Previous | Next

Spring 1993 · Vol. 22 No. 1 · pp. 63–72 

Why Reach Out to Persons with AIDS?

Stanley J. Grenz

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.
—Mark 1:40-42.

Leprosy was a disease of unparalleled implications in first-century Palestine. It was a horrible disease; it spread slowly until it made the body ugly and robbed it of vitality. It was a dreaded disease; it meant separation from social life and from contact with all non-lepers. Leprosy was a deadly disease. Because it was incurable and eventually fatal, it made its victims the living dead. And leprosy was a “sinners’ ” disease—not in that it was contracted through personal sin, but because it formed an apt metaphor for the nature of sin.

God, Christ, and therefore the Church too, respond to the plight of the helpless with compassion.

As he had done on numerous other occasions, so here Jesus could have spoken the word of healing from a distance (e.g., Luke 7:1-10). Yet the Master chose instead to extend his hand, to touch the leper as he healed him. In this act, our Lord both defied social custom and disregarded the horrible, dreaded, deadly nature of leprosy. Jesus chose to risk his own health and his acceptability in society in order to place his healing hand on the desperate man.

Why did Jesus act in this socially and medically unacceptable way? Mark informs us that {64} our Lord’s act was the outworking of compassion. Jesus was moved to compassion by the plight of the leper.

No other disease today as closely parallels leprosy as AIDS. Like leprosy, AIDS is a horrible disease; it spreads slowly until it makes the body ugly, robs a person of vitality, and eventually attacks the brain. AIDS is a dreaded disease. Contracting HIV brings social stigma and incites fear in others. AIDS is a deadly disease. Because it is incurable and eventually kills, it makes its victims the living dead. And in the eyes of many, AIDS is a sinners’ disease.

In the midst of our uncertainty and caution about AIDS come the haunting questions posed by this text in Mark. If Jesus were physically present today, would he not be moved to compassion by persons with AIDS? As the body of Christ, ought we not also respond compassionately to persons suffering from the effects of this deadly epidemic?

We must forthrightly admit that certain barriers make a compassionate, Christ-like response to such persons difficult. One such barrier is the perception that AIDS is a sinners’ disease. Indeed, promiscuous homosexual-bisexual males and IV drug users are in the highest risk categories for contracting the virus. Consequently, responding to persons with AIDS places us in contact with people we may prefer to avoid. The situation is compounded by the fact that AIDS is a terminal, contagious disease. Responding to persons with AIDS may place us or our loved ones at risk.

Despite barriers such as these, however, the Bible challenges us to respond with compassion to persons with AIDS. This challenge is voiced by at least three biblical themes: the nature of God, the character of Christ, and the calling of the church.


According to the Bible, God is perfect compassion. Already in the Old Testament, the people of God celebrated God’s compassion for the world he created. At the center of the faith of the Hebrew community stood a declaration of God’s compassion. In appearing to Moses on Mount Sinai, after revealing the divine name, Yahweh announced himself as “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:6).

The declaration—God as abounding in love and filled with compassion—is sounded repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, forming a focal faith affirmation about the divine nature (e.g., Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 111:4;116:5; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2; Isa. 54:10). Writing in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Williston Walker concludes, “Nothing therefore is more prominent in the Old Testament than the {65} ascription of compassion, pity, mercy, etc. to God. The people may be said to have gloried in it.”

God’s compassion arises out of the divine love. According to Christian theology, love is the central attribute of God. Love is present within God, in that God is the triune one, the community of Father, Son, and Spirit. These three trinitarian persons are one God, bound together by the cord of divine love. John, the apostle of love, makes the simple yet profound declaration: "God is love” (1 John 4:16). Here is the bold declaration that the eternal God is characterized by love.

Because throughout all eternity the triune God is love, it is not surprising that the character of God—love—moves toward creation. Because God is love, God loves the world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16).

God’s response to the human predicament is compassion. Because of the divine love, the plight of God’s creatures evokes his compassion. Robert Girdlestone explains that the Hebrew word racham “expresses a deep and tender feeling of compassion such as is aroused by the sight of weakness or suffering in those that are dear to us or need our help.”

God’s covenant people are the special object of this compassion. Jeremiah describes God as desiring to have compassion on Ephraim, “my dear son” (Jer. 31:20). God’s covenant love for his people and God’s fidelity to that covenant form a crucial foundation for the expression of divine compassion. Divine compassion is evoked especially in the face of the distress and suffering of God’s people. Isaiah articulates this well: “Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth; burst into song, O mountains! For the Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones” (49:13). Elsewhere Isaiah reflects on Israel’s history and declares, “In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (63:9). God’s actions in Israel’s history cause Hosea to conclude, “In you the fatherless find compassion” (14:3).

