What is a Nazarene? We’re talking about three key words to define the rise of Nazarene people and churches. Last time I mentioned holiness, the transformative work of God’s grace for our Christlikeness here on earth. The second word might surprise you. It is “compassion.”
Compassion is a vital command God gives throughout the Bible. “Remember the poor” it says in Galatians 2:10. Since preaching through the 10 Commandments a few years ago, I’ve decided to call compassion an 11th commandment in the Bible. It undergirds some of those 10 prohibitions and commands, and also comes through the Old Testament prophets who declare that Israel would fall as a nation primarily because they committed injustice against the weak and did not care for the needy (Zecheriah 7:8-14; Isaiah 1 & Jeremiah 7 echoes this same judgment).
Jesus follows this up in his condemnation of the Pharisees and his restatement of pure religion as loving God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength (referring to Deuteronomy 6:5), and loving your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). This simple restatement gets up in our faces quickly when Jesus’ dialogue partner asks the loophole question: “Then who is my neighbor?” Shockingly, Jesus then tells a story of the hated, neighboring Samaritans—the needy Samaritan is your neighbor (Luke 10:25-37).
Is Jesus right? Is compassion central to biblical religion? Is it fundamental to Old Testament and New Testament ethics? And if so, does our life match up to this message?
Methodists and then the early Nazarenes felt that compassion was central to the Christian life. Following Jesus in word and deed, they saw it their duty to “preach the good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18 & 7:22). Phineas Bresee called his church “The Church of the Nazarene” to claim the identity of Jesus’ heritage of poverty as central to the Nazarene work. The full gospel was meant for every human being, especially the “needy.” When the denomination formed, it embraced the Nazarene name.
Nazarenes quickly found ways to give compassionate care to people in need. They started rescue missions for the homeless, orphanages for children, homes for unmarried mothers who had been kicked out of their families, healthcare work around the world, and other types of compassion. It would be impossible to guess its full measure. “Neglect of the poor” was as abhorrent to some of them as the institution of slavery! In an early issue of the Nazarene publication Herald of Holiness, B. F. Haynes credited labor unions with ending child labor and raising families up out of poverty (Timothy Smith, Called Unto Holiness, p318).
Years later, world wars, depressions, and the rising government assistant programs did much to change our American society. Many people felt the way some of those programs were set up and run enabled neediness rather than helping people out of neediness. “Poor” now means having less than others, and doesn’t carry the same weight as “needy.” How shall churches help the needy today?
There are still many poor people trapped in cycles of low-paid work and problems that insufficient income exacerbate. Gambling and other addictions can wreck incredible havoc in these situations. The church can help in a variety of ways, through education, networking, and financial help when necessary.
It’s also true that some of the neediest in our nation have no lack of money. Witness the rise of meth and illegally-used prescription drugs. And so many who run out of money while doing drugs are further ensnared by selling them to others. Other needs are invisible, such as loneliness, hurt, and some abuse. Jesus came to heal life’s hurts, and much of it He can do before Heaven.
What would Jesus do for the needy in Washington in 2016? This is a good question for us. Jesus calls to us: “Follow me.” In every way of life we are to follow him. He is the great provider for all our needs, and the Body of Christ is his chief instrument in the world for this work. “‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.’” (Luke 6:36)
I have witnessed much compassion here at ONC. I know of folks who give to the needy regularly, and see it in action through our Helping Hands ministry which meets every Thursday afternoon in our conference room. Our church hosts Celebrate Recovery, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the newly forming Narcotics Anonymous, all led by our folks. Through service projects, prayer, and special offerings we all work to alleviate the kinds of suffering that God never intended to be part of the human existence. But the work is not done.
Friends, keep the poor in mind! When the Spirit prompts you to help, do so without delay. If you see a problem that is bigger than you, let’s band together as the church to find a way we can solve it. And let us all remember that until Jesus comes again, the evil of human suffering will not only continue, but should continue to be fought in the power of the gospel of Jesus by his heart of compassion.