The concern of John Wesley (1703–1791) and William Wilberforce (1759–1833) for the poor and oppressed is a good reminder of how the church today should continue to help the poor, just as Jesus himself did.
But it is also important to note one thing: Wesley and Wilberforce not only sought to help people who were needy and suffering, but also spoke out and campaigned against the systems that allowed child labour, slavery and alcoholism to flourish.
In doing so, they were acting to bring justice and righteousness to the world. Likewise, the church is not only to bring relief to individuals and families, but also to speak out against systems that produce such victims.
This is where a church may need to distinguish between compassion and justice. The first involves feeling for those who suffer, empathising with them and responding in a way that would effectively meet their needs. The second has to do with right and fair relationships; it involves ensuring that people are not abused or oppressed.
A story is often told to illustrate the difference. A man walks by a river and notices a man drowning in the water. He jumps in and rescues him, and is trying to catch his breath when he sees another man drowning in the river. Gathering his strength, the man again plunges into the river and rescues the second man. By now he is very tired. To his great dismay, however, he sees a third man drowning. Totally spent, he is unable to rescue a drowning man for the third time.
The rescuer had responded to the drowning men with compassion. Out of deep concern, he took action to rescue the first two, but did not have the strength to save the third.
If the rescuer had gone up the river, however, he would have seen another man throwing others into the river. The rescuer would then have been able to take action to stop the cruel man, saving many more lives.
What the rescuer did down the river can be described as compassion; what he could have done up the river has to do with justice.
However, we must not draw the line between compassion and justice too finely. Justice must be grounded in compassion, while compassion should lead us to address the primary causes of a problem and not just alleviate its symptoms. The two are intimately connected.
God’s instructions to the Israelites to release indentured workers and return land to their owners in the year of Jubilee were rooted in compassion as well as justice. These actions not only ensured that the poor were provided for, but they also expressed God’s justice in bringing about freedom, redemption and restoration of His people.
In what ways does your church community live out Jesus’ compassion and justice in society?
Excerpted and adapted from Jesus Our Jubilee by Robert Solomon. © 2015 by Robert Solomon. Used by permission of Discovery House. All rights reserved.
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