The Scandal of God’s Compassion
By Linda Rex
September 20, 2020, Proper 20—Historically, we as human beings have nearly always been good at getting upset when people don’t get what we think they deserve. Some of us take such difficulties as a challenge to ensure that such people do get what they deserve, while others of us either ignore or explain away their offenses, or spend our time complaining and feeling sorry for ourselves instead.
The reading for this Sunday from the Old Testament is the passage where the Israelites began to complain to Moses that they didn’t have any decent food anymore. They even would have preferred to go back into slavery in Egypt just to have something good to eat now and then. Here God had just done a great deliverance for them in bringing them safely through the Red Sea and now they were complaining because they were having to struggle a little.
God’s compassion was not appreciated nor was it understood by them. That he was tenderly seeing to their every need didn’t seem to make a difference—when things weren’t how they wanted them to be, they made a big stink about it and made life really hard for Moses. God would constantly have to remind them about who he was—their Provider, Protector, and Deliverer. In this instance, he gave them quail that evening, and in the morning began to provide them with bread from heaven, manna.
What we need to be reminded of, daily it seems, is just who God is. Do we believe he is the God who is compassionate, gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and full of lovingkindness? These are ways in which God describes himself (Ex. 34:6-7), along with being just and full of truth. How does this impact the way we look at ourselves and others? What are our expectations of God, especially when it comes to how he deals with other people and uncomfortable situations?
Another passage from this weekend is from the book of Jonah. Rather than obeying God’s instruction to warn Nineveh of their impending destruction and their need to repent, this prophet took a ship going the opposite direction. He knew God was compassionate and forgiving, and didn’t want to risk that he might forgive this enemy of his people.
Jonah’s prejudice and hatred toward others of a different people group prevented him from simple obedience. And God did not allow him to continue in his path of resistance to God’s compassion and grace—he even used a large sea creature and a plant to get his point across to Jonah. He reminded the prophet that he should have been just as compassionate as God was in wanting to see the Ninevites not be destroyed—Jonah needed an attitude adjustment about wanting to God annihilate them. He needed to repent and have a change of heart.
Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of heaven in which a landowner who owns a vineyard goes to find laborers to help gather in the harvest. He agreed with this first group of laborers to pay a day’s wage. Later in the day, he hired other laborers, agreeing to give them what was right. All the way up to about an hour before quitting time, he hired people to help with the harvest.
When it came time to pay these people, he began with those he hired last. Giving each of them a day’s wage, he paid the last, the next to the last, and on down the line until those he hired first. These hot and exhausted workers he gave the same amount as he gave the people he hired last—a day’s wage. This infuriated them.
The problem wasn’t in what the landowner did, though, but in their expectations. They believed that since they had worked the longest, they should have received the most. Those who worked a short period of time didn’t expect to get paid as much as they did, but they no doubt, appreciated the benefit they received. Here is the crux of the story—the day’s wage which each person received was a result of the landowner’s kindness and compassion, not due to their diligent performance.
For the kingdom of heaven comes to us not due to our adequate performance as people doing good deeds, but solely as a gift from God. The wages of sin is death, we read, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23). Once again, we need to move away from our debit/credit thinking about the kingdom of God into the place of God’s generosity and compassion. We need to not be scandalized by God’s compassionate inclusion of all of humanity in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, including those people who we believe don’t deserve God’s grace.
As image-bearers of the God who is compassionate, gracious and slow to anger, we are called to reflect his nature. We are to have the same compassion for those around us as God has for us. What he did for the 120,000 persons who lived in the city of Nineveh, God wants to do even more so for every human being who has ever lived. In Christ, we find that grace and salvation are available to each person. By faith in Christ each can participate in the fellowship of the Father and Son in the Spirit both now and forever.
Jesus was always stepping on toes with his discussion of doing good to those who do us wrong, praying for those who persecute us, and caring for those whom society considers untouchable and unworthy. His scandalous compassion put him at the same table with sinners, touching the leprous and unclean, and raising the dead. What we see in Jesus, God plants in us by the Spirit—we open our hearts up to the compassion for others that comes from God himself. Why should we resist the Spirit’s longing to care for those who are lost and broken, bound by evil and sin?
Perhaps we should take some time in quiet contemplation of the nature of our compassionate and gracious God. And in doing so, invite him to change our heart towards those who are in need of his grace. How can we pray for them, help them, speak loving truth into their lives? In what way would God want us to express his compassion and concern for them?
Thank you, Abba, that you are compassionate, gracious, and understanding. Thank you, Jesus, that you know what it means to be human, to struggle as we do against temptation and the sin which so easily distracts us from loving you and the other people in our lives. Grant us the grace to let you be the God you are and to stop trying to form you into our own image. Form us instead more fully into Christlikeness through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“The LORD is gracious and merciful;
Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness.” Psalm 145:8 NASB
“Then the LORD said, ‘You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?’” Jonah 3:10–11 NASB
See also Matthew 20:1-16, Exodus 16:2–15, Jonah 3:10–4:11.
