READ: Psalm 33, Isaiah 58-60, Matthew 5, Acts 12 

INSTITUTIONAL COMPASSION

God has a habit of asking us to do impossible things, things that are not natural to us, things like turning the other cheek, giving generously to the one suing us, walking an extra mile for the sake of the oppressor, giving to all who ask us, being perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:38-48). What God asks of us is only possible through a new nature, a nature given by God’s Spirit, a nature that partakes of the divine. It is not in the human constitution to consistently be like God. We handle the discrepancy between God’s expectations and our human capacity by diluting the request down to a manageable level.

Take compassion and justice as an example. We can handle a cause. We can handle organizing justice into a march, a monthly donation, or a two-week trip to Haiti. We can manage compassion by sponsoring an orphan, sending used clothes to Africa, or dropping some coins in the countertop charity box. We can write articles and give speeches for the grander causes and then satisfied, retreat to the comfort and cleanliness of our protected suburban lives. But this is not doing the impossible, and God–even when justice and compassion are concerned, especially when justice and compassion are concerned–still desires the impossible.

Isaiah 58 instructs us to “loose the bonds of wickedness, undo the heavy burdens, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke, share bread with the hungry, cover the naked, and bring into our house the poor who are cast out” (vv. 6-7). We have selectively interpreted these injunctions at the corporate, macro level. We love institutional compassion; it lifts a load of guilt off our shoulders and makes us proud of how benevolent we are.

But Isaiah was writing to individuals. Macro justice and compassion can only be sustained if it is built on a million applications on the micro level. We are not to buy the homeless man a sandwich, pat him on the back, and leave him to his park bench–we are to bring him into our house. We are to get close and personal with poverty and injustice, leave our ivory palace, give up our majesty, and follow Jesus to live right in the inner city–or invite the inner city right into our guest room. Compassion and justice are most beautiful at the personal micro level and most distorted at the public, institutional macro level. Impossible justice and compassion is what is required of us, not the halfway step of institutional benevolence.

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