In one of Jesus’s most important statements on the value of compassion, he does not even use the word compassion itself. In Matthew 25:40 we read:
The King will answer and say to them, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”
In this parable, the king represents Jesus Himself, and He is declaring the importance of caring for those who are the most vulnerable, the most marginalized, and the most forgotten. Those without a voice. The oppressed. All of that is embedded in His call for us to care for the least of these. But as we know, “Actions speak louder than words.” Jesus didn’t merely teach this level of compassion as an intellectual exercise; He embodied it as a significant part of His public ministry.
In Jesus’s day, the “oppressed” were comprised of a variety of people groups that had something in common. For one reason or another, they were forced to live on the fringes of Jewish society. Sometimes through no fault of their own, their culture and communities pushed them to the societal margins resulting in their experience being marked by oppression, whether physical or emotional.
Women. In ancient Israel (and the ancient world in general), women had little value and few rights. In their male-dominated society, women were often treated as if they were property rather than human beings. Nevertheless, Jesus reached out to women in unprecedented ways. In fact, Luke’s gospel provides no less than forty-three references to women.
In the gospels, women came to Jesus from every background and life situation imaginable, including widows (the widow of Nain; luke 7:11–17), wives (Joanna, wife of Chuza; luke 8:3, 24:10), apparently single women (Martha and Mary; luke 10:38–42), hurting mothers (the Canaanite woman; matthew 15:21–28), demonized women (Mary Magdalene; luke 8:2), and morally questionable women (the “sinful” woman, luke 7:36–50, and the woman caught in adultery, john 8:1–11). Additionally, women were a critical part of the support base for Jesus’s public ministry (luke 8:1–3) and, Jesus allowed Mary of Bethany to sit at His feet during His teaching (luke 10:39)—a disciple’s role normally reserved for men.
Jesus’s acceptance of women would have been startling in His day. Nevertheless, Jesus displayed His compassion for the women who were oppressed by their culture, giving them worth, welcome, and inclusion.
Demonized. While Jesus rescued many demonized people, one example stands out—the demoniac of the Gerasenes (see luke 8:26–39). In this particular instance, a demonized man is obviously oppressed by demonic forces in great number (“Legion”). His condition forced him into isolation from his community. In Luke 8:27, he is described as “a man from the city who was possessed with demons; and who had not put on any clothing for a long time, and was not living in a house, but in the tombs.” This man was delivered by Jesus, whose compassion rescued him and brought him wholeness.
Social Outcasts. A variety of social outcasts lived in first-century Israel. Some were those who, because they did not live up to community standards or religious regulations, had been put out of the synagogue—a prospect that terrified the parents of the man born blind (john 9:22). The synagogue was more than just a religious facility. It was the center of Jewish social life in Jesus’s day. To be put out of the synagogue was to be cut off from community. Relationships ended, employment was lost, and the ability to buy and sell could be severely limited.
The Oppressor. Perhaps most counterintuitive was Jesus’s compassion for the oppressor. The most significant subset of those put out of the synagogue were likely the ultimate social pariahs of that time—the tax collectors. These tax collectors were hated by their fellow Jewish citizens because tax collecting was collaboration with the occupying Roman government. Like all governments, Rome craved revenue and demanded that its conquered nations pay the freight for the empire. These “publicans” were given tax quotas that they had to extract from the locals. However, tax collectors were allowed to graft as much from the people as they could—keeping the difference for themselves. Rome closed its eyes to the dishonest practices of their publicans as long as the empire got its cut. In spite of the heavy social stigma this carried, Jesus made Matthew the tax collector one of His disciples (matthew 10:3) and continually engaged tax collectors socially and spiritually (Zaccheus; luke 19:1–10).
Jesus’s compassion for these outcasts—including even those like Zaccheus who oppressed them—was so profound that the religious leaders gave Him a label He gladly accepted: “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (luke 7:34). Jesus wouldn’t let concern over His reputation get in the way of His radical compassion.
Samaritans. This is where racial oppression visited Jesus’s ministry most profoundly. The Samaritans were hated by the Jews (luke 9:52–53; john 8:48) because they were of mixed racial heritage. In 722 bc, the northern kingdom of Israel was captured by Sennacherib and thousands of Jews were deported to Assyria, with thousands of Assyrians likewise sent to northern Israel. This double-migration led to an intermarrying of Jews and Assyrians that resulted in racially mixed people—the Samaritans—who were rejected by the “ethnically pure” of Israel. As a result, the Samaritans were barred from the temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, even the temple mount.
Yet, Jesus reached out to a Samaritan woman (john 4), defended a Samaritan village (luke 9:51–56), and made a Samaritan the hero of one His most beloved parables (luke 10:30–37)—no doubt to the great consternation of His Jewish audience. The Samaritans paint a picture for us of people viewed by their culture as the ethnically inferior, the racially “less than”—but people who were both welcomed and shown compassion by the Savior.
In a time when oppression was as universal as the physical diseases Jesus so often encountered, there can be no doubt that Jesus’s compassion was as refreshing to the hurting as a cool breeze on a hot day. While physical healing could produce relief from pain or disability, Jesus offered the oppressed a welcome, inclusion, and acceptance that was rare in their generation—and remains so for so many who are oppressed today.
Jesus treated the oppressed as people made in the image of God, showing them a compassion that brought emotional and spiritual healing to the downtrodden people surrounding Him. To Jesus, there was nothing at all least about the so-called “least of these.”