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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

“Compasion, The Fiber Of Freedom”

Independence Day

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Luke 14:12-14

The Fourth of July, Independence Day, brings a lot of things to mind, but none quite as stirring as freedom. Our national history is full of heroic stories – and a few myths – about our founding fathers and their struggle for freedom. But freedom is a word with different meanings for different people. Thomas Jefferson, the architect of the Declaration of Independence, kept household slaves. One man’s freedom often meant another man’s bondage. Freedom becomes a license that abuses freedom.

So, we know that there’s another ingredient in our freedom that’s essential to its maintenance and survival. It may be described by phrases like “with liberty and justice for all,” or by the four freedoms proclaimed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 – freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from want and fear; or by the famous words of President Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address – “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Then there’s the inscription on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.”

Obviously, there’s more that holds freedom together than the right to do whatever we please. Many of our forefathers came to these shores looking for freedom from want and oppression, not only for themselves, but also for their neighbors. The history of our land, this “Home of the Brave”, includes a lot of selfless spirit and concern for those who were “homeless and tempest-tossed.” In 1792 James Madison asked, “Who are the best keepers of the people’s liberties?” And then answered his own question: “The people themselves. The sacred trust can be nowhere so safe as in the hands most interested in preserving it.” Madison was one of the founding fathers who put a high premium on the value of religious faith for our country, if liberty was going to prevail. Since then, history has shown that Christianity can survive without democracy – but it’s doubtful if a democracy like ours can survive very long without Christianity!

The glue that holds this nation together and preserves liberty, so that this experiment of government by the people, of the people, and for the people doesn’t perish – that glue is compassion. It’s the key element. Compassion is the ingredient that can turn liberty into something good.

In the 14th chapter of the Gospel According to Luke, we find Jesus eating in the house of a prominent Pharisee, and we read that “Jesus said to His host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors. If you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’” Jesus says His followers are to be compassionate – to want to help others in their times of suffering or trouble or need. And He expects it of us especially living in this land of the free. The unique contribution of Christianity to liberty is compassion, the fiber of liberty.

The heathen world, especially Greek and Roman culture, often looked upon compassion as a sign of weakness. Christians, too, have sometimes said compassion was only for the so-called “saints”. St. Augustine, as a matter of fact, held the opinion that “A ruler should not humble himself too much, lest government come to be despised.” Martin Luther read this and commented, “This is purely secular, heathen advice, not Christian, and I wish he had left it out, because it smells, like Adam’s barrel or hogshead; but one can forgive a person like Augustine, since even the godly aren’t perfect.”

The fact is, as Luther points out, Jesus is giving the Pharisee and his guests an object lesson they’ll never forget. He healed a man sick with dropsy, or edema, bodily swelling, even though it was a sabbath. And then He made the point, as Luther puts it, that those who are religious, or godly, need to put their Christianity or Christian walk of life “on the scales and weight it according to God’s Word.” Only genuine compassion can balance the scales!

Jesus’ own life and ministry were the very epitome of compassion. When He saw the multitudes, He saw them:

· As sheep that were scattered, needing a shepherd (Matt. 9:36-38)

· As hungry, needing bread, especially the Bread of Life (Matt. 15:32)

· As sick, needing healing in body and in soul (Matt. 14:14)

· As fearful, under the shroud of death: as the widow of Nain, whose son lay dead; as Jairus, whose little daughter had died; or as Mary and Martha, who had lost their brother, Lazarus – all of them needing to know Him who is the resurrection and the life.

And when they came to Him in faith, Jesus never refused them either bodily or spiritual help – most often responding to their needs even before they asked! He had a compassionate heart for sinful mankind: for the so-called respectable classes; for the despised publicans, sinners, and prostitutes; for the whole, sick body of mankind in general.

The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus could “sympathize with our weaknesses.” (Heb. 4:15) And above all, because of His love for sinful mankind, He made the ultimate sacrifice for our sin and the sins of the whole world. Isaiah, 700 years earlier, prophesied how the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, would bear our griefs, carry our sorrows, be wounded for our transgressions, be bruised for our iniquities, and have the iniquity of us all laid on Him. (Isaiah 53) In the New Testament, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on Calvary’s cross was the center of Paul’s preaching: “Christ, who knew no sin, was made to be sin for us!” And the same was true for all the writers, so John wrote, “This is how we know what love is: ‘Jesus Christ laid down His life for us.’” (1 John 3:16)

Compassion, beyond our understanding, is the word that characterizes our Savior’s ministry for people on Earth. By it, Christ set us free, with the most incredible freedom we’ll ever know and have, being righteous and holy before God through our Redeemer’s sacrifice.

Now, as Jesus had compassion for us, so we are to have compassion for one another. The Apostle Peter truly experienced Jesus’ love and so he spoke with authority when he wrote, “It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.” (1 Peter 2:15,16)

Compassion is not a Christian luxury, which some have and others don’t – it’s a Christian necessity! Jesus makes that very plain. When He says to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to our banquets, He’s saying that we need to be there for all the needy people around us. Remember the parable of the wicked servant, when the lord of the servant asks, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18:23-35) Jesus isn’t lecturing us about the kind of guests we should or shouldn’t invite into our homes – though He might touch a few sensitive spots there. Primarily, He’s talking about not being insensitive to our neighbor, like the priest and Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan.

When it comes to dealing with people around us, Luther says that the principle that prevails is that “need breaks all laws,” all barriers, all customs when it comes to dealing with our neighbor. In his explanation of the 5th Commandment in his Small Catechism, he said “We should fear and love God so that we don’t hurt or harm our neighbor but help and support him in every physical need.” And in other writings he said that we need a spirit of tenderheartedness toward those who can’t return the favor to us, or who won’t do us good in return, but who may even return evil for good. That’s the real test of Christian compassion! And Luther’s point is very clear: if that’s what God wants, there’s no use in us running around doing works that aren’t commanded – even works that keep us busy in the church – and neglecting those that are commanded.

The message is plain: Compassion is the hallmark of Christian living in the midst of a troubled world. And compassion is also the glue that holds liberty or freedom together in a land like ours. It keeps freedom from becoming license, from going sour and becoming anarchy and self-serving.

We believers know that compassion is a main ingredient in our sanctification – that it’s God’s will for us – that it’s God’s good pleasure – and that He will reward it at the resurrection. That doesn’t change the central truth of our salvation, that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification. But it does underscore Jesus’ promise, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:40)

The freedom we as Christians enjoy needs to be seen in this light. Liberty, as the Christian sees it, is sewn together with the fibers of compassion. May God help us to live in His freedom.


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