Author Greg Koukl
Published on 01/16/2023

Was Jesus Compassionate?

Greg and Amy answer a question about how we can reconcile Jesus’ seemingly harsh statements telling people to leave their families with the idea that he is compassionate.


Question: Luke 9:59–62. Jesus asked two people to follow him. One responds by asking to first bury his father and the second one wishes to say farewell to his family. Yet, Jesus responds very harshly to both. How can we reconcile this with Jesus being compassionate? Does he also value family bonds?

Greg: My first impulse here is to encourage people to quit thinking about Jesus being compassionate. It’s not that he’s not compassionate, but the concept of compassion in our current milieu—the way we think about things—has so much baggage that I think we inappropriately place upon Jesus. So, Jesus is compassionate. Wow. If he’s compassionate, how could he make such a severe demand? And the answer is, he’s not compassionate the way you think he’s compassionate or the way the modern culture thinks compassion ought to be expressed, and this is a huge problem, in my view, generally speaking. The culture, broadly, has domesticated Jesus. Jesus, meek and mild. What a difference between the Jesus of the New Testament and the God of the Old Testament!

Have you ever read Jesus? I just finished reading Matthew 23:24–25. Matthew 23 is filled with aggressive woes—like woe to you, woe to you. I noticed Jesus calls the Jews a brood of vipers, and then he talks about the temple coming down and being destroyed—this is in Matthew 24, the Olivet Discourse—and all of the things that will assail all these people. Then he tells the parable of the wedding, and those who are guests don’t come, so they go to the highways and byways and collect everybody—anybody. They bring them in, but then there’s somebody who’s not dressed properly, and so Jesus has him thrown out in outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. Okay. Wow. Where’s the compassion in that? What people do not understand is how severe Jesus of Nazareth is, and he is severe because he is the king of the kingdom, and he sees the world in a very different way than the rest of the culture sees it.

Now, just as a point of information, when the person in Luke 9 says, “Let me bury my father,” his father’s not laying there as a corpse on the table, and Jesus is not saying leave him right there. This man’s father is not dead yet. The phrase “let me bury my father” means “let me wait until my father dies, then I will be the head of the household, and then I will follow you, once my family moves on.” Now, as far as the other characterization is concerned, the second one wishes to say farewell to his family. “Another said, ‘I will follow you Lord, but first permit me to say goodbye to those at home.’ Jesus said, ‘No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’” Now, I can’t tell you about that phrase, because I don’t know. Keep in mind, by the way, that Peter followed Jesus, but Jesus spent time in Peter’s home. He healed Peter’s mother. So, they were moving from house to house of people they were involved with—families.

Something else is going on here that I think is akin to the first question. Notice what Jesus said. You want to put your hand to the plow. You don’t leave it again. That verse, that statement, that comment made by the man, taken at our parlance, makes Jesus’ response look severe. I think it had a different sense in that time. That’s my suspicion, because Jesus saw it as not keeping your hand on the plow. Now, Peter had his hand on the plow, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t go visit his sick mom. So, I don’t know how to weigh in on that so much except to just offer those thoughts, but I think the bigger problem is reading a personality into Jesus that is affected by modern sensibilities or current sensibilities and not by biblical sensibilities.

Jesus terrified some people. When he stilled the sea, he walked on the water, the disciples were terrified. Who is this man? They fell down and worshiped him. So, there are other occasions that are like this. He said very severe things, and this is what we have to understand Jesus as doing. We can’t mold him into our own character.

Amy: What I wanted to say about this is that when I think about someone looking back, the first thing that comes to mind for me is Lot’s wife. She looked back at the place where she was coming from rather than going to where God was taking her. So, that could be part of the imagery, here, that Jesus is invoking the idea of looking back. But it’s important to remember that it is compassionate if you’re defining “compassionate” in the right way, in the biblical way that’s informed by truth. It is compassionate for Jesus to call for people to put him first. Jesus is God. God calls us to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to not put anything or anyone else above him. So, when Jesus says that, when he puts this demand on people, this is totally understandable if he is God, and it’s compassionate because that is the way we are supposed to live.

I think about the rich young ruler. The interesting thing about the rich young ruler story is that Jesus says, in that same vicinity, the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. In that framework, along comes this rich young ruler, and he says, “What should I do?” He asked Jesus what he should do, and Jesus says follow the commandments, and then the commandments he lists are all the other commandments that have to do with us and other people. So, do not lie. Do not steal. He doesn’t even mention love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, soul, mind, and strength. So, then the rich young ruler says, “Well, I’ve done all these things.” And then Jesus says, “Ah, but, now, sell everything you have, give to the poor, and come follow me.” And what I think Jesus is doing there is stating the first commandment, which is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” And he was showing the rich young ruler that he did not do that. He loved his things more than God, more than Jesus. What he’s doing there is saying, “Follow me.” That is the most important thing. That is compassion. In fact, it says in there that Jesus loved him. He looked at him, and he loved him. It was out of love that he was saying, “I am above all else. I’m above all of your stuff. I’m above all of your family members. If I’m not in the proper place, then your life will not be right. You’ll not be right with God. You’ll not be right with other people.” Therefore, it is compassionate for Jesus to say, “Put me above all else.”