Why Reach Out to Persons with
A man with
leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are
willing, you can make me clean.” Filled with compassion, Jesus
reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he
said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was
Leprosy was a disease of
unparalleled implications in first-century Palestine. It was a
horrible disease; it spread slowly until it made the body ugly
and robbed it of vitality. It was a dreaded disease; it meant
separation from social life and from contact with all
non-lepers. Leprosy was a deadly disease. Because it was
incurable and eventually fatal, it made its victims the living
dead. And leprosy was a “sinners’” disease—not in that it was
contracted through personal sin, but because it formed an apt
metaphor for the nature of sin.
God, Christ, and therefore
the Church too, respond to the plight of the helpless with
As he had done on numerous
other occasions, so here Jesus could have spoken the word of
healing from a distance (e.g., Luke 7:1-10). Yet the Master
chose instead to extend his hand, to touch the leper as he
healed him. In this act, our Lord both defied social custom and
disregarded the horrible, dreaded, deadly nature of leprosy.
Jesus chose to risk his own health and his acceptability in
society in order to place his healing hand on the desperate man.
Why did Jesus act in this
socially and medically unacceptable way? Mark informs us that
our Lord’s act was the outworking of compassion. Jesus was moved
to compassion by the plight of the leper.
No other disease today as
closely parallels leprosy as AIDS. Like leprosy, AIDS is a
horrible disease; it spreads slowly until it makes the body
ugly, robs a person of vitality, and eventually attacks the
brain. AIDS is a dreaded disease. Contracting HIV brings social
stigma and incites fear in others. AIDS is a deadly disease.
Because it is incurable and eventually kills, it makes its
victims the living dead. And in the eyes of many, AIDS is a
In the midst of our
uncertainty and caution about AIDS come the haunting questions
posed by this text in Mark. If Jesus were physically present
today, would he not be moved to compassion by persons with AIDS?
As the body of Christ, ought we not also respond compassionately
to persons suffering from the effects of this deadly epidemic?
We must forthrightly admit
that certain barriers make a compassionate, Christ-like response
to such persons difficult. One such barrier is the perception
that AIDS is a sinners’ disease. Indeed, promiscuous
homosexual-bisexual males and IV drug users are in the highest
risk categories for contracting the virus. Consequently,
responding to persons with AIDS places us in contact with people
we may prefer to avoid. The situation is compounded by the fact
that AIDS is a terminal, contagious disease. Responding to
persons with AIDS may place us or our loved ones at risk.
Despite barriers such as
these, however, the Bible challenges us to respond with
compassion to persons with AIDS. This challenge is voiced by at
least three biblical themes: the nature of God, the character of
Christ, and the calling of the church.
THE COMPASSIONATE GOD
According to the Bible, God
is perfect compassion. Already in the Old Testament, the people
of God celebrated God’s compassion for the world he created. At
the center of the faith of the Hebrew community stood a
declaration of God’s compassion. In appearing to Moses on Mount
Sinai, after revealing the divine name, Yahweh announced himself
as “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding
in love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:6).
The declaration—God as
abounding in love and filled with compassion—is sounded
repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, forming a focal faith
affirmation about the divine nature (e.g., Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15;
103:8; 111:4;116:5; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2; Isa. 54:10).
Writing in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia,
Williston Walker concludes, “Nothing therefore is more prominent
in the Old Testament than the
ascription of compassion, pity, mercy, etc. to God. The people
may be said to have gloried in it.”
God’s compassion arises out
of the divine love. According to Christian theology, love is the
central attribute of God. Love is present within God, in that
God is the triune one, the community of Father, Son, and Spirit.
These three trinitarian persons are one God, bound together by
the cord of divine love. John, the apostle of love, makes the
simple yet profound declaration: "God is love” (1 John 4:16).
Here is the bold declaration that the eternal God is
characterized by love.
Because throughout all
eternity the triune God is love, it is not surprising that the
character of God—love—moves toward creation. Because God is
love, God loves the world. “For God so loved the world that he
gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16).
