Compassionate Life

Christianity is community. Jesus began his ministry by announcing the foundation of a new society — the kingdom of God — and proceeded to root that proclamation in his relationships with a small group of disciples. He summarized the entire thrust of Scripture in terms of love — not only our love for God but also the love we express for others (Matt 22:34 – 40) — going so far as to affirm that on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Perhaps the single most unique aspect of his teaching was the way he extended the call to love far beyond the usual ties of kinship and friendship; disciples of Christ are to love one another and their neighbors, but they are also to love their enemies and persecutors (Matt 5:43 – 48). As Jesus demonstrated in his relationships with prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners, occupying Roman soldiers, Gentiles, Pharisees, and so many others, no one falls outside the orbit of the universal love of God which the followers of Jesus are called to embody.

In my years of pastoral ministry I would frequently be confronted by the assertion: I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian.” Those words usually came from one of two kinds of people: those who never attended church but wanted to see themselves as good Christian folk nonetheless, and those who were disillusioned or disaffected with church life and were intending to leave. Given that, for all its beauty and glory, the church sadly has an uncanny knack for alienating, excluding, and crushing people, and I could often sympathize with the sentiment. Still, I found the whole idea baffling. It was as though someone were to say, I don’t need to be part of a team to play soccer.” True, you could kick a ball around a field for a while the way soccer players do, but the game itself is intrinsically social. Soccer is a team sport. And in the same way, Christian faith is a communal endeavor. I don’t have to like church to be a Christian — I may wrestle with it, struggle with it, at times be repulsed by it. But in the end, I have to be part of it.

Many of us might agree, even those who have found church life difficult and hurtful. But the example and teaching of Jesus point us much further down the road than this. We are called, not only to involve ourselves deeply in the life of the Christian community, but more broadly to a compassionate and loving engagement with other people in the ever widening concentric circles of community in which we live: neighborhoods, towns and cities, counties and states, the nation, even the world as a whole. The Renovaré community, through the Common Disciplines that flesh out our shared Covenant, is committed to social justice, or the compassionate life; we affirm that by God’s grace, we will endeavor to serve others everywhere we can and will work for justice in all human relationships and social structures.” That’s a commitment rooted and grounded in the character of Jesus himself — and it’s Jesus who shows us so clearly what that means in the personal, public, and political arenas.

The Personal Dimension

In the seventh chapter of his Gospel, Luke relates a fascinating story about an unexpected interruption at a dinner party. Simon the Pharisee had invited Jesus to dine with him, probably together with a number of other guests. This was an opportunity for Simon to introduce the popular but controversial rabbi to the friends and acquaintances within his circle, perhaps enhancing his own reputation in the process. But before long (as so often happens when Jesus is around) the well-planned course of the evening began to go awry. A woman quietly tiptoed into the room carrying a valuable jar of scented ointment and placed herself behind the reclining figure of Jesus, right at his feet. Luke tells us that she was a sinner,” without specifying the nature of her sin — clearly, whatever the nature of her offense, it was enough to make her notorious within her local community and therefore an unwelcome guest in Simon’s home. The woman was weeping, her tears falling onto Jesus’ feet; she leaned over and wiped them away with her disgracefully loosened hair, before opening the jar and pouring out the perfumed oil where her tears had fallen. Simon was outraged. If this man were a prophet,” he thought to himself, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him — that she is a sinner” (v. 39). It’s likely the other guests responded similarly; the atmosphere in the room must have chilled considerably.

But, as always, Jesus’ response was striking. First he offers Simon a short parable about a man who forgives two debtors the substantial amounts they owe him— one equal to about two months’ salary, and the other to almost two years of pay. Which of them will love him more?,” he asks Simon; the Pharisee reluctantly acknowledges the point that those forgiven more will love more. Then Jesus points to the woman and asks a startling question: Do you see this woman?” (v. 44).

