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, 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 and 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? 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 office 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 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.

Excerpted from Chris Webb’s essay Becoming Like Jesus: The Compassionate Life.”

Photo by Yogendra Singh on Unsplash

Text First Published December 2010 · Last Featured on April 2024