Genuine compassion may behave differently than we expect

And if you lend money only to those who can repay you, why should you get credit? Even sinners will lend to other sinners for a full return. “Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked.

Luke 6:34-35

In a former essay, we have looked at the importance of being kind to our enemies, or those who may act in adversarial ways towards us.

But in this passage lies another aspect of being compassionate that may get overlooked because of our general unfamiliarity with the culture that this teaching arises out of.

In today’s American culture, we typically view “alms” or giving to the needy as something that is a straight donation to their welfare, a practice that we should certainly continue. However, in the middle Eastern culture of the Bible, “alms” was actually a form of a loan to the less fortunate, typically for friends or associates who had fallen on hard times. This was how the community could look out for one another’s needs in practical ways.

Since banks as we know them today did not exist, there were only a few means for someone who had fallen on hard times to extricate themselves from their circumstances.

One way to repay someone was to become their slave until the debt was repaid. This was a form of indentured servitude, a commitment to the benefactor to recoup their investment. This was widely practiced and is mentioned all throughout the Bible (and, unfortunately, usually misunderstood as the brutal, savage slavery that we typically associate with that word).

But another method of redeeming oneself was to ask friends, family and acquaintances for a loan to get by until they could repay. This is what is usually being described when this concept of “alms” is being presented to us in the biblical texts.

If we understand this principle, then the verse above from Yeshua’s teaching takes on new perspective on several levels. He is here commanding his followers to give these “loans” freely, even with the understanding that they are likely not to be repaid. There should not be a measurement of hard feelings if the indebted friend cannot pay, because God has demonstrated a similar mercy to us as believers.

Additionally, the disciple should be willing to lend also to their enemies, not just friends and acquaintances. This is a drastic diversion even from the cultural practice of the day, and highlights the extent of compassion believers should be demonstrating at all times. It is one thing to forgive a friend or acquaintance of a debt, but to lend in the same fashion to an adversary? This would be a truly unorthodox and radical admonition to his followers.

It is such a revolutionary and profound concept that it still shakes us to the core to this day, two thousand years later. True compassion is like that; it is profound, challenging, and requires real commitment and, many times, heart-wrenching, white-knuckled, gut-twisting sacrifice. This is the type of genuine life transformation believers are called to.

Are you up to the challenge of what it really means to be a follower of the Messiah and demonstrate true compassion?

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