The Compassion of Jesus on the Way of the Cross

Way of the Cross, Jesus Christ passion
Photo by masterofmoments on Adobe Stock

In one of Charles Schulz’s classic Peanuts cartoons, Lucy, who is shown skipping rope, scoffs at Linus, saying, “You a doctor! Ha! That’s a big laugh! You could never be a doctor! You know why? Because you don’t love mankind, that’s why!” As Lucy skips away, Linus retorts, I love mankind…it’s people I can’t stand!”

Linus’s statement is actually a confession of many of us. It’s relatively easy to say that we love humanity in the abstract. It’s another story when it comes to dealing with the quirks and challenges, as well as the boasts and failures of the person right beside us. In a similar way, it is easy for the person doing “important good work” in the world to ignore the person in need along the road. Jesus even told a story about a priest and a temple official who passed by a beaten man on the way to doing their good deeds in the temple.

So, as we look at the final days of the earthly life of Jesus himself, it is helpful to examine his responses to all the people along the road to the cross. As Christians, we can readily affirm that Jesus had compassion on humanity as a whole when he walked into Jerusalem for his final week of human life. In the Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) we see how his love for all humanity is expressed. Such divine love leads him to engage in agonized prayer, to endure the mocking cries the crowds and the physical lashes of the soldiers, to be stripped naked in front of the emotionally charged mob, and to die a most agonizing death nailed to a cross. It takes all the spiritual energy that is given to him to hear the blatant lies, to suffer the cruel torture, and to stumble so much along the road that the cross itself had to be given to another to carry. Surely, it would be understandable for Jesus to just focus in on that monumental mission and zone out everything and everyone else.

Yet, as we read the Gospel accounts of Jesus on the way of the cross, we can also marvel at a man who does not just love all of humanity in the abstract. Even in the most extreme circumstances of human suffering imaginable, Jesus demonstrates a tender compassion toward specific persons whom he encounters on the way. The following reflections are just some of the examples of the very personal compassion of Jesus on the way of the cross.

Jesus’s compassion is shown first in the way he prepares himself spiritually for this most monumental mission. His self-preparation includes preparing those closest to him, the inner circle of disciples, both men and women. All along the way to Jerusalem, he Informs and prepares the disciples for what is in store. He does this even though he realizes that they do not comprehend much of what he says.

1When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, 2 "You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified."  Matthew 26:1-2 (NRSVue)

At Bethany, he accepts the devotion of a woman as both a gift of grace as well as a teaching moment for the men.

12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”     Matthew 26:12–13 (NRSVue)

Jesus then makes specific plans to eat a Passover meal as the last meal with this inner circle of disciples. During the meal, he engages in a lengthy teaching session as recorded in the Gospel of John, beginning with the powerful image of washing their feet in chapter 13 and concluding with a prayer for all of his disciples, present and future, in chapter 17.

Also at this meal, Matthew records these words:

31 Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of me this night, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ 32 “But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” Matthew 26:31–32 (NRSVue)

Jesus speaks not in a scolding way. He speaks out of sadness. He does not expect them to understand in the moment. Rather, he speaks so that afterward, they will look back and comprehend fully the meaning of these moments.

Finally, he takes three disciples with him as he fervently prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. Sadly, they not only don’t support him or comprehend the spiritual significance of the moment, but they don’t even stay awake with their Teacher.

In the next hours, Jesus reveals the specifics of his tender compassion toward both his closest friends and his fiercest enemies. It starts with this remarkable scene in the Garden as he concludes his prayer time.

47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people… 49 At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. 51 Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will die by the sword… Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.  Matthew 26:47-56 (NRSVue)

Notice that Jesus does not put up any resistance. He does not display any attitude of arrogant righteousness. He addresses the traitor, Judas, as “friend.” When his disciples clumsily try to defend him by striking a slave with a sword, Jesus commands that the sword be put away. Then he heals the wound of the slave who was struck. Jesus’s compassion extends even to those who betray him, arrest him, and hand him over to death.