God’s response to the human
predicament is compassion. Because of the divine love, the
plight of God’s creatures evokes his compassion. Robert
Girdlestone explains that the Hebrew word racham
“expresses a deep and tender feeling of compassion such as is
aroused by the sight of weakness or suffering in those that are
dear to us or need our help.”
God’s covenant people are
the special object of this compassion. Jeremiah describes God as
desiring to have compassion on Ephraim, “my dear son” (Jer.
31:20). God’s covenant love for his people and God’s fidelity to
that covenant form a crucial foundation for the expression of
divine compassion. Divine compassion is evoked especially in the
face of the distress and suffering of God’s people. Isaiah
articulates this well: “Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O
earth; burst into song, O mountains! For the Lord comforts his
people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones” (49:13).
Elsewhere Isaiah reflects on Israel’s history and declares, “In
all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his
presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he
lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (63:9).
God’s actions in Israel’s history cause Hosea to conclude, “In
you the fatherless find compassion” (14:3).
God’s concern moves beyond
Israel, however, to encompass all creatures. The Psalmist
declares, “The Lord is good to all, he has compassion on all he
has made” (145:9). This theme is repeated in the New Testament.
It is found in Jesus’ teaching, especially in the Sermon on the
Mount (e.g. Matt. 5:43-48). And Paul employs the same theme in
speaking of God’s intent to save sinful humankind (Rom. 11:32).
The divine mercy is God’s
bestowal of grace, and does not arise from human merit. The
Scriptures firmly declare that God’s compassion comes to us by
virtue of God’s sovereign mercy (Exod. 33:19; Rom. 9:15-16,18).
For this reason, God can extend gracious compassion toward his
creatures in spite of human rebellion. Daniel boldly declares
this truth: “The Lord
our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled
against him” (Dan. 9:9).
Perhaps the most moving
illustration of God’s love despite human rebellion is the
parable of the prodigal son. While the son “was still a long way
off,” the father saw him “and was filled with compassion for
him” (Luke 19:20). Here Jesus gives us a picture of God’s
compassion directed toward us, even when we have sinned against
our Creator and Father. The gracious compassion of God likewise
forms the basis for Daniel’s bold assertion that God answers the
request of people not because of their righteousness, but
because of God’s great mercy (9:18).
The belief in a gracious,
compassionate God also forms the foundation for the repeated
hope expressed by the prophets that at some future day, God
would again be compassionate to the people of Israel (e.g. Isa.
14:1; 94:7; Jer. 12:15; 30:18; 33:26; 42:12; Ezek. 39:29; Hos.
1:7; 2:23; Joel 2:18; Mic. 7:19; Zech. 1:16; Mal. 3:17). Isaiah
stands as an example of those who anticipate a day when they
will experience God’s compassion as an expression of God’s
everlasting kindness: “'In a surge of anger I hid my face from
you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have
compassion on you,’ says the Lord your Redeemer” (54:8).
Divine compassion is no mere
emotion, however. Rather it leads to divine action. The Old
Testament repeatedly appeals to the history of Israel as an
illustration of this principle. Isaiah proclaims the deeds the
compassionate God has done (63:7). Reflecting on Israel’s
experiences in the Exodus and in the wilderness wandering, the
Psalmist asserts that out of compassion, God atoned for the
iniquities of the people and did not destroy them (78:38). And
the author of 2 Chronicles summarizes Israel’s story as the
repeated reception of divine compassion: “The Lord, the God of
their fathers sent word to them through his messengers again and
again because he had pity on his people and his dwelling place”
God’s activity in the
history of Israel was no mere relic of a dead past. Instead, it
remained as a living presence and held out the promise of a
future renewal. This anticipation forms the context for the New
Testament pronouncements of fulfillment. Zechariah’s hymn at the
birth of John the Baptist forms a lucid example. For Zechariah,
John’s arrival was an act of God, who in this event demonstrated
his mercy and was now remembering the covenant with Israel (Luke
According to the New
Testament, however, the supreme action arising out of the divine
compassion is the salvation available in Jesus Christ. Ephesians
articulates a beautiful declaration of this truth: “But because
of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us
alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is
by grace you have been saved” (2:4-5). The same theme is
reiterated in Titus: God
“saved us, not because of righteous things we have done, but
because of his mercy” (3:5). In a similar way, Peter declares
that in God’s “great mercy” he has given Christians “new birth
into a living hope” (1 Pet. 1:3).
