Following Jesus Means Compassion

Written By Marcus Borg

The first focal point of a life that takes Jesus seriously [is] that radical centering in the Spirit of God that is at the very center of the Christian life. Now, this radical centering in God does not leave us unchanged. It transforms us, and this leads us to the second focal point of what it means to follow Jesus, what it means to take Jesus seriously.

In a single sentence, it means compassion in the world of the every day. Slightly more fully, it means a life of compassion and a passion for justice. I need both of these words, compassion and justice, for compassion without justice easily gets individualized or sentimentalized, and justice without compassion easily sounds like politics.

Compassion is utterly central to the teaching of Jesus. As those of you who have read one or more of my books on Jesus know, I see it as the core value, the ethical paradigm of the life of faithfulness to God, as we see it in Jesus. Jesus sums up theology and ethics in a very short saying (six words in English). It is found in Luke 6:36 with a parallel in Matthew 5:48. "Therefore [very early Q material for those of you who like to know things like that], be compassionate as God is compassionate." The word for compassionate in both Hebrew and Aramaic is related to the word for womb. Thus, to be compassionate is to be womb-like, to be like a womb. God is womb-like, Jesus says, therefore, you be womb-like.

What does it mean to be womb-like? Well, it means to be life-giving, nourishing. It means to feel what a mother feels for the children of her womb: tenderness, willing their well-being, finding her children precious and beautiful. It can also mean a fierceness, for a mother can be fierce when she sees the children of her womb being threatened or treated destructively. Compassion is not just a soft, woozy virtue. It can have passion and fierceness to it as well.

To speak of compassion as the core value of the Christian life may seem like old hat to us, like ho-hum. But, contrasted for a moment to what some Christians have thought the Christian life is most centrally about, that it is really about righteousness—keeping your moral shirt-tails clean, avoiding being stained by the world--in that sense, the Christian life is profoundly different from compassion. In many ways, compassion is virtually the opposite of righteousness in that sense. Jesus, as a person, was filled with compassion, and he calls us to compassion. 

Jesus was also filled with a passion for justice. This is probably the least understood part of the teaching of Jesus in the modern American church, and maybe throughout most of the church's history. It's because we often misunderstand what the word justice means or we understand it poorly. We sometimes think that justice has to do with punishment, with people getting what is coming to them for what they have done wrong. When we think that way, then we think that the opposite of justice is mercy. But in the Bible, the opposite of justice is not mercy; the opposite of justice is injustice.

Justice and injustice have to do with the way societies are structured, with the way political and economic systems are put together. Like the Hebrew social prophets before him, Jesus' passion for justice set him against the domination system of his world and his time. It set him against a politically oppressive and economically exploitative system that had been designed by wealthy and powerful elites, legitimated by religion, and designed by them in their own narrow self-interests. And the domination system of his time, like the domination systems of all time, had devastating effects on the lives of peasants.

Also, like the Hebrew social prophets, Jesus was a God-intoxicated voice of peasant-religious-social protests, not just protests against the domination system, but an advocate of God's justice. God's justice is about social justice. God's justice is about the equitable distribution of God's earth, and a passion for God's justice sets you against all of those systems designed by people in their own narrow self-interests to benefit the few at the expense of the many.

Indeed, it was Jesus' passion for justice that got him killed. That is why the authorities, the powers that be, executed him. The journey of Lent reminds us of that, too: that Jesus was killed; he didn't simply die.

In the 13th chapter of Luke, some Pharisees come to Jesus to warn him that Herod is planning to kill him. Jesus replies, "Go and tell that fox Herod [fox in the world of the Jewish homeland in the first century did not mean a sly, cunning, wily creature; it had more the connotation of skunk, go and tell that skunk Herod], that it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem." Then he speaks of Jerusalem. "Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets, and stones those who are sent to you."

It is Jerusalem, of course, not as the center of Judaism, but Jerusalem as the center of the native domination system, of that economically exploitative and politically oppressive system that radically impoverished peasants and drove them to an existence of destitution and even desperation. Jesus is killed because of his passionate criticism of that system and his advocacy of the Kingdom of God. Which is what life would be like on Earth if God were King and the domination systems of this world were not. This is the political meaning of Good Friday.

To connect this back to compassion, justice is the social form of compassion. Justice and compassion are not opposites or different things, but justice is the social and political form of caring for the least of these. If we take Jesus seriously, we are called to both compassion and justice.

To move to my conclusion, following Jesus—the journey of Lent—means a radical centering in God in which our own well-being resides, re-connecting to a center of meaning and purpose and energy in our lives. It means a passion for compassion and justice in the world of the every day. The Gospel of Jesus is ultimately very simple. There is nothing complicated about this at all. It's taking seriously your relationship to God and taking seriously caring what God cares about in the world.

The Gospel invites us to stand up for Jesus, to take Jesus seriously, even to jump up and down for Jesus. If we are not there yet, if the moving of the Spirit in our hearts is but yet a faint stirring, then we are invited to sing along in silence. Even the songs that we sing in silence shape our lives.


Excerpted from a the sermon Taking Jesus Seriously. Copyright ©2001 Dr. Marcus J. Borg.
Originally delivered at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis TN as part of the Lenten Noonday Preaching Series.