It’s worth pausing there before reading the rest of the narrative. Do you see this woman?” The truth was, of course, that Simon had seen a great deal. He had seen the sinner at his door. He had seen, very clearly, the nature of her offense against propriety, whatever that had been. He had seen her intrusion into his circle, his world, his unsullied company; her disgraceful behavior; her unbridled grief; her extravagant offering of perfume. And he had passed a fearful and ferocious judgment on her in his own heart, based on all that he had seen. But the one thing he had failed to see was the woman herself — this wayward but beautiful daughter of Eve, fallen and corrupted, but yet still bearing the image and likeness of her Creator. He had failed to see her pain, her sorrow, her fragile hope. He saw, so he thought, everything, but in the end proved blind to the only thing that mattered.

Jesus, on the other hand, saw the woman. He addressed her directly, tenderly, speaking to her pain and her hope. We see this happening repeatedly throughout the Gospels. The scribes and Pharisees drag before Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery. They are blind to everything but the controversial issue at stake — to stone her, or not to stone her? But Jesus maneuvers them all away, and is the only person to address her directly. Jesus alone sees the human person in her ( John 8:1 – 11). On another occasion, a paralyzed man is lowered through the roof. The crowd is abuzz with questions — will Jesus heal, or not? Are his words blasphemous, or not? But Jesus, unlike anyone else, speaks directly to the man. Again, he is the only one to see the person before him, rather than the issues and questions (Mark 2:112).

There is a crucial lesson here for us: by grace, we are transformed more into the likeness of Christ and begin to be drawn to the compassionate life, to work for greater justice, peace, and harmony as we serve those amongst whom we live. Constantly we need to ask ourselves, Do you see this woman?” Do you see this man?” We struggle against two competing dangers. On the one hand, it is possible to be so self-absorbed and self-centered that we are blind to the needs, struggles, and pain of those around us; unfeeling and uncaring, we easily excuse ourselves from being involved in the lives of others. But as we are transformed into greater Christlikeness, and the love of God becomes more manifest in our lives, another temptation rears its head — a more seductive and subtle temptation. We absorb ourselves in justice,” in society,” in reforms.” We identify the issues and vigorously campaign. We speak out and make our voices heard. We become energetic activists for righteousness! Yet still the truth is we have not learned to see (let alone love) the woman or the man — the individual human beings whose lives are so profoundly affected by the issues and causes over which we agitate.

Often, when I speak about Renovaré’s commitment to embracing the compassionate life we see in Jesus, to being involved in seeking social justice, someone will ask (rather nervously) how to get involved. Should we be marching in demonstrations, lobbying our politicians, chaining ourselves to railings outside the city hall? Do we need to write letters to the newspaper, write large checks for non-profit organizations, or join pressure groups? In fact, of course, all these activities have their place. But none are a good starting point. We need to get more personal. We need to learn to see people.

I often suggest that the questioner might want to spend an evening down at the soup kitchen or homeless shelter. But not, I would quickly add, cooking the soup, or cleaning the dishes, or serving the bread rolls. Nor sat in a back offi ce helping to file paperwork or count checks. Instead, head down to the shelter, grab a bowl of soup yourself, and sit with the folks who come through the door. Chat with them. Ask about their lives. Where are they from? Where are their families? What do they do, day by day? Who are their friends? What are their interests, their stories, their memories? Begin to see them as people, not recipients or charity cases. There is no shelter in the land that wouldn’t welcome you to come meet their community on these terms. Or perhaps you might spend a day with a drop-in for single mothers. Or in a prison. Wherever you live, there are places where you can go meet the lost, the lonely, the troubled, the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and open yourself to their company and friendship.

A number of years ago I spent a year working in a church of the homeless in the south of England. I vividly remember arriving at the church on my first day. The room was filled with the most ragged looking people I’d ever seen. Old Jock was slumped, drunk, in the corner of the room, his tattered coat wrapped tightly around him. Michelle, with a shock of unruly purple hair, leather jacket, rampant piercings, and tattoos twisting wildly across her skin, laughed as she waved her cigarette through the air. Tony sat moodily over his coffee, hours from his last fix, his eyes darting round the room. Derek stood bolt upright, staring right at me, his gaze teetering somewhere around the edge of sanity.

