“And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them.” Mark 6:34 (emphasis added).
The word “compassion” in the original Greek writing of the New Testament comes from the root word that literally refers to the spleen, the intestine or the bowels. The writer of Mark references Jesus as having compassion for the crowds (8:34), compassion that came from deep down in Jesus’ bowels. It is a deep feeling of sympathy and wholehearted tender mercy for the crowd of over 5,000. From an inner affection for the crowd, Jesus was moved with the kind of compassion that led to immediate, wholistic action. In other words, in this entire story in Mark’s Gospel (6:31-44), Jesus’ compassion was not just social in nature through his deeds, as is taught by some scholars, but Jesus’ words, deeds and signs led the crowds to experience the wholistic implications of the reign of God in their lives. I am grateful to H. Eddie Fox and George E. Morris of World Evangelism of the World Methodist Council, among other scholars, for their insights in helping me understand much of this wholistic nature of Jesus’ compassion.
In Mark’s passage, then, the compassion of having mercy upon the crowds involved word, deed and sign. Jesus saw the people scattered as “sheep without a shepherd,” literally appearing to be “flung here and flung there,” and he was moved first in verses 33-34 to teach the crowd “regarding many things” (here is the word). Then in verses 35-37, Jesus asked the very unwilling group of disciples to feed the same crowd (here is the deed). And in verses 38-44, Jesus miraculously multiplied the five loaves and two fishes, and twelve baskets of fragments were left over (here is the sign). Jesus’ compassion here is wholistic in nature. I argue that this wholistic action is the very nature of Jesus’ compassion for all, and must be the very nature of our compassion for the world. Let’s look more closely at this.
In Jesus’ ministry, he constantly had compassion on persons, and often when Jesus spoke the word, both the deed and sign were also present. In this way, Jesus’ teaching, preaching, proclamation of the kingdom of God and witnessing were often not isolated acts in themselves, set apart from deed and sign. So also, Jesus’ compassionate deeds of caring and loving were not dichotomized from his speaking or from his revelation of signs. Neither was sign an isolated revelation, set apart from word and deed.
Here are three further examples of Jesus’ wholistic compassion. First, in the story of the woman with the issue of blood, the woman touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and was instantly healed (Matthew 9:20-22). Here, the sign of God’s power and presence came first. Then, Jesus cared enough to want to find this woman and offer her wholeness (here is the deed). Jesus, then, spoke to the woman (here is the word). And then, she immediately received the words of wholeness from Jesus (here again is the sign). Second, in the case where one of the ten healed lepers returned to thank Jesus, Jesus offered this one leper wholeness (Luke 17:11-20), even though the sign of physical healing had come first. Third, in the story of Lazarus’ death, Jesus cared enough to visit the family (though arriving after Lazarus had died), ministered to their needs and then went to the tomb. There, when Jesus spoke and raised Lazarus from the dead, Lazarus came out of the tomb, bound hands and feet with his grave cloths. Then, Jesus called upon the people to carry out the deed of untying Lazarus to let him go (John 11:1-45).
It is important to note, however, that often the word, deed and sign were inseparable and often they occurred simultaneously in Jesus’ compassion. At other times, in the speaking was the doing, as in the healing of the centurion’s servant in Matthew 8:13. Sometimes, in the doing came the sign, as with the story of the blind man whom Jesus asked to wash in the Pool of Siloam in John 9:6-8. At other times, the casting out of demons, the healing, the miracles or the raising of persons from the dead were both sign and deed, while at the same time Jesus spoke the action into being, as in the casting out of unclean spirits in Mark 1:25. At other times, in order for the deed and sign to take place, Jesus spoke the word, as in the story of the cleansing of the leper in Mark 1:40-42. Further, for the word and sign to take place, Jesus physically went in search of persons or went out of his way to speak to persons or personally invited himself to persons’ homes (Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10). Jesus’ compassion involved word, deed and sign.
What might all of this mean for our ministries today? Clearly, we are called today to reveal wholistic ministries of compassion through the church and in our personal lives in the world. Here are some suggestions for application.
a) We must always seek to offer the world wholistic compassionate ministries.
b) When we give a cup of water, we ought to do so while at the same time naming the name of Jesus.
c) We must care for the sick and needy, and audibly tell persons that our caring is in the name of Jesus.
d) We must not simply bless a hungry person with spiritual words like “God bless you,” but also feed the person or teach the person how to find food.
e) We must allow God to use our spiritual gifts to minister to the whole person.
f) We must verbally share during Sunday worship services and other fellowship times our experiences and signs of God’s present-day revelations in our lives.
g) We should be open to the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives.
h) We should expect the revelation of signs in our speaking and in our doing.
In conclusion, may the crowds and individuals today who appear as “sheep without a shepherd,” among others, be touched and powerfully impacted by our wholistic word, deed and sign ministries of compassion as we seek to follow in the footsteps of Jesus the Christ. Through our wholistic compassion, may more and more persons be afforded the opportunity to experience the wholistic implications of the God’s reign.
Winston O. R. Worrell is director of the World Methodist Evangelism Institute, a ministry of the World Methodist Council and Emory University, c/o Candler School of Theology, Emory University, 500 S. Kilgo Circle, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA. Website: www.wmei.ws Email Address:
Tel. 404-727-6344 Fax. 404-727-5236.