The goal of God’s compassion
is that God be praised. This theme is summarized by Paul, who in
writing to a church consisting of both Jews and Gentiles,
For I tell
you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of
God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so
that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is
written: ‘Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will
sing hymns to your name.’ Again it says, ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles,
with his people.’ ”
God’s loving compassion,
which leads to divine action on behalf of God’s creatures in the
midst of their plight, is intended to lead all the peoples of
the world together to offer praise to the glory of the God who
has saved them.
JESUS, THE COMPASSIONATE
The compassion of God lies
at the center of the Bible as a whole. The New Testament,
however, takes this theme a step farther. It declares that God’s
loving compassion finds concrete expression in Jesus of
Nazareth. For Christians, Jesus stands as the grand example of
godly living. For Christians, Jesus is also the model of
compassion. Because he is the incarnation of divine love and the
example to the believing community, the compassion necessary to
cross the barriers and minister in the midst of the AIDS
epidemic can be learned only at the feet of Jesus.
What is the nature of this
compassion of Christ?
The New Testament indicates
that expressing compassionate love lay at the heart of Jesus’
understanding of his mission. In his response to the request of
James and John for the positions of honor in the coming kingdom,
Jesus, linking himself to the eschatological figure of the Son
of Man, declared, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be
served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many”
(Matt. 20:28; cf. Mark 10:45). His mission was one of
compassionate service to others, arising from his self-giving
attitude, from love.
John’s Gospel explains
Jesus’ mission not in terms of judgment and condemnation, but of
salvation: “For God did not send his Son into the world to
condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (3:17)
Using the imagery of the good shepherd, the Johannine Christ
emphasizes that he came to give life in its fullness, even to
the point of sacrificing his own life for the sake of others
(John 10: 10-11).
In the synagogue in
Capernaum, Jesus appealed to Isaiah in order to explain to his
audience the nature of his mission. His purpose included the
practical goals of bringing freedom, healing, and release of
people in distress (Luke 4:18-19). In short, Jesus understood
his own mission in terms of expressing the compassionate love of
Jesus felt compassion in the
face of ignorance, hunger, sickness, and death. On at least two
occasions, the Gospels report that the compassion of Jesus was
evoked by the sorrow others were experiencing at the loss of
loved ones. When he saw a woman weeping over the death of her
son, Jesus’ “heart went out to her,” and he comforted her (Luke
7:13). At the tomb of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, the Master wept
(John 11:35). Those observing the Lord could not help but
exclaim, “See how he loved him!” (v. 36) Jesus was gripped by
compassion when he saw the aimlessness of the common people as
“sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). His heart was also
moved when he saw the sick among the multitudes (Matt. 14:14).
His compassion was kindled by the plight of specific
individuals, such as the two blind men he met outside the city
of Jericho (Matt. 20:34). A similar response was evoked by the
crowds who grew hungry as they intently listened to his teaching
(Matt. 15:32; Mark 8:2).
Jesus’ compassion expressed
itself in ministry. As he saw the needs of people around him,
needs which sparked his emotion, Jesus did not stand aside. On
the contrary, he engaged in action in order to alleviate the
misery of others and minister to their needs. To those who had
lost loved ones, Jesus responded by raising the dead (John 11;
Luke 7:14). To people lacking guidance, he offered instruction
and teaching (Mark 6:34). And to the sick, Jesus administered
healing (Matt. 14:14; 4:23; 9:35; 19:2).
In his ministry, our Lord
was not afraid to make physical contact with those in need. The
Gospels abound in examples of Jesus touching people. He often
took the hand of sick persons in order to help them stand as he
healed them. Jesus laid hold of the hand of Peter’s
mother-in-law, for example, to help her up as he cured her fever
(Mark 1: 3 1). On another occasion he took the hand of a girl
presumed to be dead and raised her to life (Matt. 9:25). Jesus
was even willing to take the hand of a boy possessed by a demon
and liberate him from his tormentor (Mark 9:27).
