We are continuing our emphasis on a different spiritual discipline each week. This week we focus on compassion. Today’s writer is Rev. Mike Myers, Pastor of Heritage Presbyterian Church in Royston, GA.
Have you ever shaken hands with a lifelong carpenter? As the tough, calloused fingers envelop your own you know that if he wanted to crush your smooth and nimble smart phone thumbs, he could in a crunchy heartbeat. Ideally you find instead a leathery grip from hands that have learned an art—an art of firm gentleness, or gentle firmness if you prefer. The thing about hands is that they normally follow the directions of something deeper: the heart. Jesus said that from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, I think we can also say that from the character of the heart the hands act. Speaking of Jesus, I invite you to explore a brief and powerful scene from his life, one that involved both his tender heart and tough hands. From this—and one other—startling encounter, I hope to show you something of what it means to have the tough hands and tender heart of compassion.
The Gospel writer Mark once wrote about a leper who came to Jesus begging for help (Mark 1:40-45). I doubt many of you have ever seen a leper, but I am certain that no one has encountered a leper under these circumstances. You see, what the leper did was illegal. In Jesus day, leprosy was not matter of mere dermatology. Leprosy back then equaled a living death sentence. Lepers had to move outside of town and endure a life a relational and economic poverty. But there was more. Lepers were also spiritual and ceremonial outcasts. God would not allow them to come worship in his temple. He did this to show his people just how pure they, and we, need to be to come before him in worship. The religious leaders of that day had also added extra rules, requiring lepers to stay about 50 feet away from people and cry out “Unclean, unclean!” Such was the life of this leper, the ceremonial outlaw.
So, with the disciples watching, the leper came, kneeling, pleading, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Jesus’ compassionate heart tore. Then his tough, calloused, carpenter’s hands did something unthinkable. He stretched them out and gave that leper something he probably had not enjoyed in years—touch. Jesus, the pure Son of God, touched a polluted leper. And he cleansed him. This is what Jesus is like. Jesus cleanses sinners.
But the story does not end there. The next verse says that Jesus sternly warned the leper (literally angrily warned him!) to keep quiet and keep the ceremonial law. The same tender-hearted Jesus who touched him immediately showed tough handed love to this (former) leper. A brief explanation: God not only told Moses about restrictions for lepers, but also guidelines for their restoration (read about in Leviticus 14). For this freshly cleansed man, that meant about a 100-mile trip to Jerusalem, over a week’s worth of ceremonial washing, waiting, some costly sacrifice, and he had to keep quiet along the way. What an inconvenience! But it was critical he do it. Why? Jesus’ stern warning targeted the man’s deepest heart need through a tough lesson: being in right relationship with God and with his people is the reason Jesus cleanses sinners. But the (former) leper didn’t obey, revealing that he actually had a problem far below his now clear skin: the leprosy of heart rebellion. Jesus knew this. That is why he spoke the way he did. Sometimes tender-hearted compassion looks like tough-handed action. But sometimes that’s what we need the most.
Here’s another illustration. In the WWII drama Band of Brothers, the men of Easy Company stumble across the grisly confines of a concentration camp. Seeing the starving inmates, the paratroopers quickly radio for food. While they hand out loaves of bread, a doctor shows up and orders all the prisoners back into their cells and takes the food away. How hard-hearted! Was it? Actually, it was the opposite. The doctor explained that feeding them too much too soon would make their stomachs explode, killing them. He deeply cared for these obviously famished people. His actions looked harsh, even mean. But his tough, calloused actions took their orders from a tender, compassionate heart.
So what is compassion? Being nice? Feeling sorry for people? Giving people what they want? Not quite. I define compassion astender hearted desire that seeks to care for someone’s deepest need. And needs do not always equal our wants. You see, we need to tell others, and sometimes we need to hear from others, what is needed, not necessarily wanted. Do not make the mistake of thinking that tough-calloused hands (or words) are mean, especially when they, like Jesus’, take orders from a tender-compassionate heart and point to what you most deeply need. That’s compassion.