"I Feel Compassion for the Multitude"

(Matthew 15:32b; 9:35-38; Mark 8:2a)

Jesus met with all kinds of people: tax collectors, prostitutes, rich, poor, labourers, seekers, self-satisfied, repentant, healthy, sick. He encountered them in all kinds of circumstances: in the country, in the city, at dinner, on a stormy sea.

Jesus called one of these people, a tax collector, to be a disciple. The first book in the New Testament bears his name. Matthew was a recipient of Jesus' compassion. He must have been moved by Jesus' acceptance of him as He called him from his work in a tax booth (Matthew 9:9). As an agent of Rome, Matthew would frequently have felt rejected by his passing kinsmen. Jesus was one who stopped and showed compassion. Christ then displayed His compassion further by dining with many "tax-gatherers and sinners" (Matthew 9:10b). Jesus tells the critical Pharisees present, "I desire compassion, and not sacrifice" (Matthew 9:13b; Hosea 6:6).

Perhaps it is not surprising then that Matthew's gospel refers to "compassion" more than other New Testament writers. This gospel begins the record of Jesus' ministry by focusing on the Saviour's work with the multitudes, His Sermon on the Mount, His emphasis on mercy (Matthew 4:17-25; 5:1f). Perhaps as our author wrote about how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, he had in mind God's frequent description of Himself as "gracious and compassionate" (Exodus 34:6; 2 Chronicles 30:9; Psalm 103:8; Jonah 4:2, and others).

One day on a mountain after Jesus healed many people, Matthew heard his Master say,

"I feel compassion for the multitude, because they have remained with Me now three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not wish to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way" (Matthew 15:32b).
Imagine how the children there would have sounded after so long without food. Matthew then watched as Jesus proved His compassion by satisfying the hunger of over four thousand people.

We may understand the verb in Matthew for feeling compassion as "having pity," "feeling sympathy," literally, "to be moved in the inward parts" (it comes from a noun for "inward parts" or figuratively, the "heart" or "seat of emotions"). Jesus makes no superficial statement here; His compassion comes from the core of His being. (Word studies in this article are from the UBS Greek New Testament, Walter Bauer's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, and Thomas L. Robert, Ed., New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.)

Matthew connected Jesus' teaching and proclamation of the gospel with healing, a concrete, visible display of His compassion:

And Jesus was going about all the cities and the villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. And seeing the multitudes, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:35-36).
People were "distressed," (or "harassed," "wearied," "bothered") and "downcast" (which can mean literally, "thrown far away," "put down," a difficult position for a sheep to be in). In Matthew 15:29 they put the sick down at Jesus' feet. He healed them.

Are there not many distressed and downcast in our world today, many who need a Shepherd? Jesus made a point of telling us how He feels about those who are like lost sheep: He has compassion on them. He preached the good news to them. He is ready to be their Shepherd, if they will follow (sheep are lead not herded like cattle).

Jesus proved the extent of His compassion as He died on the cross, was buried and raised for our forgiveness. We experience God's compassion and forgiveness through the love, grace and patience of His Son.

Right after connecting Jesus' compassion with the good news of the kingdom, Matthew records Jesus saying to His disciples,

"The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest" (Matthew 9:37b-38).
He moves from pictures of sheep to images of harvest. Harvest is a time of hard work, a limited window of opportunity between when the grain is ripe and when it spoils. It is a time that requires more workers to pitch in.

As we look out at the multitudes how do we feel? Overwhelmed? Intimidated? What drives us to share the good news with others? What will keep us going? The apostle Paul says, "the love of Christ controls us" (2 Corinthians 5:14b); "put on a heart of compassion" (Colossians 3:12b). To share Christ's message with others, we need compassion for the multitude. Without it we can become tired, frustrated and cynical.

The downcast and distressed need to hear about Jesus' compassion for them today. They also need to see Jesus' compassion in His messengers and receive it from them. Serving people with compassion can be exhausting. Jesus grew weary; so did His disciples. Serving people makes us vulnerable. Some may object: we may be used, resented. Wasn't Jesus? Jesus' compassion was not contingent upon a favourable response. Nine of ten lepers cleansed never returned to thank Him (Luke 17:11-19). Nevertheless, love and compassion kept Him going all the way to the cross. As we go out and share this good news, our inner parts must be motivated by the attitude of our Master: "I feel compassion for the multitude."

Paul Birston

April 1999©

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