Another disaster. Another appeal. Another set of pictures to pull at the heart strings. There is an ongoing need to help others in need. One statistic said that over 840 million people worldwide are chronically undernourished. Every day, 26,000 young children die due to poverty, hunger, and preventable diseases. With so many people in such lamentable condition, what motivates Jesus’ followers to respond?
The simple answer is the compassion of Jesus: something he showed and something we are to copy. Compassion is a feeling of empathy with the suffering of others, the capacity to feel how others feel. The literal meaning is to suffer with: to enter the pain of another. Jesus showed this: ‘When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’ (Matthew 9v36). Again, ‘Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way’ (Mt 15v32). When aware of the need, we care about the people involved, and we are ready to act on their behalf. Having compassion on a needy person is proof of the love of God within us (I John 3v17); being kind to the needy honours God (Prov 14v31).
Compassion is expressed in three ways:
- Charity is an old word for love, to describe gifts of money, clothing, food; but it does not necessarily involve an investment of our time and talents. Such giving shows a generous nature, but we can remain distant from the needy. So, Jesus’ example and teaching are more demanding.
- Service: involves us face-to-face with those in need. It can change our natural state of self-centeredness into increasingly selfless people. Jesus puts service at the centre of his ministry: ‘For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves’ (Luke 22v24-27). These words were spoken at the start of the Coronation of King Charles in his pledge to serve. This is swims against the tide of our desire to be noticed, affirmed, and to feel significant. But a servant is one who quietly and humbly serves the needs of others regardless of personal recognition and regardless of the status of those we serve.
- Justice transforms the social structures and systems which are producing poverty and suffering. While charity and service seek to heal wounds, it is justice that seeks to end the social structures that create wounded people (for no policy is perfect). Ultimately only the Lord can bring justice at his return “with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isa 11v4).
This explains how Christians have always been involved with care for the poor and hungry, medical assistance and education as they share the good news of redemption with the needy world. The compassionate mercy we have experienced and give thanks for is to overflow to the wider world.