God’s concern moves beyond Israel, however, to encompass all creatures. The Psalmist declares, “The Lord is good to all, he has compassion on all he has made” (145:9). This theme is repeated in the New Testament. It is found in Jesus’ teaching, especially in the Sermon on the Mount (e.g. Matt. 5:43-48). And Paul employs the same theme in speaking of God’s intent to save sinful humankind (Rom. 11:32).

The divine mercy is God’s bestowal of grace, and does not arise from human merit. The Scriptures firmly declare that God’s compassion comes to us by virtue of God’s sovereign mercy (Exod. 33:19; Rom. 9:15-16,18). For this reason, God can extend gracious compassion toward his creatures in spite of human rebellion. Daniel boldly declares this truth: “The Lord {66} our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him” (Dan. 9:9).

Perhaps the most moving illustration of God’s love despite human rebellion is the parable of the prodigal son. While the son “was still a long way off,” the father saw him “and was filled with compassion for him” (Luke 19:20). Here Jesus gives us a picture of God’s compassion directed toward us, even when we have sinned against our Creator and Father. The gracious compassion of God likewise forms the basis for Daniel’s bold assertion that God answers the request of people not because of their righteousness, but because of God’s great mercy (9:18).

The belief in a gracious, compassionate God also forms the foundation for the repeated hope expressed by the prophets that at some future day, God would again be compassionate to the people of Israel (e.g. Isa. 14:1; 94:7; Jer. 12:15; 30:18; 33:26; 42:12; Ezek. 39:29; Hos. 1:7; 2:23; Joel 2:18; Mic. 7:19; Zech. 1:16; Mal. 3:17). Isaiah stands as an example of those who anticipate a day when they will experience God’s compassion as an expression of God’s everlasting kindness: “'In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,’ says the Lord your Redeemer” (54:8).

Divine compassion is no mere emotion, however. Rather it leads to divine action. The Old Testament repeatedly appeals to the history of Israel as an illustration of this principle. Isaiah proclaims the deeds the compassionate God has done (63:7). Reflecting on Israel’s experiences in the Exodus and in the wilderness wandering, the Psalmist asserts that out of compassion, God atoned for the iniquities of the people and did not destroy them (78:38). And the author of 2 Chronicles summarizes Israel’s story as the repeated reception of divine compassion: “The Lord, the God of their fathers sent word to them through his messengers again and again because he had pity on his people and his dwelling place” (36:15).

God’s activity in the history of Israel was no mere relic of a dead past. Instead, it remained as a living presence and held out the promise of a future renewal. This anticipation forms the context for the New Testament pronouncements of fulfillment. Zechariah’s hymn at the birth of John the Baptist forms a lucid example. For Zechariah, John’s arrival was an act of God, who in this event demonstrated his mercy and was now remembering the covenant with Israel (Luke 1:72).

According to the New Testament, however, the supreme action arising out of the divine compassion is the salvation available in Jesus Christ. Ephesians articulates a beautiful declaration of this truth: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (2:4-5). The same theme is reiterated in Titus: God {67} “saved us, not because of righteous things we have done, but because of his mercy” (3:5). In a similar way, Peter declares that in God’s “great mercy” he has given Christians “new birth into a living hope” (1 Pet. 1:3).

The goal of God’s compassion is that God be praised. This theme is summarized by Paul, who in writing to a church consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, declared:

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: ‘Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing hymns to your name.’ Again it says, ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.’ ”
—Rom. 15:8-10.

God’s loving compassion, which leads to divine action on behalf of God’s creatures in the midst of their plight, is intended to lead all the peoples of the world together to offer praise to the glory of the God who has saved them.


The compassion of God lies at the center of the Bible as a whole. The New Testament, however, takes this theme a step farther. It declares that God’s loving compassion finds concrete expression in Jesus of Nazareth. For Christians, Jesus stands as the grand example of godly living. For Christians, Jesus is also the model of compassion. Because he is the incarnation of divine love and the example to the believing community, the compassion necessary to cross the barriers and minister in the midst of the AIDS epidemic can be learned only at the feet of Jesus.

What is the nature of this compassion of Christ?

The New Testament indicates that expressing compassionate love lay at the heart of Jesus’ understanding of his mission. In his response to the request of James and John for the positions of honor in the coming kingdom, Jesus, linking himself to the eschatological figure of the Son of Man, declared, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28; cf. Mark 10:45). His mission was one of compassionate service to others, arising from his self-giving attitude, from love.

John’s Gospel explains Jesus’ mission not in terms of judgment and condemnation, but of salvation: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (3:17) {68}. Using the imagery of the good shepherd, the Johannine Christ emphasizes that he came to give life in its fullness, even to the point of sacrificing his own life for the sake of others (John 10: 10-11).

