Fractal Compassion

From the biggest picture to the smallest interaction

Matthew 9:35-36

Math Class!

Okay, so you take a triangle, like so. 20150816sermon_Page_01A simple equilateral triangle.

Now you connect the midpoints of the sides to divide it into three triangles that are ½ as big. (There really are four, plus the original one, but it looks like three.)

20150816sermon_Page_02  20150816sermon_Page_03

Now you take each of the three, and you divide them. You have nine triangles, each the 1/4 the size of our original.

20150816sermon_Page_04 20150816sermon_Page_05

Do it again! Now you have 27 triangles, each 1/8 the size of the original. You can
keep on doing this, and the patterns are not the same, but they are similar, on a smaller and smaller scale.

20150816sermon_Page_06 20150816sermon_Page_07

This is one of the simplest illustrations of the concept of fractal geometry, which you may have heard of, and which has all sorts of useful applications in the real world. Some very simple rules (like “connect the midpoints of a triangle”) can result in some very complex and beautiful patterns.

20150816sermon_Page_09  20150816sermon_Page_10

20150816sermon_Page_11  20150816sermon_Page_12

(Don’t worry, this is not a TED talk, there’s a sermon in here somewhere.)

It also turns out that fractals give us a good way to understand

20150816sermon_Page_13 the irregular shapes of galaxies, and

20150816sermon_Page_14 granite, and

20150816sermon_Page_15 ferns, and

20150816sermon_Page_16 rivers, and

20150816sermon_Page_17 shale, and

20150816sermon_Page_18 cauliflower. Fractal shapes are said to be “self-similar,” meaning that as you zoom in closer and closer you continue to see the same patterns even though they are smaller and smaller.


I think we may find that to be a useful idea today, as we look at Matthew 8 and 9, and consider Jesus’ “Fractal Compassion” — as we look (on a large scale) at what we have been reviewing (on a small scale) in our Adult Bible Study in the first hour.

We will see that the way Jesus dealt with individuals is similar to the way he deals with humanity and it is also similar to the way that he deals with each of us today.

Jesus is the perfect model of compassion, from the smallest interaction to the biggest picture.

Let’s pray.

* * *

I invite you to turn to the book of Matthew, chapter 9, verse 35:

935And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus is in the early part of his ministry in about AD 30. Matthew has previously described a number of encounters which Jesus has had with individuals and crowds, in and around the large lake in the north of Israel which is called the Sea of Tiberius, or the Sea of Galilee.

What has Jesus been doing?  He has been teaching, and proclaiming and healing.

The text says that he had been teaching in the synagogues — remember that after the people of Israel and Judah had been taken into captivity, first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians, they had to meet to pray and read the Torah, and the places they met for this were called synagogues. Ten men, a minyan, were necessary for a meeting.

Certainly in the north, far from Jerusalem and the Temple, the synagogues would have been the places where believing Jews, men and women, would have gathered. In many ways, the synagogues were like our churches. The Temple, with its sacrifices, was very different.

Jesus has been teaching in the synagogues.

And even outside the synagogues, Matthew says that Jesus has been proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of Messiah. We read the Sermon on the Mount back in chapters 5-7. Jesus has been saying amazing things, disrupting their ideas about how God works and what he expects.

He has been proclaiming the Kingdom of Messiah.

Jesus had continued this teaching and proclaiming in chapters 8 and 9, explaining some very hard truths about what it would mean to follow Messiah:

•Jesus told some who wished to be his disciples that to follow him would be to give up all comfort and certainty.

•Jesus has explained that he is not calling righteous people, but sinful people.

•He has explained that God is changing the way he is working in the world. No longer will God focus his work on the nation of Israel alone, because it is time to fulfill the promise that through the descendants of Abraham all nation on the earth will be blessed.

And Jesus has been healing all kinds of diseases and afflictions. Matthew feels like it is enough to give a summary in 9:35, because as we have been studying in the first hour, Matthew has just recounted numerous stories of Jesus interacting with people who had diseases and afflictions:

He had told of three instances in which Jesus healed people who were
outside the male religious establishment — a leper (whose skin disease made him ceremonially unclean), a Gentile’s servant who was paralyzed (and who was outside the nation of Israel), and a Jewish woman (who was sick with fever).

And Jesus had healed a woman with a chronic illness (which left her excluded from normal society), he had healed a little girl who had died, he had healed two blind men, and he had healed a man who was mute because of demon possession.

It was not just physical disease which Jesus healed.

Matthew had described the fear the disciples had experienced in the storm and the possession the Gaderenes had experienced and the guilt of sin he had relieved for the paralytic.

Jesus had resolved each of these afflictions.

Matthew feels like it is enough to give a summary in verse 35 (“healing every disease and every affliction”), because he has just told the stories of many individual people who had diseases and afflictions when they encountered Jesus.

Then in verse 36, he comes to the point of the passage, and the focus of our study today:

936 When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus looks out on the crowds of people, and the translations say he had “compassion,” for them.

What is this word “compassion”?

It is a harder word than you might have expected. It is hard to say: “splangkh-nid´-zom-ai” and it is hard to understand. It is a word which comes from the Greek word for “intestines,” and when a person’s intestines are spilled out, the noun form of this word is used. It is a metaphor for deep feeling.

