Can We Measure Christian Compassion in America?

Commentary
By Shively Smith 6-12-2017
Image via Kim Wilson/Shutterstock.com

Since the inception of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Christians have struggled with their role in shaping a society that cares for those who are sick and in need. In essence, we have struggled to understand the work and responsibility of Christian compassion in issues of healthcare and policy. Should this responsibility be shared by all and secured by the government, or should it primarily be the domain of people of faith and those moved by a higher calling to mercy and healing? With the new GOP health care bill, and the ongoing debates about healthcare in America, Christians across the aisle struggle to evaluate how well we are doing at caring for the disenfranchised and the sick.

Christians are pursuing different routes for addressing the conundrum of global healthcare and faith. One option gaining momentum among some Christian circles is health care sharing ministries in which people are taking advantage of the religious exemptions to the ACA. This approach touts the early Church practice of sharing all things in common (Acts 2) as an ethical Christian approach to providing affordable healthcare for one’s own family and neighbors. In contrast, Christians like Jim Wallis go as far as to call Republican versions of the healthcare bill, in which healthcare for the most vulnerable and poor are cut while taxes for the rich are reduced, sinful. Still, other Christians use social media as a space to express their frustration with the hypocrisy of so-called Christian lawmakers who “pride themselves on faith and moral values," but who so quickly abandon their duties to the poor and vulnerable.

While there are no easy solutions to the issue of healthcare in America, there are contributions that biblical notions of Christian compassion can offer the conversation. What exactly is the biblical call to compassion, and what does it require of us emotionally, physically, socially, and politically?

In the Gospel of Matthew, the word for “compassion” (esplagchnisthē) occurs only five times, with Matthew 9:35-10:8 representing the first occurrence. Each time the language of compassion appears in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is the one feeling it after he has observed the state of those around him. He feels compassion for people afflicted physically and socially. Each time he is portrayed as making concrete strides to remedy their affliction. In Matthew 14:14, Jesus feels compassion for the sickly crowd. He begins to heal those ill among its membership. In Matthew 20:34, Jesus feels compassion for two blind men, and he heals them both. In a slightly different situation in Matthew 15:32, Jesus states aloud to his disciples that he has compassion for the crowd, which has followed him for three days without food. He says, “I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” In this way, Jesus demonstrates concern about a future probability that endangers his followers.

Jesus’ compassion is in response to not just illness or the lack of food, but the situation of vulnerability. He is moved by those who apparently live on the edges of society because of illness, disability, ostracism, and social convention that renders some people “harassed and helpless” (Matthew 9:36), particularly in Judean Jewish life (Matthew 10:5-6; cf. Matthew 28:18-20).

Compassion in the Gospel of Matthew is not simply feeling sympathy and empathy, but it is acting concretely on the behalf of the afflicted. Because Jesus is the only person explicitly named as showing compassion in the Gospel of Matthew, it has messianic significance. Yet, Jesus’ messianic compassion extends beyond him to the work of those who follow him and into the life of the communities they enter.

In Matthew 9:35-10:8, there is a lot happening. While Jesus travels, he teaches, proclaims, and heals along the way. Jesus summons his inner circle of disciples only to dispatch them to continue and expand his endeavor of teaching, proclamation, and healing (Matthew 10:1, 7-8). Jesus establishes the scope and expands the scale of his endeavors through the appointments of his disciples. He sets geographic boundaries by instructing his disciples to “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6). Jesus’ commission of the twelve continues Jesus’ messianic acts of compassion. On first glance, it appears Jesus is laying groundwork to launch his own healthcare program that responds to the difficult and oppressive realities of others. He recruits and assigns people to execute it across the region.

The Night Ministry’s Outreach Bus in Chicago represents efforts that continue the work of moving compassion depicted in this text. You see the volunteers and workers exercising agency to equip and board the bus, and to take provisions to those they know are in need. They know where the need is geographically. They journey to the edges and alleys of the city to provide some relief in form of healthcare, meals, housing assistance, and human connection. Like the responsive nature of Jesus and the disciples as they travel, there is a kind of awareness that is being practiced about the state of the local community and the ways the church can respond that is helpful, even when it cannot remedy the problem entirely. As one of the workers said, “We don’t really supply that much, but to them it is really necessary.”

The essentials of life are not just healing the ailment, but also letting those who are weary and in pain know that they are seen. Moving compassion is about the action of seeing those who are not often seen. As the Outreach Bus leaders demonstrated, it is about remembering the names of those who often go nameless and recognizing the presence and absence of people society has forgotten. It is caring enough to get on the bus and leave your warm places behind to stand in the cold weather with those who have no other place to go.

Via ON Scripture.

Reverend Doctor Shively T. J. Smith has been actively working in the arenas of ministry and academia for over 17 years. 

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