Let me paint a picture for you of a culture where the Senate ruled over the people and the “commoners” had little say over what laws were enacted in the land. The culture that I am describing was one where many flocked to the cities of jobs, though they would only earn poverty level wages. Healthcare was available, but only for those who had the wealth to afford it; most suffered under whatever folk remedies happened to be available. Infectious disease was rampant in the poor sections of the cities and the government did little more than turn a blind eye to their situation. About the only thing that the society could expect in terms of assistance was a little bit of free grain and free tickets to an occasional arena even — “bread and circuses.”
I am trusting that this description sounds fairly familiar, but I am not talking about our own society, but am instead talking about the first century Roman empire. For the elite, it was a comfortable time in history: there was art, culture, relative order in the empire, abundant access to wealth, and there was rule of law to keep the “rabble” in their place. For the poor, it was a life of hard labor, starvation, and death. The bread was meant to keep the poor working and the tickets to the games was meant to keep the poor from revolting — the ancient precursor to television, one might argue. And it is into this world that God chose to send his Son, taking on flesh and living not amongst the rich, but amongst the poor.
It has been said that compassion is a character trait that is learned, not one that is natural to us. Our default is typically to take care of “ol’ number one” first and others second. If that is the case, and I think that there is merit to the idea, then the ultimate teacher of compassion is God himself. In both Hebrew and Greek, the same word is used to describe both compassion and mercy, and that is what God was doing when he sent his Son to come into this world, to live amongst us, and to die to atone for our sins.
But the question of compassion must not end with the compassion of God. We need to ask the question as to whether or not we have learned compassion from His example. You see, compassion cannot be modeled by the pagan gods, which are made of wood and stone — they neither move nor see nor hear, so how can they extend compassion to any? Compassion cannot be modeled by the gods of nature, for nature is cruel and only the strong survive. And compassion is not modeled by the god of the atheist, for their god is their own mind and reason, thus any action taken will be self-serving. If the God of Christianity, then, has modeled compassion to us, shouldn’t then we who have received the compassion of God also be the most compassionate people in the world?
In ancient Rome, that became the case. One of the first things that Christians did in ancient Rome was to establish hospitals that welcomed all, rich and poor. These hospitals were staffed with doctors, pharmacists, teachers for the children, caretakers for orphans, nurses, people to care for lepers, surgeons, cooks, priests, laundry women, and pallbearers. Never in the history of the world had such institutions been established and the Roman elites looked at the Christians and just did not understand why believers were doing what believers were doing. And Christianity thrived even in an empire where professing Christians were persecuted and sentenced to death within those circuses that everyone attended.
Something has happened though. Today, it would seem, Christians are often seen as self-serving and insulated from the pain and misery of the world around them. Pagans no longer shake their heads in disbelief at the compassion we are willing to show to the poor and suffering, but describe Christians as being just as “self-seeking” as the next group of people.
So what is the solution? The solution is not to win more political elections and gain power to enact laws to protect the “Christian way of life.” Such laws are not bad, but legislation cannot transform a culture. The early Christians turned Rome inside out without ever getting a seat in the Roman Senate. The early Christians turned Rome on its head by sacrifice and compassion for those in need. If we, as modern Christians, desire to see America turned on its head, this is the model that God himself has set for us — radical compassion, grace, and mercy. Such is what God demonstrated when he sent Christ to us as a baby in that manger and such is the kind of compassion that we ought to emulate as we live our lives amongst a people who reject the truth for which we stand.