From the Gospel of John, we learn that it was Peter who drew his sword and used it. Undoubtedly, he remembered how he had bragged at supper that he would not abandon his master. He probably also assumed that leading in the fight for the man he proclaimed the Messiah would bring on those legions of angels to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. Instead, Jesus firmly rebukes him as he had done at Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:13-23)

Peter is completely undone. He tries to stay with Jesus but at a safe distance in order not to jeopardize his own life. Jesus’s words about denial haunt Peter, and yet his instincts toward self-preservation overcome. Jesus had spoken in a gentle and informative way about how Peter would respond. As Peter utters his third denial, Luke tells us this:

60 … At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” 62 And he went out and wept bitterly. Luke 22:60–62 (NRSVue)

Jesus’s firm and truthful, yet compassionate interactions prepared Peter for a post-Resurrection Spirit-driven leadership role among those who followed the Way of Christ. Jesus ministered to a specific person in specific ways in the midst of intense emotional and spiritual pressure.

By the time of Peter’s denial, the pressure on Jesus had also become physical as well.  In the courtroom of the high priest, Matthew reports: 67 Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, 68 saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?” Matthew 26:67–68 (NRSV)

The violence ramped up in the court of the secular rulers, especially Pilate. Again, Matthew reports the culmination as follows:

27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and after twisting some thorns into a crown they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 They spat on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. Matthew 27:27–31 (NRSVue)

Once again, Jesus responded to both purposeful and inadvertent enemies with dignity and compassion under the most intense emotional and spiritual pressure coupled with cruel physical punishment. Jesus’s compassion was not just an abstract concept, but was lived out with the specific persons right in front of him.

On the actual road from the palace to Golgotha’s hill, Jesus showed compassion to the women weeping along the way.

26 As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. 27 A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 28 But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31 For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” Luke 23:26–31 (NRSVue)

It is particularly interesting to note that although the traditional women mourners were wailing for him, Jesus turns the tables. In effect, he is noting that he is one man on whom the collective weight of the community’s sin is descending. Jesus has compassion on the whole nation on whom Rome’s political wrath will soon descend. The women and their children are the most vulnerable members of a rebellious society. They will bear the brunt of the political machinations of their men. We know from history that the results indeed were horrible, just like Jesus prophesied!

Jesus’s compassion for those right around him doesn’t end when the nails go through his hands. As the crowds jeered, the leaders scoffed, and the soldiers mocked him, Jesus expressed his compassion toward those carrying out the crucifixion as well as toward two others facing the same death sentence.  

32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”]] ….39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:32–43 (NRSVue)

Jesus extends forgiveness to those carrying out the execution. At the same time, both criminals addressed Jesus personally. Jesus was ready to respond to both, but only one was ready to receive the compassion of Jesus. So, it was their different responses that led to how the tender compassion of Jesus reached them.

Jesus also expressed a very practical compassion toward his mother.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. John 19:25b–27 (NRSVue)

Jesus must have seen that his brothers were nowhere to be found around that gruesome scene on Golgotha’s hill. Yet, the women disciples were “near the cross” along with Jesus’s mother and his aunt. The one male disciple nearby was “the disciple whom he loved,” John. Thus, Jesus commends his mother into the care of John, and “the disciple took her into his own home.”

It was only at this point that Jesus thought about himself and his own vulnerability. There is first of all, the utter loneliness of emotional and spiritual vulnerability under the weight of the world’s sin.

45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:45–46 (NRSVue)

And then, there was physical death.

28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:28–30 (NRSVue)

It is finished. Jesus has completed his earthly mission to humanity as a whole as well to those folks right around him. May we remember and follow his example even in our own hours of intense suffering. There are people right around us that we are called to love with the tender compassion of Jesus.


Blog Sign-up

Sign up to receive future blog postings by email.

Blog Sign-up

Sign up to receive future blog postings by email.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top