Jesus' Ethics of Compassion

Luke 7, and its stories of Jesus' healing of the Centurion's servant and raising the widow's son, illustrate the ethic of compassion taught by Jesus in the previous chapter. Luke shows that Jesus doesn't buy into religious sensibilities; he lives by a different ethic, crossing barriers and pushing limits because he's listening to the voice of God.


The Centurion's Story — Jesus Went with Them

The Centurion's story illustrates how far Jesus will go in doing good. Appointed by Rome to oversee 80 to 100 soldiers, the Centurion was also a friend of the Jews as a benefactor of the synagogue. When Jewish leaders came with the Centurion's healing request to Jesus, they were responding from the patron/client relationship; they owed him a debt. As a Gentile, the Centurion didn't expect Jesus to come to him and insists that Jesus not defile himself by entering his home: Just give the order and my servant will get well. But in his willingness to go with the leaders to the Centurion's home, Jesus shows that he isn't defined by patron/client agreements or by purity codes. His response is born from compassion.

This story illustrates Luke's theology. The Centurion, a Gentile, knows more about Jesus' true identity than the Jews do. He is a supporter of believers in addition to recognizing and trusting Jesus' authority. In this pro-Gentile message Luke affirms that all are welcome to the Kingdom of God. Christian Jews would have seen that the Centurion came to faith through Jewish faith but went beyond it, just as they had. The message confirms that there are no categories of Jew and Gentile. Faith in Jesus' healing power overcomes social barriers.

Widow of Nain — He had Compassion for Her

This incidental meeting of Jesus and his disciples with the funeral procession illustrates Jesus' compassion. The widow is in a catastrophic state: both her husband and son have died. As a widow with no social standing she is in a state of dire vulnerability. She epitomizes the poor. Jesus once again crosses barriers to show compassion. He tells the woman not to cry illustrating the power of compassion to turn weeping into laughter. He touches the bier, an impure act, and instructs the corpse to rise, using an economy of power that shows his authority.

With this story, Luke is saying that Jesus is more than a regular prophet; his act is less about the miracle and more about compassion. The theological implications are about discipleship. The two groups meeting each other represent two different times intersecting: Kingdom time meets the absence of Kingdom. When the Kingdom draws near you don't need to weep; if you do, you've got the wrong time. Before Jesus, with the preaching of John the Baptist, it was a time of yearning. When Jesus is here, the Kingdom is here. When Jesus is gone, it's an intermediary time— not the Old Testament time yearning but not the Kingdom. It's a time of frustration and mourning. In this ambiguous time where sorrow and joy flowed mingled down, we're encouraged to ask: What are we waiting for?

John the Baptist Asks: Are You the One?

John's question, "Are you the one?" is a legitimate question people are asking. With expectations of a triumphant messiah, some were asking where is the judgment that was promised to the Jews? John the Baptist's disciples are a popular group in the 90s who would have been asking this question. Others would have been asking, how can God's agent of salvation incur such opposition from God's people? His own people killed him. Luke has Jesus responding to the question indirectly. Decide for yourself: Look around at the festival of salvation and healing. Listen to the echo of Isaiah's words. Remember back to the sermon in Luke 4 and see how Jesus is doing what the Spirit anointed him to do. Blessed are those who don't question me.

It's important to see what our expectations are for Christ's presence among us. Blessed are those willing to be converted by a different way. Both Jesus and John the Baptist are condemned by society because they don't conform to social expectations. They're rejected because they're being faithful. Are we willing to change our expectations? Are we going to take Jesus for who he really is?

Your Sins Are Forgiven

When the sinful woman enters the home of the Pharisee, ritual impurity arrives with her. She approaches Jesus' feet, considered most unclean, and lets her hair down, an offensive and erotically inappropriate act. From his point of view, Simon the Pharisee is right to question her presence. Although she is known as a sinner who associates with Gentiles, Jesus welcomes her. He tells Simon a story: who would be loved more, one who has sinned much or one who has sinned less? When Simon chooses the one who has sinned more, Jesus welcomes Simon's judgment. Once again Luke illustrates that with Jesus social hierarchies are gone. God cancels all debt. There is a sense that Jesus and the woman have met before; her sins have been forgiven already and she comes to him as an expression of love for what he has done. Jesus is inviting Simon to forgive the woman and welcome her culturally, restoring relationship.

The question becomes: Will the real sinner please stand up? We're invited to look at our own actions toward Jesus to determine which debtor we are. With a certain amount of power we can live in an illusion that we don't have that much sin. We think we're not sinners and then we talk to our friends and find out the truth. The only people who express love know that they're forgiven.

About Discipleship

We learn that discipleship is a natural response of forgiveness. If we're forgiven much, we will love much. We can't drum up discipleship. We need to die before being brought to life. It's not about legalism or looking good. We're invited to bring everything to Jesus. People think that Jesus and John the Baptist are fools but Luke says these are children of God. Look at the fruit of their life: justice and compassion. Look how free the woman is once she knows she's forgiven. Look for depth of heart. This is where God leads disciples.

What we learn about God is that God's not about rules and purity. "I am the Lord of the Sabbath." Luke shows people getting it — they learn to lean into God — but the disciples, like us, don't always get it.

Jesus opened up the ministry of forgiveness. We can offer this to each other. The story of Simon and the woman has something to teach us depending on where we're at. When our ego is up, Simon teaches us that it's about being connected to the grace of God; it's about relationship. When we've fallen and failed like the woman, we're taught that there is forgiveness. Accepting forgiveness can be the hard part, but identifying the sin can take the shame away. Luke shows us that forgiveness releases us from the grasp of sin and results in loving gratitude.

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