In the past few years, attention has been drawn repeatedly to the plight of the people in Africa. Newspapers have reported how famine, war, and debt are threatening the lives of hundreds of million people there. In Somalia, the situation was so severe that relief workers rounded numbers of the dead to the nearest 10,000. 1.5 million of the country's estimated 6 million faced imminent starvation. Drought and disease have plagued the continent, leaving behind devastation.
But Africa is only one example. In the floods that swept Pakistan in September 1992, at least 2,500 people were drowned. This natural disaster, one of the worst in 45 years, destroyed innumerable villages, food crops and livestock, and left tens of thousands homeless. Relief organizations had to airlift food and subsistence for these victims.
To us, these crises may seem far removed from our every day life. So many have occurred in recent years that we have come to accept them as nothing more than just another piece of news, another set of statistics to support the view that the Lord's second coming is near. Besides, places like Africa and Pakistan are like a world apart from those of us living in stable, affluent societies. However, poverty, homelessness and deprivation exist even in our own backyards.
As Christians, do we have an obligation to alleviate the suffering of our fellow human beings? Indeed, our hearts may be moved when we are confronted with malnourished faces staring hauntingly at us from our television screens. And we feel sorry for the homeless that wander around in our cities begging and living in cardboard boxes for protection at night. But are such expressions of sympathy on our part sufficient? Doesn't God expect us to do more?
There are children rejected by their parents, elderly men and women forgotten by their families, people who through no fault of their own have found themselves jobless and even homeless. Such human suffering and social deprivation exists all around us, if only we take the time to look.
As part of His divine plan, God incarnated into the human plane some two thousand years ago to open a way for humanity to return to Him. He achieved this through the blood He shed on the cross. When a person confesses his sins, repents, and receives baptism in the mode as prescribed by the Bible, he will have the living hope of eternal life. Yet more than this, while Jesus was in this world, He also led an exemplary life for all future generations to emulate. If we are to follow Him, we have to walk the way He did (Jn 12:26). In order to search for a Christian answer for the questions posed above, we have to return to the Scripture.
During His brief ministry, the Lord Jesus traveled through the land of Palestine, from Galilee in the north to Judea in the south. Along His journeys, He encountered many lost souls who, deprived of God, were wandering aimlessly through life. Accordingly, He preached to them about the kingdom of God (Mt 4:17) and the need to repent and be reconciled once again with God. But Jesus did not preach this message in oblivion of everything else. He also catered to the physical well-being of those around Him. As the Scripture testifies, He performed miracles of food to feed the crowd (Mt 14:13-21; 15:32-38), and miracles of healing to relieve human suffering (Mt 4:23-24; 15:30). The author of Matthew aptly summarizes the Lord's ministry as one of preaching and healing (Mt 4:23; 9:35).
What is more, the message of salvation and the miracles were not confined to the Jews. Jesus' disciples had to "go and make disciples of all nations" (Mt 28:19). In the last days, men "will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit down in the kingdom of God" (Lk 13:29). Just as the message of salvation was universal, so were the miracles. As He fed the four thousand, He did not instruct His disciples to distribute only to His own people. All who were present received a share of this providential care (Mt 15:29-38). In Capernaum, He did not turn down the request of the centurion to heal his servant (Mt 8:5-13). And once traveling along the border between Samaria and Galilee, He healed ten lepers, one of whom was a Samaritan, a member of a community which did not associate with the Jews (Lk 17:11-19; Jn 4:9).
In many instances, the Lord Jesus' actions were prompted by His compassion. Time and time again, the Gospel writers attested to this fact. When He saw the widow of Nain mourning for her son's death, Luke states that Jesus "had compassion on her" and resurrected her son (Lk 7:13). The author of Mark relates that during the early days of His ministry, a leper approached Jesus for healing, and his request was granted because Jesus was "moved with pity" for him (Mk 1:40-41). Once, as Jesus was leaving Jericho, two blind men sitting by the roadside heard Him passing and cried out for help. Matthew records that Jesus "in pity" healed them (Mt 20:29-34). Even the feeding of the four thousand was an act of compassion. When Jesus saw how the crowds continued to stay with Him, He admitted to His disciples that He had compassion for the crowd and was unwilling to send them away on empty stomachs. As they had been with Him for three days, He feared that they might faint along their journey home (Mt 15:32-39).
As previously illustrated, Jesus cared for his fellowmen and did what He could for them. And in this respect, the greatest deed He undertook was the giving of His life in exchange for their souls. Deeply moved by this gesture, the apostle Paul confessed that the reason he lived a God-centered life was that Jesus, the Son of God, loved him and gave Himself for him (Gal 2:20). Today, it is through this gift of God that we have the hope of eternal life, and which enables us to lead a meaningful existence in this often incomprehensible world. As we meditate on this saving grace, we also have to remember that we, as His followers, have to emulate Him, and practice charity as part of our Christian living.
Indeed, the Lord Jesus has taught us the essence of giving, that such acts should be prompted by our hearts. After all, Christianity is a religion of the heart, of faith built upon inner conviction. It involves knowing whom and what we believe in, and manifesting this belief through our speech and our conduct. In this manner, we can testify to the world that we are the followers of the One who came to bring hope to a world without hope. So it should be that from our innermost being, the compassion in us is to be externalized into actions. Only then will we be able to give to humanity whatever is within our ability, not because we have to, but because we want to.
Jesus has shown us that compassion itself is insufficient. He not only had compassion for the needy, but actually helped them. As He traveled, He saw the human miseries that touched His kind and tender nature. And He did what He could to remove the pain and suffering. As His followers, we have to turn our feelings of compassion and sympathy into actions to find ways of helping and giving. After all, it is very easy to feel for those who are less fortunate but it takes courage to actively help them. Just consider, how many times have we stopped short of contributing to some worthwhile charity? Perhaps we were just about to write a check for a good cause, but we stopped when we thought of the financial loss to us. Or perhaps we had joined a task force to care for the homeless, but pulled out when we realized the demand on our time.
Another touching feature in the Lord Jesus' acts is in the way He gave without condition. He did not select the recipients of His care. The crowd, irrespective of gender and creed, received His grace. As His followers, this point is important. We are to extend our charity, without bias, to all who are in need, just as our heavenly Father gives sunshine and rain to both the righteous as well as the unrighteous (Mt 5:45).
As Christians, we are still part of society. While we have to be vigilant and not be influenced by society's decadence and falling morals, we cannot segregate ourselves. The Lord Jesus wants us to be the "light of the world"; to set good examples such that others can see Him in us. We can only achieve this through social interaction with them. Therefore, let us not isolate ourselves, but instead strive to increase our awareness of society's needs. We should not only be concerned for their spiritual welfare, but also their daily well-being. While we do not wish to give to the extent where our focus shifts from the spiritual to the social, we must not let a lack of caring make our preaching hypocritical (Is 2:14-16). And when we do take a closer look at the world around us, we will see the depressed, the homeless, the handicapped, the abused, the poor...the list is endless. How can we not care and help? The time has come for us to reassess the meaning of following in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus. He had a compassionate and caring nature, led a life of giving, and contributed to the society of His day. Have we really emulated Him?
The Christian faith is a dynamic faith, one which constantly breaks new ground and soars to new heights. As we learn more about the God we believe in and His expectations of us, let us search our hearts and reappraise our values. Let us take the opportunity while we still can and lend a helping hand to neighbors less fortunate than us and show them that we care. Let us not turn a blind eye at the miseries of this world. Christians, like their kind and compassionate Master, have to live up to the axiom: "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35).