Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 9:36a “But when he saw the multitudes,. . .”
Jesus had ample opportunity to analyze people’s true condition because He was out with them. It is easy to cloister ourselves at home in front of computers or entertainment centers and then say to ourselves the world is not a bad place to live.
If we wear enough blinders, we can hide suffering from our view. But if we walk outside our self-made paradises, we won’t have to go far to find suffering.
Jesus not only allowed His eye to go where it could see suffering. He was also willing to let His eye affect His heart. Even if we overcome the hurdle of staying in our ivory towers, it remains possible to be unmoved by what we see.
When we look at the multitudes, what we see tells us more about ourselves than about the crowd. Some view people with apathy. “Who cares? Whatever.” All sense of feeling died long ago. This tells us the onlookers’ hearts are callused.
Some look with contempt. “Leave people to their just desserts. Let them reap what they sow. They made their own bed hard, let them sleep on it.” This perspective tells us the observers’ hearts are filled with pompous pride.
Some view the masses with anger. “People need to get a grip and straighten up.” Will we ever cease being mad at lost people for acting like lost people? This attitude tells us the viewers’ hearts are filled with bitterness.
Some look with despair. “It’s hopeless, we might as well give up, the job is too daunting.” This is the vantage point I struggle with most. Sometimes I look, and the gaze almost crushes me. This tells us our hearts are faint, faith is waning.
All these vantage points leave the spectator with a skewed perspective on the multitudes. Jesus taught us the proper way to look upon the masses.
Matt. 9:36b “. . .he was moved with compassion on them,. . .”
No apathy, no contempt, no anger, no despair–just compassion. The word, based on the Greek term for bowels, referred to an emotion that moved one to the deepest depths of their being. Jesus saw the crowds, and felt an ache in His gut.
Strong emotions can painfully wrench a stomach. I inherited this trait from my mother’s side of the family. When stressed, the right side of my stomach hurts, even to the extent it is painful to have a cell phone on my belt rubbing against it.
Mental strain can become so intense that the pain has to spill over to the physical. To release pressure, the body sometimes has to come to the aid of the mind, and help bear some of the hurt. This happened to Jesus here. Pondering the crowd’s plight, He suddenly experienced a burning passion He felt in His body.
Later, as He beheld Jerusalem, His gentle heart heaved until His emotions burst forth in tears (LK 19:41). In Gethsemane, His agony grew so intense “His sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (LK 22:44).
Jesus truly was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (IS 53:3), not only due to His own personal trials, but also because He bore “our griefs, and carried our sorrows” (IS 53:4). He absorbed our hurt into Himself. Jesus suffered our suffering. The cross existed in Jesus’ heart before it was erected on Calvary.
Never doubt His love for each of us individually. If we ever doubt, remember He viewed a crowd of sinners like us and was moved to His innermost being.
Nothing in these people made them worthy of salvation. Jesus overlooked this obvious fact and viewed them instead as needy of salvation. If we respond to prechristians with contempt or anger, a red flag should go up, and bells and whistles should start sounding out a signal of alarm, for it means we are thinking of the lost not as being needy of salvation, but as needing to act worthy of salvation.
If a sinister temptation to think this way begins to creep over us, glance away from the disappointing acts of people and stare into Jesus’ eye. Look until you are able to see the tear that ever lingers in the corner of His eye for the lost.
The driving force in the evangelism and missions enterprise is not the merits of the lost–they have none–but rather the unlimited and undeserved grace of God that longs to meet the needs of the lost. In His heart aflame and tear-filled eyes we see “the birthplace of everything that makes for the uplifting of man” (Morgan).
We may not feel strongly about prechristians, but Jesus does. Herein we find an adequate motivation for trying to find the lost: God cares. Go because Jesus loves them. Even if we feel nothing, if our hearts are hard as stone, we still need to go to the hurting from a sense of duty, to please Christ who loves them.
By setting in context this momentary rush of emotion that overwhelmed Jesus, two observations may help us better understand the relationship between emotion and duty. First, emotion helped prompt Jesus to do His duty. After this burst of woe, Jesus commanded His followers to pray (9:38) and commissioned twelve disciples to help in His labors (10:1). Jesus let pain spur Him to act. He not only hurt over people’s plight. He did something about it, and set in place a remedy.
I’ve warned us before, and do so again, beware the danger of letting emotion substitute for doing. Feeling can become an artificial high on its own.
A whole life can be lost being content with good intentions. Don’t let feelings “be blown off as waste steam and allowed to vanish into the air” (Maclaren).
Each time we are deeply moved for others, and do nothing, it is harder to respond the next time. Let emotions drive the piston of good works and kind deeds.
Second, doing His duty helped prompt Jesus’ emotions. Before this emotional experience, Jesus was already doing His duty by going, teaching, preaching, and healing (9:35). Emotions are a product, as well as a producer, of duty. A burden for others is often a reward God gives us for answering His call to help others.
Strong feelings can be more helpful after we begin our duty than before we start it. Emotions are fickle motivators. We err if we try to spur people to action solely on emotions. The best emotions are those God grants as compensation for service already underway. Feelings fuel a passion making it easier to do our duty.
Fervor makes us feel what we are doing matters, and thus multiplies energy while we are doing our duty. Passion fills life with a sense of purpose, and drives away boredom. After we begin the errand, emotions propel us forward and soften the task by helping make every moment of hard labor feel worthwhile, not wasted.
Many believers are going to miss the thrill of a lifetime due to waiting for some emotional charge to jump-start them into fulfilling the Great Commission. I am on a missions joy-ride, but first started out by kicking and fighting against it.
If you feel no impelling drive to try to win the lost, do your duty anyway. Do something constructive, leave a tract, invite someone to church, be part of a church-wide service project, go on a mission trip, etc. Obey God. Joy will follow.
The relationship between emotions and duty is an ongoing struggle. Often they comfortably and rightly intertwine. As we do our duty, a cluster of pleasures rises around it. Our emotions become comfortable, contented in doing our duty.
But God inevitably calls us to a new duty, one located outside our current cluster of pleasures. He calls us to leave our comfort zone. This strains our emotions. It is hard to leave existing pleasures in order to fulfill a new duty, but when we do, a whole new and better cluster of pleasures rises around this fresh duty.
Was Abraham pleasing God while living in Ur? Yes, but a new duty called, and he had to find a new cluster of pleasures to gratify his emotions. Was Moses spiritually okay on the back side of the desert? Was Daniel pleasing to God before entering a lion’s den? Was Paul satisfying Jesus before leaving on the missionary journeys? Yes, but each of these men had to leave his current pleasures clustered round a duty in order to find a new and finer set of joys centered round a new duty.
I offer two prayers for you, my beloved people. God grant you enough emotion to make you want to do your duty. God grant you emotion after you begin to do your duty. Wonder loses its luster, admiration finally wanes, and adventure eventually loses its thrill, but God’s passion grows within us by the doing.