The Bible clearly says that God loves people, but Jesus also walked away from a lot of people, so who does God reach out to and what inspires his merciful attention?
Geary and Mary Jane Chancey carefully boarded the train with their 11 year old daughter Andrea and her wheelchair. They were both older; Geary was a retired Marine and Vietnam veteran, and Mary Jane was a schoolteacher. They had adopted Andrea when she was only a few weeks old, knowing her severe cerebral palsy meant she would need assistance her entire life.
They were visiting family in Mississippi. It was Andrea’s first time riding a train, and the rocking motion of their journey kept her awake throughout the night.
The train was swiftly carrying her toward one of the worst accidents in Amtrak history. An explosion derailed the Los Angeles-to-Miami Sunset Limited into the Bayou Canot. Andrea still remembers that night vividly. “I smell the oil. I see the fire. I hear the screaming.”
When the train flipped off the track and was flung into the bayou, people in the coach’s upper level began trying to pull people out of the murky water filling the car. Andrea’s rescuer, who was interviewed years later, “was on the upper level of the train getting people out of the bottom level when someone thrust the child above the water that was filling the coach. It was pitch black, the only light coming from burning diesel fuel just yards away. ‘Whoever it was was being consumed by the water at that time,’ he recalled. ‘I didn't ever get to see who handed her up, but I assumed it was her parents.’”
Geary and Mary Jane drowned in the sinking train car.
Their love, compassion and self-sacrifice for their daughter stands as a human reflection of God’s heart for his children. We see it reflected over and over in scripture, in passages like the one where Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13, ESV).
How does God choose whom to have compassion upon, though? Is it everyone or just some people?
A lot of people are familiar with “He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:2-3, ESV). It pops up again in Matthew 12 when we’re explicitly told that this passage refers to Jesus.
Most explain this verse as Christ being compassionate for broken, suffering people; then they dust off their hands and leave it at that. It’s an interpretation that works great for instances like all the blind people Jesus healed, but there are other instances where we run into trouble with this very simple explanation. A man cried out to Jesus that his only child was horrifically tormented by a demon and that the disciples weren’t able to cast it out and help his child. “Jesus answered, ‘O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’” (Luke 9:41). ‘Gentle’ and ‘compassionate’ don’t exactly leap to mind when I read this.
Obviously, we’re told in a several other places that Jesus does feel for people who are in pain. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). This concern and gentleness did not always extend, though, to the people we would expect it to, and conversely, Jesus often turned to those who seemed least deserving of it with such care.
Jesus healed a man who has been paralyzed for 38 years and then told this man, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you” (John 5:14). That seems like a harsh warning for someone who had been suffering illness and poverty for almost four decades. Conversely, when the rich young man started asking Jesus about how to earn eternal life, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…” (Luke 10:21). What about having some wealthy young buck grill him on how to work his way into heaven warmed Christ’s heart?
Who is a smoldering wick or a bruised reed? How did the Samaritan woman with five ex-husbands and a live-in boyfriend qualify? Why was Zacchaeus with his mansion and tax-collector buddies selected? What about Simon the religious zealot who probably belonged to a racist and nationalistic sect? What do we make of the woman caught in adultery, Nicodemus the pious religious ruler, the criminal on the cross, Martha who took care of her brother and sister instead of a husband and children?
Why does Christ have compassion on these people but not others?
Often I presume that God shows compassion on people who are afflicted with certain kinds of suffering or who clearly offer some kind of benefit to God’s kingdom. If I’m entirely honest, those two categories are usually based off of my own experiences or those of people I love.
The Bible’s standard for the individuals who receive God’s compassion is much more straightforward than mine. “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; …As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Psalm 103:11,13).
Martin Luther struggled for many years with this concept of ‘fearing’ God, and he eventually reconciled it with scripture in what he termed “servile fear” and “filial fear.” The first is the fear of a slave for a malevolent master who either despises his servants or has a mercurial temper. The second is the fear that we rightfully have of damaging our relationship with someone we deeply love and respect. Those who come to God out of awe, adoration or a heavy concern for their relationship with God are the ones on whom he has compassion. These are the people who fully embrace the fact that “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6). All they care about is that they still hear God’s voice and feel his presence.
With that understanding, John Bailey dug deeper into how we can understand the reference to the bruised reed and smoldering wick of Isaiah 42. In his God’s Eternal Pursuit series, he explains, “In Isaiah 42, you have the prelude to John 3:16. …The picture of a bruised reed is if you had a stalk of grain and it was broken in a certain way, it wouldn't produce any fruit. Here is what the writer is saying. When we have these moments of brokenness, we feel like ‘I’m not produce producing much fruit. There's really not much coming out of my life right now.’ Here's the great news. Jesus doesn't break us in those moments.
“What Jesus does is he begins to do a work of restoration and healing. …In the New Testament, you have the thief on the cross. Here in his moments where he's being crucified, he's guilty — Jesus is innocent, but this man is guilty — but as he surveys the entire events of the day, what does he do? He says, ‘Surely this is the son of God’, and Jesus responds.
“Listen, no sinners prayer. There's no record that [Jesus] says, ‘Repeat this three minute prayer after me.’ There's no record that [the thief] is baptized and gets a free t-shirt. There's no record of that at all. He simply believed God, and at the point that he believed God, he was declared righteous. That's powerful because here’s what you see: he was a broken reed. Now does he ever produce fruit? I don't know. He certainly is a great witness, but as far as keeping the law or all of the other things, he doesn't do that; but Jesus receives and accepts him.”
All that mattered to the thief in that moment was that he acknowledged God in his life; he had witnessed the divine, and he recognized it, gave honor to it.
That was the incredible moment when Jesus answered, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). His graciousness was so great that it extended to this man who had done nothing noteworthy or honorable in his life, a common thief being executed by foreigners right before Passover. God took his feeble recognition and humble fear, and the Savior accepted it then extended in return an enormous gift: salvation.
The broken, awe-filled, penitent — This are the people on whom God has compassion. We feel all the broken bones in ourselves, the places where sin has cracked us through and through. God is waiting for that recognition, the point at which we realize all the good in this world was made by him and the only good we will ever know comes from him. As believers, we must remember over and over to turn to God with awe and filial fear. We must remember that we are bruised reeds dependent on his gentle hand.