I was terrified. I felt so out of my depth; my comfort zone was so distant I would need air miles just to get in sight of it again. I edged my way into the room and gingerly sat in on a conversation. The street language was unfamiliar, and I had no idea what anyone was talking about. It took every ounce of determination not to get up and leave right away — what did I think I was doing? But I screwed up my courage and determined to stay. After all, didn’t someone need to be Jesus for these people? If I stuck it out, at least I might get a chance to minister to them.

By the time I left a year later, everything had changed. The drunks, addicts, ex-cons, pimps, and hookers had become not just people, but friends. I looked forward to turning up. Annette’s jokes were a treat. Alan had been so helpful when I’d gone through a bad patch halfway through the year. Maurice’s cooking was dreadful, but his conversation was so lively and entertaining.

And Jesus showed up — just where I’d least expected him. I don’t know how much of Jesus they found in me — something of him, I hope. But every time I sat over coffee with that community, Jesus revealed himself to me in them. After a few months I re-read the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, and noticed something obvious that had never struck me before. Those who reach out to the poor, the hungry, the naked, the prisoners, find they are not congratulated for being Christlike. Instead they are rewarded by meeting Jesus in the very people they seek to serve. In the end, I went to that church not to be Jesus, but to meet Jesus. The experience changed my life.

The compassionate life is, first and foremost, personal. It must be rooted in genuine, direct relationships, not nebulous issues. We cannot love causes. We can only love people — and this love is the root of all real, enduring justice and peace. As we walk in the footsteps of Jesus, we need to learn to see.

The Public Dimension

As we learn to see” people in our personal lives, so in the public arena — the world of the communities in which we participate, our neighborhoods, societies, communities, and churches — we become able to show love and compassion more directly. There are many ways of expressing this love, but I often think that one of the most powerful communal spiritual practices is that known in the Benedictine tradition as hospitality.

We sometimes think of hospitality in very simple and functional terms: providing a meal for someone, or opening our home to offer them a place to rest or sleep. But in the Christian tradition the word has always had much broader connotations. There is a brief line in the Rule of St. Benedict which has deeply shaped the character not only of monasteries but also many other churches and Christian communities for over a millennium and a half. In the 53rd chapter of the Rule, Benedict writes: All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” And Benedict immediately roots this idea in the teaching of Jesus. He reminds us that in Matthew 25, during the parable of the sheep and the goats, the astonished disciples ask Christ at the judgment: When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And Jesus replies, Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt 25:31 – 40).

Hospitality, then, is extending to the stranger — especially the hungry, thirsty, outcast, needy, suffering stranger — the same welcome we would seek to extend to Christ himself. For Benedictine monasteries, this meant making extraordinary provisions for a stranger who arrived at the gates. On arriving at the monastery, the visitor would be greeted with a bow, or even a complete prostration on the ground; Christ was being worshiped in the person of the guest. Then there would be prayers together, after which the abbot himself would be summoned to wash the hands and feet of the guest. Other members of the community might also wash the visitor’s feet, before a meal was prepared. It might be that the guest had arrived during a fast; no matter. A separate kitchen was maintained for guests, and food would be prepared anyway. Guest quarters would be prepared with good bedding. Even monks keeping strict silence could speak to greet a guest, politely explain their silence, and ask humbly for a blessing.

Many churches have wonderful ministries of hospitality, extending the most gracious welcome to all who cross their threshold. It really isn’t that difficult for any church to establish such a ministry. It doesn’t require a huge budget investment, or extensive training; no-one needs to travel halfway across the country for seminars and coaching. All it needs is a simple change of perspective in enough of the church’s members, an understanding that visitors to the community are not nuisances to be endured (thankfully, that’s not the experience Hospitality, then, is extending to the stranger — especially the hungry, thirsty, outcast, needy, suffering stranger — the same welcome we would seek to extend to Christ himself. extended in most church’s I visit, but I have seen that attitude modeled on more than one occasion!); nor are they potential converts to be scalped” or possible donors to be fawned upon. Like the Benedictine monks, encouraged by the teaching of Jesus, we can simply learn to see the guest as Christ among us. We don’t ask, What would Jesus do?,” but rather, What would I do for Christ?”