This is common in many languages — to use references to the internal organs as metaphors for deep emotions — we tell people the have to have “heart” when we mean we want them to be confident, or that they need “guts” when what they need is courage, or even that they need “brains,” when what we really mean is that they need to concentrate their minds on the task at hand. They already have the internal parts, what we are saying is that they need confidence, courage or concentration. Think of The Wizard of Oz.

Here Matthew says that Jesus is deeply moved when he looks out on the crowds. He feels sympathy or pity or compassion for these people. He doesn’t just feel sorry for them, he is deeply moved with compassion. But why exactly?

Matthew explains: “they were harassed and helpless.”

First they were “harassed” — other translations say “bewildered,” “weary,” “troubled,” “distressed,” or “confused.” The idea is that the crowds are bullied and oppressed.  They are bullied by the Romans, they are oppressed by the religious establishment, and they are harassed by hostile spiritual forces.

Second, they were “helpless,” or “dispirited,” or “aimless,” — the root is “thrown down.” They are in distress because they are pushed down, thrown down and helpless.

Maybe that’s someone you know.  Maybe that’s you.

Jesus looks at the crowd and sees that they are bullied and that they are helpless. Actually, many of the individual people that he had encountered in the last two chapters had been bullied or helpless.

And Matthew further explains the reason for Jesus’ compassion: they were harassed and helpless because they were like “sheep without a shepherd.”

What an image! We get it, even though we are not really “sheep people.” (We say “are you a cat person or a dog person?” “Yeah, no, I’m really more of a cow person.”)

But this communicates to us — Jesus sees the crowd as “harassed and helpless.” Imagine someone poking some sheep with a stick, it’s not likely that the sheep would be able to retaliate. (You wouldn’t try it with a grizzly bear, though.) Sheep need to be taken care of, so “sheep without a shepherd” is a picture of vulnerability.

This is a common image in the Old Testament, sheep who need the protection of the shepherd. Sometimes the shepherd is God, sometimes the shepherd is Messiah, so that in Ezekiel:

3420 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, 22I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep. 23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken.

So the flock of sheep belongs to Yahweh, the Lord God, and “his servant David” — that is, the Messiah, because the first David is long gone — will “be their shepherd.”

Matthew has been showing us Jesus as the Messiah of God and now he tells us

936 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

This Jesus is God’s Messiah, his Prince and his Shepherd.

This Jesus had compassion for individuals, the crowd, the world.

However, I would not be telling the whole truth if I left you with the idea that the compassion which Jesus has been showing was a sort of overarching niceness. Jesus is compassionate, but sometimes he is pretty hard on people:

818 Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side [of the lake]. 19 And a scribe came up and said to him, Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go. 20 And Jesus said to him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. 21 Another of the disciples said to him, Lord, let me first go and bury my father. 22 And Jesus said to him, Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.

That might have been what they needed to hear, but it wasn’t exactly nice.

Jesus calls his own disciples “little-faith” people, which is rough on these guys who have left everything to follow him.  People beg him to leave their towns.  He’s pretty harsh when he says to the Pharisees “Maybe you should try to figure out what it means when God says ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'”

He always shows compassion, but compassion doesn’t always seem nice.

* * *

When we read the gospels, we see Jesus, who is God incarnate — meaning “God in the flesh.” We see what God looks like as a human being. What we see as much as anything is a man of compassion.

C.H. Spurgeon said:

If you would sum up the whole character of Christ in reference to ourselves, it might be gathered into this one sentence, “He was moved with compassion.”

* * *

Let Bethlehem tell that he had compassion . . . . [I]n the incarnation, he had compassion, for he took upon himself our infirmities, and was made like unto ourselves.

C.H. Spurgeon, “The Compassion of Jesus” (No. 3438) (Dec. 24, 1914) (

And the details we have seen in the interactions that Jesus has had with individuals, that’s one level of the fractal. One level of the picture of compassion.

Then when Matthew describes his reaction to the crowds “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd,” that’s a second level of the fractal.

The gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion show another level, the depth of his fractal compassion for those he came to save.

We see the same thing at every level.

There’s more. The whole story of the Bible is the story of the compassion of God.

Faced with the dilemma of human rebellion, the Father chose to redeem what was marred, not just erase it. The Son chose to be “God in the flesh.” Jesus chose to lay aside “his immunity to pain” in order to be the sacrifice for my sin.

His compassion led him to take up my pain, and yours.

John Stott says it well:

I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world.  But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his.

John Stott, Through the Bible through the Year 269.

The compassion of Jesus is like the compassion of God — but up close and human. That’s what Matthew and the other gospel writers are showing us.

There’s still more, though.

The word for compassion is used in other parts of the New Testament:

Paul told the Philippian believers that he yearned for them “with the compassion of Christ Jesus.” Philippians 1:8. John wrote “whoever has the world’s possessions and sees his fellow Christian in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person?” 1 John 3:17.

You and I are called to show the compassion of Christ to a world that is “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

That’s my job, and yours.

From the biggest picture to the smallest interaction, God calls us to compassion.

He calls us to show compassion like Jesus.

What does that look like?

It looks different for every person you meet.

But it always looks like crucifixion.

It looks like Jesus.

Let us pray . . . .

August 16, 2015

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