“Heart of Com-passion”
November 9, 2003
Last Sunday we began our four-week sermon series with the first word that we, the church, are to embody as Christ’s disciples, which is community. As a special community, the church at its best is one that follows the apostles teaching, shares its possessions and money with those in need, prayers together, serves one another, fellowships together, and worships together. All of these are vitally important to the health and well being of the church, and yet if we leave the church with only these things to do, then we leave out one of the most important ways in which we embody the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And so this leads us to our second word for this week – compassion. The special community we call the church is called to be a church with a heart of compassion.
Compassion is more than just something we are to embody in our communal heart. In its most intimate expression and meaning, compassion is something each one of us is to embody in our own heart as well.
In our text for this morning, Jesus encounters a man who is in desperate need of healing. Leprosy was a big deal in first century Palestine. Yet the diagnosis was about as general as it could be. Basically any condition of the skin considered abnormal, any rash, any area of dry skin, any physical discoloration was considered leprosy. Yet to be called a leper was vastly more devastating. Leviticus 13:45-46 gives instructions for dealing with someone who has leprosy.
“The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, Unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He shall live alone, and his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
Leprosy was a social death sentence in which the leper was completely cut off and cast out of society. A leper was physically designated with his torn clothes and disheveled hair. He was socially ostracized from his family, friends, and community. He was economically devastated in the loss of his job or business, and he was religiously excluded from participating in communal worship and rituals. In all respects, the leper was left to haunt the edges of the community that we could no longer be a part of, cursed by the loss of his own humanity.
But the leper in our story crosses the distance that he is supposed to observe and approaches Jesus, kneels before him, and begs him saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus puts himself at risk of having to join the leper colony himself and does the unthinkable: he touches the leper saying, “I do choose. Be made clean.”
Jesus’ act of compassion was more than just a private blessing, but a restoration of human relationship, striking a blow at the forces that cripples, alienates, and destroys human life. With a simple touch, Jesus shattered the prison walls that surrounded the man, and stood in the midst of this man’s hell and restored his humanity with the simple power of human touch. With a simple touch, Jesus liberated this man from the prison of social and religious exclusion and rejection, and economic devastation, and gifted him with that which should never have been taken in the first place – his humanity.
Jesus self-less act of compassion is an important lesson for all of us who follow in his footsteps of ministry. This story reminds us that Jesus did not minister long distance, beyond arms length, safe from all that plagued the lives of those he would help. His work of forgiving put him in solidarity with sinners, his work of lifting up placed him among the fallen, his words of encouragement were given to the hopeless, and his healing brought him in contact with the diseased.
Jesus’ will to heal and his touching the untouchable offer us a model for the ministry of healing we are to engage in as Christian people, a ministry of healing characterized by compassion and a deepest desire to restore the humanity of the least, the lost, and the left out; of the sick, dying, and diseased, to mend the fabric of human relationship, and to embody in our own lives the very heart of Christ.
But we can never forget that true Christ-like compassion is costly and dangerous for us, because it requires us to walk into the private suffering and personal prisons of those who suffer. It requires us to literally suffer with those who are in need. Compassion is not pity, and it’s not just sympathy, compassion is empathy – the taking on of another’s feelings as if they are our own.
True Christ-like compassion requires us to move from our safe, comfortable world and enter into the world of the suffering, to cross the tracks and touch a life so different from our own. Compassion is not easy, in fact it can be downright painful, because it forces us to see the inhumanity of the world in which we live. It forces us to confront the poverty of the world, the exploitation of people, the destruction of human dignity through drugs, alcohol, and abuse. It forces us to touch the untouchables of our society, the AIDS patient, the pregnant teenager, the troublemaker, the gang-banger, the prisoner, and the mental patient. It forces us to sacrifice a part of ourselves for the sake of another, to feel within us the pain and suffering of another, and to take upon ourselves the cross of Christ for the other.
To truly embody Christ-like compassion is a risky calling, but it’s a calling we cannot refuse to follow, because at it’s very core is the heart of the Gospel. For when we, the church, embody the heart of the Gospel, we become the church with the heart of Christ. Amen.