Jesus gives us a magnificent example of the nature of hospitality in Matthew’s gospel. As Jesus came down from the mountain, after delivering the Sermon on the Mount, he was confronted by a leper who begged him for healing. And, of course, Jesus does heal him — the leprosy is entirely cured, and the man restored to a normal life in his family and community. A wonderful miracle! But there is one small detail in the story that always catches my eye. Before Jesus heals the leper, before he even speaks to him, he does something quite extraordinary. He stretched out his hand,” Matthew tells us, and touched him” (Matt 8:3). This poor man had perhaps not been intentionally touched for years, other than by fellow sufferers. He was, quite literally, an outcast — shunned by society, feared and loathed by all. Jesus’ simple act had incredible healing power. Before he tackled the disease, he welcomed the man back into human society.

There’s a powerful example of hospitality in this story. Few of us have the kind of healing ministry that can bring cleansing to lepers. But any of us could simply reach out and touch the untouchables. And our churches can become places known for this kind of healing touch. I think of St. John’s Downtown, an astonishing Methodist church in Houston, which every Sunday draws together thousands of people, including hundreds of homeless and rough sleepers, drug addicts, alcoholics, and other people who have found themselves pushed out to the margins of society. At St. John’s they experience the compassionate touch of Christ — all are welcomed, all are drawn in and embraced. And that is Christian hospitality, the compassionate life displayed in Christian community. It is an act of profound grace.

The Political Dimension

Lastly, we need to consider how we show compassion in the political realm. Again, Jesus is our role model. Jesus was a profoundly political figure. It’s sometimes difficult for us contemporary Western readers to understand Jesus’ political significance, because the cultural context in which he moved was so profoundly different to ours. We don’t see Jesus campaigning for public office, lobbying leading officials, demonstrating in the streets, or speaking in town hall debates — all the hallmarks of the modern political process — and so we can easily draw the erroneous conclusion that Jesus was a disinterested observer, distant from the political process. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Right from the beginning, Jesus’ message was profoundly political — in the truest sense of the word. Webster’s Dictionary defines politics as the total complex of relations between people in society.” The teaching of Jesus fundamentally redefined that relational complex. The Gospels tell us that when Jesus started preaching, his simple message was: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15). In a world of tyrants, despots, kings, and emperors, to herald the inauguration of a new kingdom was revolutionary, a direct challenge to existing rulers and powers. In one simple proclamation Jesus relativized the authority of the Herodian kings, the Judean Sanhedrin, the imperial Governor, and even Caesar in Rome.

And these rulers clearly understood and felt the challenge. The Herodian dynasty, Jewish rulers who exercised authority at various times in parts of Judea, Galilee, and beyond, repeatedly tried to crush Jesus and those who followed him. Herod the Great slaughtered the children of Bethlehem when he became aware of Jesus’ birth. His son, Herod Antipas, beheaded John the Baptist and conspired in the crucifixion of Jesus. Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, had James the apostle murdered, and sought to do away with Peter too (Acts 12:1 – 4). The central accusation brought against Jesus during his trial by the Sanhedrin was that he claimed to be the Christ (Mark 14:61 – 62); that is, the Messiah, the promised ruler of Israel. This accusation was interpreted before Pilate as a claim to be king; in John’s account of the trial, Pilate feels the force of this claim so strongly it becomes the deciding factor in his judgment ( John 19:12 – 16). The written charge under which Jesus hung on the cross — engraved in three languages, so it could be understood by all — was this: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” The Sanhedrin was so incensed by Pilate’s wording of the claim it provoked a furious argument ( John 19:19 – 22). There can be no doubt that Jesus was understood as a challenge to the political order.

Christians cannot expect to follow the crucified King without becoming involved in this total complex of relations between people in society.” Christianity is inherently political. But it’s terribly easy for us to misunderstand what that might mean, and looking to the example of Jesus can be profoundly helpful as we enter into the deep waters of the political world.