In the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus appealed to Isaiah in order to explain to his audience the nature of his mission. His purpose included the practical goals of bringing freedom, healing, and release of people in distress (Luke 4:18-19). In short, Jesus understood his own mission in terms of expressing the compassionate love of God.

Jesus felt compassion in the face of ignorance, hunger, sickness, and death. On at least two occasions, the Gospels report that the compassion of Jesus was evoked by the sorrow others were experiencing at the loss of loved ones. When he saw a woman weeping over the death of her son, Jesus’ “heart went out to her,” and he comforted her (Luke 7:13). At the tomb of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, the Master wept (John 11:35). Those observing the Lord could not help but exclaim, “See how he loved him!” (v. 36) Jesus was gripped by compassion when he saw the aimlessness of the common people as “sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). His heart was also moved when he saw the sick among the multitudes (Matt. 14:14). His compassion was kindled by the plight of specific individuals, such as the two blind men he met outside the city of Jericho (Matt. 20:34). A similar response was evoked by the crowds who grew hungry as they intently listened to his teaching (Matt. 15:32; Mark 8:2).

Jesus’ compassion expressed itself in ministry. As he saw the needs of people around him, needs which sparked his emotion, Jesus did not stand aside. On the contrary, he engaged in action in order to alleviate the misery of others and minister to their needs. To those who had lost loved ones, Jesus responded by raising the dead (John 11; Luke 7:14). To people lacking guidance, he offered instruction and teaching (Mark 6:34). And to the sick, Jesus administered healing (Matt. 14:14; 4:23; 9:35; 19:2).

In his ministry, our Lord was not afraid to make physical contact with those in need. The Gospels abound in examples of Jesus touching people. He often took the hand of sick persons in order to help them stand as he healed them. Jesus laid hold of the hand of Peter’s mother-in-law, for example, to help her up as he cured her fever (Mark 1: 3 1). On another occasion he took the hand of a girl presumed to be dead and raised her to life (Matt. 9:25). Jesus was even willing to take the hand of a boy possessed by a demon and liberate him from his tormentor (Mark 9:27).

Not only did Jesus take the hands of others, he also was willing to put his hands on those in need of healing. A crippled woman was one recipient of this action (Luke 13:13). Likewise, the fingers of Jesus often reached out to those to whom he ministered—touching blind eyes to make them see (Matt. 20:34; John 9:6; Matt. 9:29), deaf ears to bring about hearing (Luke 22:51) {69}, silent tongues to bestow the gift of speech (Mark 7:33). As noted earlier, Jesus was not afraid to touch even the outcasts of his day, those suffering from the dreaded and contagious disease of leprosy (Matt. 8:3; Mark 1:41; Luke 5:12). Although he had the power to cure the sick without physical contact or even physical presence, nevertheless he freely chose to touch the untouchables. These acts demonstrate Jesus’ great compassion.

The Book of Acts indicates that Jesus’ example of fearlessly making physical contact with those in need was followed by the early church. Peter and John extended their hands to the crippled beggar outside the Temple gate in healing him (Acts 3:7). And reminiscent of Jesus’ own practice, Peter took the hand of a dead woman, Dorcas, as he raised her to life (Acts 9:41).

Jesus’ compassion was all-encompassing. It extended beyond his friends to include the multitudes. It encircled his enemies and those who rejected him. Even when his arrest and death were imminent, Jesus’ heart still went out to others. Anticipating the final rejection he would experience by the nation he loved, Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37). Then during his arrest, Jesus offered his healing touch to the soldier whose ear had been injured in the scuffle (Luke 22:51). In his hour of death, our Lord’s thoughts were directed toward the needs of those who rejected him. Jesus prayed that the forgiving mercy of his Father be extended even to the soldiers who were crucifying him: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Jesus’ actions stand as apt illustrations of his teaching. He declared that compassion was to be given to all without exception, even to enemies. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, he appealed to the universal merciful goodness of God as a basis for enjoining a similar compassion in the lives of his disciples:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
—Matt. 5:43-45.

The loving compassion of Christ is not merely that of an exemplary man, however. It reveals the heart of God. As Christians, we confess that Jesus is the revelation of God, God incarnate in human form. At the heart of the incarnation is Jesus’ compassion. Paul, for example, summarizes the incarnation in terms of Jesus’ self-sacrifice on behalf of miserable human beings: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that though he {70} was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

Reflecting on the earthly life of Jesus, who is now the exalted Lord at the right hand of God the Father, the author of Hebrews offers a practical Christological implication of that exemplary life: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). Even in his exalted state, our Lord remains the compassionate one who sympathizes with us in our trials.

According to the New Testament, then, Jesus stands as a vivid example of the meaning of compassion. He is the revelation of the loving heart of God. In him we find the God who responds with loving compassion to the plight of God’s creatures.


