Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Uncompassionate Christ

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

“… and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?” … And he did not do many mighty works there.”

You see the problem, of course. A mere four chapters on in our narrative, the “compassionate” Jesus of Matthew 9 by-and-large withholds the benefit of his healing powers from the very people with whom he grew up.

What are we to make of this?

Expectations Not Quite Met

In the first verse we are told specifically that the Lord had “compassion for” the crowds he drew, and yet from the second verse we understand the Lord didn’t heal every needy person he encountered during his time on earth. Certainly not in Nazareth.

He healed some. At times, he healed lots. But at no point in his ministry, or in the subsequent ministry of the apostles — the heavenly authority of which was also frequently attested to with miracles — did everybody with a serious need receive a miraculous response.

That’s doesn’t jibe with our natural expectations of someone — especially an all-powerful Someone — feeling “compassion”, does it? How many times have you heard the line “How could a loving God allow [fill in the blank]?” Obviously if God really “loves” us, we think, then he has an obligation to relieve suffering wherever and whenever it occurs. If he doesn’t, we conclude that he doesn’t exist or doesn’t care.

But the Lord was apparently not in the business of catering to our natural expectations.

Why So Few Miracles?

Instead, there were plenty of situations in which the Lord performed fewer miracles than in others — or no miracles at all:
  • For the first thirty years or so of his life on this earth, there is no definitive record of the Lord performing a healing, resurrecting the dead or driving out a demon. How many men and women lived, suffered and died around him in those thirty years, and the Lord to the best of our knowledge did nothing about it? Even at the beginning of his ministry, the Lord did not immediately perform public miracles. Instead he called disciples and privately taught them. But until turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana ... nothing. Why? As he told his mother, “My hour has not yet come”.
  • In the region of Tyre and Sidon — Gentile territory — he met a Canaanite woman with a daughter who was being oppressed by a demon. Here the Lord noted that he had been “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and that it was “not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Because of her unusual faith, the Lord healed the woman’s daughter, but he made it quite clear that what he was doing was exceptional.
  • In his hometown of Nazareth, where — and I admit speculation here — there were probably just as many needy, sick, damaged people as everywhere else the Lord Jesus went, we read that “he did not do many mighty works”, not because he lacked opportunity or compassion, but “because of their unbelief”.
So, with few and rather remarkable exceptions, the Lord did no miracles when the time was not right. He did no miracles when the place was not right. He did no miracles when the hearts of the people were not right.

Sounds as if he had a bigger plan in view.

An Illustration

Indulge me in an anecdote. On more than one occasion as a child, I would become tremendously frustrated with one or another of my siblings over some object or toy I wanted and which they declined to cough up on demand. To me, it seemed entirely reasonable to get my way, so my natural inclination was to howl for my mother to come settle the dispute.

Big mistake. My mother was the perceptive sort. Her first instinct on seeing me worked up and raging would be to pack me right off to bed for a couple of hours. “You’re overtired, dear”, she’d say. No toy, no victory over my smug sibling, no satisfaction of my immediate perceived need.

You would not believe how much I hated hearing “You’re overtired, dear”.

But usually I was. And after crying myself to sleep in frustration, I would wake up refreshed, having completely forgotten the toy, my irritability and my annoyance with my mother.

My mother met my actual need rather than my perceived need. She could distinguish cause and effect, so she treated the root cause of my distress rather than its symptoms.

Rather like the Lord Jesus did.

The Purpose of the Miracles

If we believe that the Lord’s compassion was genuine, and I think we should, are we not forced to conclude that his miracles were not intended primarily for those who benefited by receiving healing; that compassion for their immediate physical distress was not the most important reason he healed?

There was a much more important reason behind the miraculous than simply the relief of human suffering. Because for all that pain, disability and disease impact our lives, they are merely symptoms of the real issues: a fallen creation, sin in the world and in the hearts of men and, most critically, the separation from God that is its inevitable result. The Lord knew the difference between cause and effect, and was always concerned to address the root of the problem:
“ ‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ — he then said to the paralytic — ‘Rise, pick up your bed and go home.’ ”
When the Lord told the paralytic to take up his bed and walk, it was not the first thing he did for him. What he did — and the reason he did it — are more than a little unexpected. He did not respond to the man’s own faith (the extent of which is not described by Matthew), but rather to the faith of the friends who had carried the paralyzed man to the Lord.

And in response to this faith, he took care of what their friend needed above all else. He forgave his sins.

Orders of Magnitude

I know we don’t think this way, but the importance of having sins forgiven is so many orders of magnitude above that of meeting immediate physical needs as to render words inadequate. The consequences of physical suffering and even physical death are temporal. The consequences of sin are eternal. What the Lord did for the paralytic in forgiving his sins was the single most compassionate thing anyone could possibly have done for him and for everyone there.

It just didn’t look that way at the time.

Let me suggest that the major point of the healing was twofold:
  • to bring glory to God (“When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God”); and
  • to establish his own authority to forgive sins so he could forgive more of them (“they glorified God who had given such authority to men”).
For the paralytic, a wonderful corollary was that he was able to pick up his bed and carry it home in front of an astonished group of people glorifying God. But it was very much a side benefit, not the main purpose of his encounter with the Lord.

The healing itself was less an evidence of the Lord’s compassion for the immediate physical needs of a paralytic and more an evidence of his compassion for the spiritual needs of the scribes and others who were present, carping that “only God can forgive sins” and calling him a blasphemer. Further, it was evidence of the Lord’s compassion for the millions and perhaps billions who have read this account and the gospel accounts of the rest of his miraculous deeds in the years since.

A Conclusion

The lesson for us? God in heaven, and God in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, is endlessly compassionate toward his children. But he knows very well what our real problem is, and it is not just whatever symptom of a sinful, fallen world we may be currently struggling with.

Sometimes, delightfully for us, his compassion may even manifest itself in addressing the immediate source of our distress, like the Canaanite woman or the paralytic. But he is always primarily interested in getting to the root of our problems (and, equally importantly, to the root of the problems of the many other observers in our circle of acquaintances), not in simply masking our spiritual symptoms with a quick health fix.

But like many children, we are frequently unaware what we really need.

1 comment :

  1. Amen and amen, Tom. This reminds me of teaching I heard a few weeks ago in an Overcomers meeting.

    Jesus had to shed His blood and die so our sins could be forgiven, but He had to be beaten and scourged so we could be healed. The Old Testament speaks of a desirable, unblemished sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin. Our Savior was physically undesirable (Isaiah 53:2-6 describes it very well) and God didn't send Him to die unblemished. Some accounts state that Christ was nearly unrecognizable after the beatings and flogging.

    Jesus was much more than an unblemished, desirable animal sacrifice from the Old Testament - He was an undesirable, rejected, mocked, beaten and humiliated sacrifice so that we can not only be forgiven, but spiritually and emotionally healed as well

    "....and by His wounds we are healed" Isaiah 53:5

    Now He's an all-powerful, compassionate God standing in the gap between our sinful human tendencies and the same ability to heal our hearts as He could while on earth.