“Oh, yeah. Jesus did THAT too . . .” A story about mercy and the gospel

Jesus wept

Well, I’ve gotten a bit behind on posting – been busy writing the chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis about medieval compassionate action – through the case study of a thoroughly medieval institution: the hospital. Did get the whole thing written, so I’ll be posting it bit by bit over the next few days.

I don’t think I have to start this chapter on how medievals pioneered the hospital by making a case that compassion, mercy, and healing are good things. I’m pretty sure people of every age and religion will agree on that one. Nor will I indicate some flaw in evangelical culture on this matter of compassionate ministry. The healthcare system, schools, social services departments, and NGOs are full of compassionate evangelicals, as well as compassionate non-evangelicals and compassionate non-Christians. But as I have researched the ancient and medieval development of that innovative institution in world history—the hospital—I have wondered more than once: do modern Christians really “get” the relationship of mercy and the Gospel the way medievals did?

So, allow me to open this case study in Christian compassion with a question . . .

How central is mercy to the Gospel?

We know the story. Mary the sister of Lazarus got to where Jesus was. She fell down at his feet, overcome with grief and just a bit of accusatory anger: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” He saw her crying. The others with her were also crying.

What was Jesus’ response? “He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” All around him Lazarus’s friends and family sorrowed. They wept. They were devastated by the mortality of their brother, friend, son.

Some sanctimonious Christian today might say: Well, what did they expect? The wages of sin are death! We are all under the same curse, ever since Adam!

Not Jesus. He sprang into action. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. And they took him there. He saw Lazarus laid in the tomb, his life gone out of him. Once vital—smiling, working, resting, weeping, loving. But now cold and still and already decomposing. Food for worms.

And what did our Lord do? “Jesus wept.”

“Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’” (John 11:32-36).

Evangelicals like to focus on Jesus’s passion, his crucifixion, his resurrection. Maybe his preaching too. His “principles.” His parables. Teasing out their meanings, and finding out how to follow those teachings in our own lives. This is all good; there’s nothing wrong with any of it.

But what about his ministry? He kept on meeting people in the extremity of their need. Helping them. Healing them. What’s that all about? Sure, he could turn over tables in the temple and issue scathing denunciation of pharisaical self-righteousness. But in his healing ministry we find a different side of Jesus, and of the gospel: Here we find compassion, mercy.

“Well done, good and faithful servant.” Those who earn this heartfelt commendation from the Lord are those who have compassion on others, and then act on it. They give a thirsty person a cup of cold water. They clothe a naked person. They visit a sick or imprisoned person—not to “fix” them, first of all. But to be with them. “Com-passion” = sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. Sympathetic. That involves being with a person, emotionally, physically.

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