Does your church show the compassion of Jesus?

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Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus.  And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ ” (Luke 15:1-2)

This passage could be described as classic Jesus. In these two verses, we find Jesus doing what Jesus does best in Luke’s gospel — loving the social outcast and offending the religious establishment. I often wonder why many of us in the church seem to do the opposite? 

Pastor Timothy Keller probes this line of thinking further in his book, “The Prodigal God, where he states that the teachings of Jesus “consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of the day.  However, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church and very much despise us. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people as Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did.”

“Ouch” is the word I wrote in the margin of the book after I read this paragraph. Even a casual reading of the four gospels in the New Testament supports Keller’s conclusion.

Jesus attracted the irreligious and outcast. It seems that if you carried a social stigma, then Jesus was your man.  Lepers were comfortable approaching Him. The demon-possessed were often asking for help. The sick and the injured were brought to Him for healing. A tax-collector was called to be His disciple and friend. A five-time married foreign woman was mesmerized by the grace He extended by associating with her in public. An adulterous woman’s life was spared when Jesus stepped in. 

The list could go on.

I think Jesus’ followers today need to pray for better eyesight. We need to see people through Jesus-shaped glasses.  While we tend to focus on the stigma, Jesus sees broken people in need of restoration. While we focus on the tarnished reputation, Jesus sees souls in turmoil in need of relief. While we focus on the sin, Jesus sees sinners in search of redemption.

In Matthew 9:36 we read, “Seeing the people, Jesus felt compassion for them.”  Is compassion our first reaction to hurting people, or are we quick to judge and condemn?

I read a story about Mark Buchanan, a pastor who visited The Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City. This church is known for its choir, its prayer meetings and its pastor, Jim Cymbala, who has written several well-known books.  Buchanan had read Cymbala’s book “Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire” and was greatly moved by it. 

After the church service that Sunday, Buchanan had the opportunity to eat dinner with Cymbala and his family. At one point during the dinner, Cymbala turned to him and said, “Mark, do you know what the number one sin of the church in America is?” 

Mark wasn’t sure of the answer and knew that the question was rhetorical. 

Cymbala continued: “It’s not the plague of Internet pornography that is consuming our men. It’s not that the divorce rate in the church is roughly the same as society at large.” 

Cymbala named two or three other candidates for the worst sin, all of which he dismissed.

“The number one sin of the church in America,” he said, “is that its pastors and leaders are not on their knees crying out to God, ‘Bring us the drug-addicted, bring us the prostitutes, bring us the destitute, bring us the gang leaders, bring us those with AIDS, bring us the people nobody else wants, whom only you can heal, and let us love them in your name until they are whole.’” Buchanan was stunned and simply sat in silence. 

He later wrote: “I was undone. He had laid me bare, found me out and exposed my fraudulence. I was the chief of sinners. I had never prayed, not once, for God to bring such people to my church.  So I went home and repented. I stopped sinning. I began to cry out for ‘those nobody wanted.’ And then God began to bring them.’ ”

Friends, if we claim to follow Jesus, then let us follow Him where He goes.  He will probably take us where we are not comfortable, and we will likely be criticized by the religious establishment as we begin to associate with the “sinners” of our day.  But not all criticism is bad.


The Rev. Steven Scherer is pastor of Worthville Baptist Church.