By Linda Rex
August 25th, Proper 16—There are hazards to being kind. We may open the door and find ourselves face to face with a stranger who needs help. Should we help them? Would we be unkind if we didn’t?
I remember years ago when I lived in a small duplex cottage in southern California, my roommate and I faced this question. At three in the morning, someone knocked on our door asking for help. I didn’t want to answer the door, but my roommate (who was much braver than I) did. This person wanted to come in and use our phone so he could get help with his car.
I’d like to believe that my roommate and I were both kind people. But opening the door at three in the morning to a perfect stranger under these circumstances was non-negotiable. We offered to make a call for him, but he wanted to come in and do it himself. We refused and sent him on his way.
I’m pretty sure we made the right decision, considering the situation, the neighborhood, and the time of day. But it’s really hard to be kind under those conditions. Our instinct of self-preservation kicks in. We realize it is easy for someone to take advantage of us, to harm us or steal from us. We realize we make ourselves vulnerable when we are kind, so we keep our guard up and resist the urge to be kind in some situations.
Yet kindness is a part of God’s nature, and we are designed to be kind as creatures made in his image. It was God’s intention to form in each of us as human beings his own way of being which includes lovingkindness. The lovingkindness which is a part of God’s nature is hesed, a kindness which includes loyal love, mercy, and favor. It is a gracious kindness which endures suffering, rejection, and a failure to love by the one God is in relationship with.
In Exodus 34:6-7, the God of Israel described himself to Moses:
Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
When we read the story of God’s people Israel, we find that they spent more time wandering away from their covenant relationship with God than they did living within it as they should have. They were easily distracted by the nations around them and how they lived their lives. They sought fulfillment in the pleasures of this life rather than in growing closer to the God who loved them and had delivered them from slavery in Egypt and had given them the land they lived in.
But God was kind—going out of his way to forgive and be gracious to them. Early on, when Moses had been on the mountain with God receiving his instructions, Aaron and the people made an idol. As Moses returned down the mountain, he found the nation had succumbed to idolatrous worship of a golden calf. Was God upset? Absolutely. He was more than willing to end the nation and start over with Moses and his children. But Moses reminded God of his nature, his lovingkindness, of how God had described himself (Numbers 14:11-19)—this was the truth of God’s being. And God relented, and was kind.
Over the centuries as his people turned away from him, God sent prophets to remind his beloved people to return—to turn back to him in devotion and obedience. It took quite a bit before God would say to them, since this is what you want, then you may have it and the consequences which go with having it. And the nation would go into slavery or subjection to another nation. But whenever the nation would experience the pain that went with turning from their Redeemer, the people would turn back and God would renew his covenant with them. This covenant relationship was tested over and over, but on God’s side, there was always faithfulness and lovingkindness.
God’s kindness to Israel has never ended, though the nation has been through many crucifixions over the millennia. God’s nature does not change, and he is faithful to his covenant even when his people are not. The greatest expression of God’s kindness to us is expressed to us in the incarnation of the Word. The coming of God into human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ expresses God’s lovingkindness in a powerful way, as Israel’s Redeemer put himself fully at the mercy of the humans he had created.
Jesus, while here on this earth, allowed human beings to do as they wished with him. But never to the point that his divine will was thwarted or his plan of salvation was diverted. Jesus was always kind, except when he needed to resist evil. There were times when Jesus, in his love for his people, spoke the truth directly to their hearts, calling them back to a right relationship with his Abba. This is when the greatest kindness he could show them was to point out their need to turn back to their God and to accept the One he had sent to save them.
Sometimes genuine kindness involves taking a risk and telling someone the truth. Sometimes it means drawing a line and saying, “You may not hurt me or my family, because that is not how God meant us to treat one another.” There is a time when kindness must be lovingkindness—a loyal love which shows favor, faithfulness, and takes godly action. A true kindness is the kindness of covenant love and grace, of refusing to be pushed away from our grounding in Jesus Christ and who we are as God’s beloved adopted children.
Today, is there someone you can be truly kind to? What shape will that kindness take? Is it time for you to take the risk of true kindness, of genuine lovingkindness?
Dear Abba, thank you for your heart of lovingkindness and grace. Thank you for being filled with compassion and concern for each of us. And thank you that the greatest kindness you showed us was in the gift of your Son Jesus. Thank you for pouring your lovingkindness into human hearts by the Holy Spirit. Make us open to receive your heart of kindness and to truly be kind to those around us, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, / Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.” Psalm 103:8 NASB