Jesus was political, but not partisan. It is, frankly, impossible to pin Jesus down as a poster boy either for the political left or right, or even for the moderate center ground. Christ defies easy categorization with contemporary political labels. Where would Jesus have stood on the issues of deficit reduction, taxation, economic stimulus packages, and health care? What might he have taught about the appropriate scale of government involvement in society, or domestic and foreign policy? What were his positions on crime, education, affordable housing, welfare, or the dozens of other issues that dominate our political landscape? The answer is simple: we don’t know. The Gospels give us no grounds whatsoever for putting views on these issues into Jesus’ mouth, and any effort to do so is almost always an attempt to mold Jesus into our own image. Authoritative claims to know the mind of Christ” on the wide range of questions facing 21st century Western democracies are founded on little more than thin air, wishes, and occasionally deceit.

Because of this, Christians have a great deal of freedom in the political arena. It is entirely consistent with the Christian faith and with Gospel teaching for Christians to speak, act, campaign, and work as passionate Republicans, Jesus was political, but not partisan. It is, frankly, impossible to pin Jesus down as a poster boy either for the political left or right, or even for the moderate center ground. or Democrats, or Greens, or Independents, or from pretty much any other commitment on the political spectrum. In debate with one another we should determine that, although we have come to different conclusions about the way the Gospel informs contemporary political issues, we will refuse to question the integrity of one another’s faith and commitment to Christ. I may hold my political views from profoundly Christian convictions. You may utterly disagree with my ideas, and still be working from an equally deep and thought-through Christian commitment. It is so important that we maintain the Christian freedom to respectfully and courteously disagree with one another.

Sadly, much of the contemporary Church has allowed itself to become polarized along partisan lines. Liberals, horrified by the militarism and rampant capitalistic greed they perceive on the right, trumpet such values as equality and inclusion as though they were, in themselves, the whole substance of the Gospel. I visited one such church that had reorganized all its ministries around the United Nations Millennium Development Goals — which, worthy as they are, don’t feature prominently in any version of the Bible I own. Conservatives, on the other hand, spurning the moral relativism and fiscal irresponsibility they believe characterizes the left, throw the Church’s moral weight behind such allegedly Gospel-centered issues as gun ownership, tax reductions, and immigration control. I recently saw a sign outside a conservative church in Virginia that took my breath away with this sweeping claim: God is Angry: Homosexuals, Abortion, Democrats.”

I know some folks, reading these lines, will want to explode in protest. But these issues are important!” And, of course, they are; vitally so. Unfortunately, though, the Church is losing the ability to speak as an independent voice on almost all of them. Our polarization is politically neutering us; so many churches are now little more than religious mouthpieces for the big political parties. Jesus did not come to bring victory for left or right; he came to announce the coming rule of God, a new society that up-ends all existing loyalties and assumptions. Christians, following in his footsteps, are not called to fight for the supremacy of either side of the political spectrum; we, too, are summoned to proclaim the kingdom of God, which is embodied in neither left nor right, but only in the person of Jesus himself.

Should Christians be involved in politics? By all means! Should we be ready to express our strong and deeply held views on the pressing issues of our day? Without any doubt, we should. Christians will rightly be found writing and speaking on political issues, joining political parties and pressure groups, demonstrating and marching, engaged in debate and dialogue, and — where appropriate — standing for election at every level of government. But we always remind ourselves (and especially when the battles are most fierce) that our highest loyalty is never to one party or another, nor even, dare we say, to our state and nation. We carry the colors of the kingdom, and have fixed our loyalty on God, who transcends and challenges all parties and all peoples. This is the great Third Way” of Christian politics, and we must never lose sight of it.

The Way of Compassion

The Hebrew word shalom is usually translated peace” in our Bibles, but it actually carries a much richer and wider range of meaning. It implies a wholeness and integrity in human life and relationships. When we learn to see” the people around us, instead of simply bumping from one to another as we pursue our own self-centered agendas, we experience shalom. When our communities and churches become places of welcome and hospitality, in which all people experience the loving welcome of God himself, we find shalom. And when we work together to find ways of expressing justice, peace, and compassion in the wider world, as we engage fully in the political life of our society, we discover the reality of shalom in public life. This is the compassionate life to which Jesus calls and invites us.


Photograph by Tom Darin Liskey.

Text First Published December 2010 · Last Featured on February 2022