Compassion, Not Charitable Condescension

Happy Moltmann Monday! I’m going to share yet another gem from The Way of Jesus Christ, this one from his section on Jesus as the messianic person:

According to the Gospel of Mark, there was originally a particularly close relationship between Jesus and the people…Wherever Jesus goes in Galilee, the poor who have been reduced to misery gather round him. He teaches them. They bring him their sick. He heals them. They move about with him. The distress of the people awakens in him the divine compassion. His call to discipleship is directed to ‘the multitude with his disciples’ (Mark 8:34). The ‘multitude’ are the poor, the homeless, the ‘non-persons’. They have no identity, no voice, no power and no representative…This is the way the ruling class define people in the mass, shutting them out into a social no-man’s-land…

Jesus’ solidarity with these people has a certain universalism which takes in all the poor who have been reduced to misery. Jesus takes as his family ‘the damned of this earth’, to use F. Fanon’s expression, and discovers among them the dawning future of the kingdom and God’s new creation. His ‘compassion’ is not charitable condescension. It is the form which the divine justice takes in an unjust world. These ‘last’ will be ‘first’. Jesus does not merely go to the people in the name of God. He is actually their representative, just as the people represent him. He is one of theirs, and they are the least of his brothers and sisters (Matt. 25:40).

There are so many bad ways to be charitable. Well, the worst way is of course not trying at all. But in our attempts to be just people, in our desire to bridge the gaps between us as humans, we can go about it in a lot of different ways, and some of them are less helpful than others. The primary charitable condescension sin of Americans is of course the knight in shining armor routine where we swoop in with money and a smile and expect our recipients to overflow with gratefulness (never mind that we are the benefactors in a system that has put them in need in the first place). The second one is the “Oh, but I didn’t help them- they are helping me” sentiment which often follows. That one is precarious because it puts even a bigger burden on the poor, for in addition to being classified as “other” and marginalized in society they also now must be the humble, virtuous exemplars who “save” the materialistic rich benefactor by offering perspective and Dickensian idealism.

Here is the way out of all of that mess: to know, and to know deeply, what Moltmann is reminding us about the person of Jesus. Jesus is not one who had an air of charitable condescension- EVER. This from the human who was God, come to save us all. Ergo, we really have no excuse- none whatsoever, not even Bill Gates who has one bajillion dollars with which he can do good things for others- to serve others with an air of condescension. Let’s be honest- we really have nothing to offer people in comparison, you guys.  So. That’s the end of that notion.

That being said, we ARE invited into something much better than weird hand-out hierarchies. We are invited to participate in the community of God. And when we enter into that community, what we find is Jesus, who did not just go to those on the margins of society, but is actually their representative, JUST AS (and this part is key) the people represent him.

Many, many Christians have such a hard time with that “just as.” We can squirm around that fifteen ways to Sunday because it just seems so crazy to claim. But this is the beauty  of Jesus. He does not only represent God to us, and he does not only represent perfect humanity to us; he also allows our humanity to represent him. Those on the margins of society, those whose voices have been silenced or muffled or forgotten? He is their representative as he moves us toward God’s just Reign. But they are also representatives of Jesus. 

ie…Whenever you do this to the least of these, you do it to me.

That’s compassion. That’s divine justice. That’s solidarity. That’s brotherliness and sisterliness. What it isn’t- what it never was and never will be- is charitable condescension.

As we move into a season of giving, we have opportunities all around us to give, to share, to serve. And we should take as many of those opportunities as we can. When we do, though, how beautiful would it be if we could remember our shared humanity, which Jesus came to represent to us, and which he has called us to represent to one another?


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