Works of Mercy: Compassion & Justice
By Steve Manskar
A rule of life helps congregations live out their mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I recommend congregations adopt the General Rule of Discipleship as their rule of life:
To witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
This post is part two in a series in which I "unpack" the General Rule of Discipleship.
Christians witness to Jesus Christ in the world by following his teachings. Jesus tells his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 & 15:14). The General Rule of Discipleship serves as a compass heading to guide Christians in their obedience to Jesus’ teachings.
Jesus summarized his teachings in his two great commandments:
He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’ (Matthew 22:37-40).
We are able to respond to God because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). God’s love is revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. We see what love looks like in Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, forgiving, and proclaiming the reign of God that is breaking out in the world, and is coming. He teaches his disciples how to love by inviting them to do what he did. Love as practiced by Jesus is much more than passionate affection for a lover or friend. Jesus’ way of love is more about virtue than passion. By this I mean love governs your thinking and behavior toward God and his justice, mercy, and truth.
Works of Mercy: Acts of Compassion & Justice
If you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind then you must love who and what God loves. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). And “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12-14). Jesus calls and equips his followers to live as people who love. Their love for God is revealed in the ways they love who God loves: people who are poor, hungry, sick, prisoners, homeless, strangers, outcasts, lonely, and hopeless. Followers of Jesus even love their enemies and people who persecute and defame them (Matthew 5:43-48). They can live this way because they know and experience God’s love in the love they give to one another who are sisters and brothers in Christ.
Charles Wesley expresses the relationship between loving God and loving who God loves in one of his hymns:
Touched by the lodestone of thy love,
Let all our hearts agree,
And ever toward each other move,
And ever move toward thee.
A “Lodestone” is a magnet. Wesley is saying that God’s love draws us to him like a magnet attracts pieces of metal. As we move closer to God we must necessarily move closer to our neighbors. The only way to get close to God is to be in relationships of justice, mercy, and truth with our neighbors. God teaches us how to love by giving us people who love us and teach us to obey Jesus’ commands to “lover your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) and “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34b-35).
“Works of mercy” are practices Jesus gave Christians to do as they follow his teachings. They are both personal and social. Acts of compassion are personal works of mercy. They are what you do with a person who needs help. When you meet someone who is hungry, give her something to eat. When someone’s loved one dies, you go and comfort him. When someone is a stranger in the congregation or your home you extend hospitality. These are examples of acts of compassion Jesus practiced and taught his disciples to imitate. They are simple kindness that shares God’s love through you.
Acts of justice are social works of mercy. They are performed by you and others united with the church and other institutions working for the common good. Jesus tells us to feed the hungry. He also expects us to ask why people are hungry and then to organize and act to address the causes of our neighbor’s hunger. Christians are commanded by Christ to care for the vulnerable, voiceless, and outcast by alleviating their suffering and to be the voices asking why. Followers of Jesus are charged with getting at the causes of our neighbor’s suffering. Write letters to elected representatives, call them on the telephone, sign petitions, march, protest, be a well-informed voter, and volunteer to serve on a social justice campaign (Bread for the World, Amnesty International, One, Red, GBCS, etc.).
John Wesley believed we meet Christ himself when you go to serve with, and get to know people who are suffering. When you get outside your comfort zone to spend time with Christ he opens your heart to grace. If you regularly serve with Christ, then he forms new, “holy,” habits in your heart: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
When you habitually obey Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself by practicing acts of compassion and justice his grace works in you; helping you to love like him and become more and more like Jesus. When people meet you through acts of compassion and justice they get a glimpse Jesus.