This past week I had the chance to watch an old movie called Black Narcissus. It was the story of Anglican nuns sent to a remote part of India to start a school and infirmary for the local people. The film explored many of the stereotypes that people held at the time about the people of India but it also explored stereotypes of our own culture.
The local Rajah or leader of the people was a young man who showed great interest in Christianity and wanted to learn more. He came to the Christmas Eve service and was quite moved by the liturgy and the message. Afterwards he came to the mother superior and said,” I want to thank you for Jesus Christ.” The nun’s reply was, “we are not that casual about our Lord.” The interaction led me to see how we so often take the God who came to us and shared all this life with us and somehow put him in a place where he is revered and honoured but kept at a respectable distance from our desire to simply embrace him. I also realized that the young Rajah wanted to thank God but as his only knowledge of God had come through the nun, he did not know how else he could express his thanks.
Another person who was at the service found the nun’s reply out of step with what he thought about Jesus Christ. Yes, our Lord did attend services at the Temple and the synagogues but his manner in life was not that of a teacher who must be formally addressed or approached. Jesus was a person who moved among the people, taught the people where he found them and taught them lessons about the life that God sought for them to experience – a life which would bring them freedom of thought and of spirit. Sound too casual for the church and the community of faith? Well, the reality is that we have shaped what the world knows of the church today and have taken God from the streets into the ivory palaces; we have taken the dust from his clothes and his feet and preserved them in a pristine sanitized condition; we have denied the messiness of real life and of God’s earthly life in Jesus and sought to make all things perfect in God’s eyes.
I have chosen to start my meditation this way because I want us to see what Jesus saw. Matthew records that Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity.
And the content of that preaching was probably the very message that we have preserved for us in that Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount – often called the blueprint for our life with God – is a summary of the law that God had given the people of Israel long ago but with a spirit that interpreted the will of God not in a way that was designed to create guilt and condemnation but in a way that was designed to be encouraging and redeeming. The words of Jesus from that Sermon gave people guidelines to help them make positive choices that would lead them to creating a community in which all people could be respected and honoured. The community envisioned by God and communicated through Jesus would not distinguish between sins, would not elevate some over others based on wealth or position; it would not condemn the mistakes people made but rather encourage them to learn from their past and be able to move forward in life without the weight of regret that so often weighed people down.
The good news Jesus was bringing about the kingdom of God was to let people know that God was going to usher in a time when the One who had created all things would be able to redeem all things, to reconcile all things and bring to the people a time of lasting peace and joy.
To that end Jesus not only spoke to them about the new or fuller vision for life that God wanted the people to know about, but he also healed their diseases and infirmities. Jesus knew that so many people believed that their diseases, their infirmities were the result of their sin, of God’s disapproval of them. That is what they had been taught; but Jesus wanted them to know that the last thing God wanted was for them to feel rejected or unable to ever truly experience again the love that God still had for them.
And so the gospel records that Jesus is so moved within himself; he has compassion for them, not on them. His compassion is not a sympathy but an empathy. It is not a compassion that notes their suffering and looks away but a compassion that is concerned to deal with their suffering. Remember the lesson we learned when we were exploring issues of reconnecting with our faith. We were asked to have the courage to see, the courage to feel and the courage to act compassionately. And this is exactly what Jesus does here.
And why do the people need compassion? They need compassion because Jesus sees them as harassed, helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He knows that the many interpretations of the law of God from the leaders have left the people unsure of how to move in their lives without offending God and isolating them from God. They have become convinced of their inability to ever be in a good relationship with God and feel helpless.
Jesus knew that he could never physically reach every person who was harassed and helpless and so, he appeals to the disciples for an increase in the number of people willing to help bring peace and healing, hope and connection to the lives of the people of this world.
Remember the story of the woman caught in adultery? Jesus did not condone her actions – if indeed the charge was real – but he did not advocate violence against her nor did he approve of her sentence. He challenged those present to consider their own lives. If they could – in all honesty – say that they had done nothing in their lives that went against the will of God, then they were free to condemn the woman to death. But only a perfect person would have the right to condemn an imperfect person. None of them could do it because they all knew they were less than perfect; but the One who stood in their midst and had challenged them was perfect but he did not allow his perfection to judge her imperfection. Instead he exercised the gift of compassion allowing for the healing of her spirit and life.
Knowing that God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but to save it gives us the direction for our mission. We are not sent into the world to condemn the world but to save it; and the best way we can do that is to follow the example of Jesus whose compassion led him to bring healing, hope, peace and reconciliation to the lives of harassed and helpless people.
Let us go and do likewise.