Not only did Jesus take the
hands of others, he also was willing to put his hands on those
in need of healing. A crippled woman was one recipient of this
action (Luke 13:13). Likewise, the fingers of Jesus often
reached out to those to whom he ministered—touching blind eyes
to make them see (Matt. 20:34; John 9:6; Matt. 9:29), deaf ears
to bring about hearing (Luke 22:51)
silent tongues to bestow the gift of speech (Mark 7:33). As
noted earlier, Jesus was not afraid to touch even the outcasts
of his day, those suffering from the dreaded and contagious
disease of leprosy (Matt. 8:3; Mark 1:41; Luke 5:12). Although
he had the power to cure the sick without physical contact or
even physical presence, nevertheless he freely chose to touch
the untouchables. These acts demonstrate Jesus’ great
The Book of Acts indicates
that Jesus’ example of fearlessly making physical contact with
those in need was followed by the early church. Peter and John
extended their hands to the crippled beggar outside the Temple
gate in healing him (Acts 3:7). And reminiscent of Jesus’ own
practice, Peter took the hand of a dead woman, Dorcas, as he
raised her to life (Acts 9:41).
Jesus’ compassion was
all-encompassing. It extended beyond his friends to include the
multitudes. It encircled his enemies and those who rejected him.
Even when his arrest and death were imminent, Jesus’ heart still
went out to others. Anticipating the final rejection he would
experience by the nation he loved, Jesus wept over the city of
Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37). Then during his arrest, Jesus offered
his healing touch to the soldier whose ear had been injured in
the scuffle (Luke 22:51). In his hour of death, our Lord’s
thoughts were directed toward the needs of those who rejected
him. Jesus prayed that the forgiving mercy of his Father be
extended even to the soldiers who were crucifying him: “Father,
forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke
Jesus’ actions stand as apt
illustrations of his teaching. He declared that compassion was
to be given to all without exception, even to enemies. In the
Sermon on the Mount, for example, he appealed to the universal
merciful goodness of God as a basis for enjoining a similar
compassion in the lives of his disciples:
heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your
enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who
persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He
causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain
on the righteous and the unrighteous.
The loving compassion of
Christ is not merely that of an exemplary man, however. It
reveals the heart of God. As Christians, we confess that Jesus
is the revelation of God, God incarnate in human form. At the
heart of the incarnation is Jesus’ compassion. Paul, for
example, summarizes the incarnation in terms of Jesus’
self-sacrifice on behalf of miserable human beings: “For you
know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that though he
was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through
his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Reflecting on the earthly
life of Jesus, who is now the exalted Lord at the right hand of
God the Father, the author of Hebrews offers a practical
Christological implication of that exemplary life: “For we do
not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our
weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way
just as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). Even in his exalted
state, our Lord remains the compassionate one who sympathizes
with us in our trials.
According to the New
Testament, then, Jesus stands as a vivid example of the meaning
of compassion. He is the revelation of the loving heart of God.
In him we find the God who responds with loving compassion to
the plight of God’s creatures.
COMPASSION AND THE PEOPLE
According to the Bible, the
compassionate nature of God places a great responsibility on
Christ’s church. As God’s people we are to be emulators of the
Compassionate Lord. His example calls us to be the compassionate
ones and thereby to reflect the divine character.
This understanding is so
well ingrained throughout the Bible that compassion is without
question a central aspect of biblical piety. Job’s rhetorical
question, “Have I not wept for those in trouble? Has not my soul
grieved for the poor?” (30:25) indicates that this kind of
compassion was simply assumed to be the ideal for every member
of the Old Testament covenant community. The New Testament
reaffirms the same outlook. James declares, “Religion that God
our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this, to look after
orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from
being polluted by the world” (1:27). Not only personal holiness
(i.e., freedom from sin), but being compassionate toward others
both in attitude and in action lie at the center of what is
assumed to be normal religion.