According to the Bible, the compassionate nature of God places a great responsibility on Christ’s church. As God’s people we are to be emulators of the Compassionate Lord. His example calls us to be the compassionate ones and thereby to reflect the divine character.

This understanding is so well ingrained throughout the Bible that compassion is without question a central aspect of biblical piety. Job’s rhetorical question, “Have I not wept for those in trouble? Has not my soul grieved for the poor?” (30:25) indicates that this kind of compassion was simply assumed to be the ideal for every member of the Old Testament covenant community. The New Testament reaffirms the same outlook. James declares, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this, to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (1:27). Not only personal holiness (i.e., freedom from sin), but being compassionate toward others both in attitude and in action lie at the center of what is assumed to be normal religion.

In keeping with this, the New Testament epistles repeatedly admonish the Christian community to be compassionate. Colossians, for example, declares, “Clothe yourselves with compassion” (3:12). Likewise Peter commands his readers to be compassionate and sympathetic (1 Pet. 3:8). Paul forges the link between compassion and the example of Christ. To the Galatians he writes, “Carry each others’ burdens and in this way fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2). Burden-lifting and sharing the load of others are important aspects by which believers follow the example of the Lord. And Hebrews offers some specific ways in which the Christian community can live out the compassion which is to characterize it: “Remember those in {71} prison as if you were their fellow prisoners and those who are mistreated as if you yourself were suffering” (13:3).

Christians are to be characterized by compassion; they are to display true sympathy for those in distress, even to the point of sharing in that distress. In fact, expression of compassion extended to persons in need will form a basis for judgment at our Lord’s return, for in being compassionate toward others we are actually serving him (Matt. 25:31-46).

Perhaps the grandest illustration and admonition to the disciples of the Lord to be a compassionate people, however, is found in Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan. In narrating the story, our Lord clearly sought to emphasize that this outcast individual—not those who stood in traditional positions of leadership within the Jewish community—was compassionate to the man in need. The Samaritan saw the battered man lying along the road and “took pity on him,” Jesus declared. The same verb the Gospel writers employ in speaking of Jesus’ outlook toward the needy is utilized here to describe the Samaritan. The emotion of compassion, so characteristic of the Master, was translated into action by the Samaritan as he bandaged the wounds of the unfortunate traveler, took the injured person to an inn, and offered to pay the innkeeper to look after the needs of the battered Jew.

After delivering the parable, Jesus asked the expert in the law to whom he was speaking the crucial question: “Which of the three men was a neighbor to the man in need?” The response of his listener was significant: “The one who had mercy on him.” This evoked Jesus’ command, “Go and do likewise.”

The compassion of God is revealed throughout the Bible and is incarnate in Christ. Because God is characterized by compassion, the people of God are called to be a compassionate people. As imitators of God, we are to respond to persons in distress with action motivated by compassion. As disciples of the Lord we are to follow his example by reaching out to the untouchables of our society.

Among the ranks of modern day “lepers” we must place persons with AIDS. Like their first-century counterparts, they too are often placed on the fringes of society and shunned as “unclean,” as contagious, unloved, and unwanted. In the face of human misery, including the misery experienced by persons with AIDS, the compassionate God challenges us to action. Just as the divine heart longs to act on behalf of all sufferers, God is moved by AIDS sufferers. We, therefore, ought also to be moved by their plight. The Lord who offered his healing touch to so many challenges us to be his fingers and hands in reaching out in compassionate touch to those around us who are suffering, including persons struggling with AIDS. {72}

Godly compassion is central to ministry. It provides the impetus to reach out to others. It gives tenacity when the life of ministry is difficult. And without compassion, ministry is reduced to a heartless veneer, often of greater comfort to the one who ministers than to the sufferers in need of care.

Such godly compassion goes beyond what is humanly possible, however. It can be present only as it arises from love. But love in its full biblical sense must be created in us by the Holy Spirit, for love is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Consequently, ministry to persons struggling with AIDS is possible only as we are filled with the Holy Spirit and thereby are flooded with the divine love, that love which responds to the needs of suffering persons with compassionate action.

How would Jesus respond to persons suffering from AIDS? To be sure, to those who have contracted the virus through unwholesome lifestyles he would say, “Go, and sin no more.” But he would do more than merely call them to holy living and discipleship. In the case of each person with AIDS, regardless of the source of the illness, he would be moved by love to reach out in compassion.

As Jesus’ disciples—those who claim to be his followers—can we do less?

Dr. Stanley J. Grenz is Professor of Theology at Carey/Regent College, Vancouver, B.C. and, author of six books. This essay is the substance’ of an address given at Columbia Bible College, Clearbrook, B.C.

Previous | Next