with a withered hand to challenge the Pharisees. Interestingly, Luke says it was the man’s right hand and some ancient traditions say that this afflicted man was a stone mason by trade—making his situation desperate since he was no longer able to work.
When presented with the man and his devastating condition, Jesus asked the Pharisees a question that echoed the event with the disciples and grain from Mark 2. It was a question rooted in their values—what matters more, your ritual or this man’s well-being? Their response was silence, which bellowed their values nonetheless. They were more concerned about observing religious beliefs and practices than they were about the needs of this man.
Here we see Jesus, fierce and fiery when moved with compassion. Notice verse 5:
After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart…
The key word here is anger. Their lack of compassion, rooted in hardness of heart, refused to see the need of the man with the withered hand—and Jesus was angered by it! It is actually quite rare for this word to be used of Jesus, but, it is also used of Jesus in Mark 10:14—when the disciples refused to let the children come to Him. What did the two incidents have in common?
In both cases, someone who was weak was being victimized, and Jesus became angry.
There is something intensely dark about devaluing a human being made in the image of God—a person for whom Jesus died. How we view people is vital, as C. S. Lewis said in The Weight of Glory:
“You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
Jesus felt compassion because he fully recognized the inherent worth of a human being made in the image of his Father. The Lord of the Sabbath exercises his authority over Sabbath law to come to the aid of a broken man.
When contrasted to the stone hearts of the Pharisees, we see a compassion that is passionate. A compassion that values people over religious ritual. This clearly exposes the difference between the hearts of the religionists and heart of the Father Jesus came to reveal.
To the Pharisees, the issue was ritual—born out of relationship to the law
To Jesus, the issue was compassion—born out of the heart of the Father
Exposing this dangerous difference is key. The New Bible Commentary says:
The healing of the shriveled hand could have waited until a weekday. Jesus, however, exposed the double standard of those who were prepared to make exceptions to alleviate animal suffering (or to avoid economic loss?) but not for human relief. His sweeping statement, ‘It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath’, was in striking contrast with the Pharisees’ tendency to multiply regulations. No wonder they had to oppose a man who so openly flouted both their authority and the principles they stood for.
The imagery could not be more severe. The compassion of Jesus demands that we likewise set aside the hardness that can creep into our own hearts and learn show mercy and grace for those around us who are hurting. The compassion of Jesus is one of the most profound ways we can display his great heart to others, for it will fundamentally alter not only how we treat people, but, even more importantly, how we view and value other human beings.