In keeping with this, the
New Testament epistles repeatedly admonish the Christian
community to be compassionate. Colossians, for example,
declares, “Clothe yourselves with compassion” (3:12). Likewise
Peter commands his readers to be compassionate and sympathetic
(1 Pet. 3:8). Paul forges the link between compassion and the
example of Christ. To the Galatians he writes, “Carry each
others’ burdens and in this way fulfill the law of Christ”
(6:2). Burden-lifting and sharing the load of others are
important aspects by which believers follow the example of the
Lord. And Hebrews offers some specific ways in which the
Christian community can live out the compassion which is to
characterize it: “Remember those in
prison as if you were their fellow prisoners and those who are
mistreated as if you yourself were suffering” (13:3).
Christians are to be
characterized by compassion; they are to display true sympathy
for those in distress, even to the point of sharing in that
distress. In fact, expression of compassion extended to persons
in need will form a basis for judgment at our Lord’s return, for
in being compassionate toward others we are actually serving him
Perhaps the grandest
illustration and admonition to the disciples of the Lord to be a
compassionate people, however, is found in Jesus’ parable of the
good Samaritan. In narrating the story, our Lord clearly sought
to emphasize that this outcast individual—not those who stood in
traditional positions of leadership within the Jewish
community—was compassionate to the man in need. The Samaritan
saw the battered man lying along the road and “took pity on
him,” Jesus declared. The same verb the Gospel writers employ in
speaking of Jesus’ outlook toward the needy is utilized here to
describe the Samaritan. The emotion of compassion, so
characteristic of the Master, was translated into action by the
Samaritan as he bandaged the wounds of the unfortunate traveler,
took the injured person to an inn, and offered to pay the
innkeeper to look after the needs of the battered Jew.
After delivering the
parable, Jesus asked the expert in the law to whom he was
speaking the crucial question: “Which of the three men was a
neighbor to the man in need?” The response of his listener was
significant: “The one who had mercy on him.” This evoked Jesus’
command, “Go and do likewise.”
The compassion of God is
revealed throughout the Bible and is incarnate in Christ.
Because God is characterized by compassion, the people of God
are called to be a compassionate people. As imitators of God, we
are to respond to persons in distress with action motivated by
compassion. As disciples of the Lord we are to follow his
example by reaching out to the untouchables of our society.
Among the ranks of modern
day “lepers” we must place persons with AIDS. Like their
first-century counterparts, they too are often placed on the
fringes of society and shunned as “unclean,” as contagious,
unloved, and unwanted. In the face of human misery, including
the misery experienced by persons with AIDS, the compassionate
God challenges us to action. Just as the divine heart longs to
act on behalf of all sufferers, God is moved by AIDS sufferers.
We, therefore, ought also to be moved by their plight. The Lord
who offered his healing touch to so many challenges us to be his
fingers and hands in reaching out in compassionate touch to
those around us who are suffering, including persons struggling
Godly compassion is central
to ministry. It provides the impetus to reach out to others. It
gives tenacity when the life of ministry is difficult. And
without compassion, ministry is reduced to a heartless veneer,
often of greater comfort to the one who ministers than to the
sufferers in need of care.
Such godly compassion goes
beyond what is humanly possible, however. It can be present only
as it arises from love. But love in its full biblical sense must
be created in us by the Holy Spirit, for love is a fruit of the
Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Consequently, ministry to persons struggling
with AIDS is possible only as we are filled with the Holy Spirit
and thereby are flooded with the divine love, that love which
responds to the needs of suffering persons with compassionate
How would Jesus respond to
persons suffering from AIDS? To be sure, to those who have
contracted the virus through unwholesome lifestyles he would
say, “Go, and sin no more.” But he would do more than merely
call them to holy living and discipleship. In the case of each
person with AIDS, regardless of the source of the illness, he
would be moved by love to reach out in compassion.
As Jesus’ disciples—those
who claim to be his followers—can we do less?
Dr. Stanley J. Grenz is
Professor of Theology at Carey/Regent College, Vancouver, B.C.
and, author of six books. This essay is the substance’ of an
address given at Columbia Bible College, Clearbrook, B.C.