I was recently working on a story in the Gospel of Matthew (14:13-21). Jesus has just learned of the execution of John the Baptist, his kinsman and forerunner. He understandably wants to be alone, so he gets into a boat to travel to a deserted place. But when he arrives, the place isn’t deserted. A large crowd is waiting for him because they have needs they believe Jesus can meet.
Here’s the line that jumped out at me from the story: “When [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (v. 14). When he saw the crowd with their needs, “he had compassion for them.” He saw them and he had compassion on them. That was his knee-jerk, immediate, gut-level reaction. Then he acted in light of his compassion.
Later in the story, Jesus’ disciples realize that the crowd is still in need: they have no food and there is nowhere nearby to get any. So they suggest to Jesus that he send the people away so they can buy food. Jesus has another idea that involves turning five loaves of bread and two fish into more than enough provisions for the crowd. The disciples don’t think they have sufficient resources to feed a large hungry crowd, but they learn that Jesus’ power could turn their little into a lot.
But here’s the question I want to ask: how do we react at the moment we see people in need? What is our knee-jerk reaction when we see the sick, the poor, the refugee, the marginalized, and the oppressed? What is our immediate, automatic, gut-level response?
Over the years I’ve had a hard time understanding people who profess to follow Jesus but whose knee-jerk reaction to people in need is apathy (“Not my problem”), selfishness (“Not with my money”), or even disdain (“We don’t need their kind”). Sadly, I’ve known a lot of people in the church with those reactions. I’m sure other folks have such reactions too, but I find them particularly troubling in people who carry the name “Christian.”
Now, I’m not claiming that my first reaction is always compassion. But I can testify that I want it to be and that it bothers me when it isn’t.
We can’t expect all Christians to agree on the best approach to meeting people’s needs. But we can and should expect all Christians to always be growing toward having the same knee-jerk reaction to human needs. And our appropriate knee-jerk reaction is compassion.
How do I know? Because that was Jesus’ knee-jerk reaction.
Christians follow Jesus. We should always be growing in his grace and love. We want our lives to reflect his ways.
When Jesus saw people in need, the first thing he felt was compassion.
Until that’s our knee-jerk reaction, we have a long way to go.