When we began our journey through the fruit of the Spirit, I said that love is the crown of all the fruits, and all the other fruits depend upon it. This can be seen with all the fruits, but perhaps it is most obvious with the fruit of kindness, or gentleness, which we’ll talk about today. Love drives us to treat those we love with kindness.
Our Bibles translate the name of this fruit as either “kindness” or “gentleness.” This is not because there’s confusion about what the word means, but because there is no single English word that effectively captures the meaning; the Greek word holds both meanings. More accurately, we ought to call it the fruit of “gentle kindness.”
This is a very special fruit; it has both an active and a passive aspect. To have the fruit of gentle kindness in our lives means to actively pursue the good of others, but it also means to avoid doing harm to others. This fruit should make us think of Hippocrates, who wrote that a physician should “…have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm.” We are to be like physicians, actively seeking the good of others, while avoiding doing harm.
I wanted to look at a passage from the life of Christ in which we see Him exhibiting this quality. The difficulty is not that they are hard to find, but that there are so many it becomes hard to choose. What to pick? Should we talk about Jesus feeding a crowd? Or maybe Jesus sitting down with an outcast Samaritan woman or healing an even more despised Syrophoenician woman? Healing an untouchable leper? Casting out demons from a demon-possessed man? Welcoming little children to be blessed by Him? Rescuing a woman who was about to be stoned because of her adultery?
And above all these examples we see the shadow of the cross looming ahead, where Jesus – though He could have called down fire upon all His enemies -- chose to do no harm to the men who accused Him, the crowds who jeered Him, and the Romans who killed Him. He simultaneously did no harm while actively seeking the good of the world through His atoning sacrifice.
In the end, I decided I wanted to look at Matthew 12:9-21. As I read this passage, you might find yourself thinking, “Didn’t Doug preach on this miracle last summer?” Not exactly. I preached on a remarkably similar event in which a man was healed of dropsy. This miracle contains some of the same lessons, but also some added ones. Let’s listen to God’s word:
In this passage, Jesus enters the synagogue and there is a man there with a withered hand. The Pharisees, the religious leaders who hated Jesus, were basically using this crippled man as a prop in their vendetta against Jesus. They didn’t seem to have any doubt whether Jesus could heal the man, but they made a point of drawing Jesus’ attention to the man, using him as a test case for whether Jesus would heal on the Sabbath, the day of rest.
It’s a nasty trick, to draw everyone’s attention to this disabled man and use him to taunt Jesus: “If you heal him, you’re breaking our laws, and if you don’t heal him, you’re kind of a jerk!”
Jesus retorts that if a sheep falls into a well and is trapped on the Sabbath, no one is going to complain if you rescue that sheep. By the same reasoning, if you believe a human is more valuable than a sheep, you have an obvious obligation to show kindness to that person.
Interestingly, Jesus compares a situation where the sheep’s life is at stake with a situation where a human life is not at stake. If the sheep isn’t pulled out of the well immediately, it will drown. But this man’s life was not at stake. If Jesus had wanted to, he could have said to the man, “Come back here tomorrow, and I will heal your hand.” In the grand scheme of things, it wouldn’t have mattered to the man; he wasn’t going to use that hand to do work on the Sabbath anyway, so why would one more day matter?
Of course, Jesus was making a point to the Pharisees, but he’s also emphasizing to us the urgency of showing kindness to others. Even the Sabbath rest is not a good excuse for abstaining from doing good and exercising kindness.
Following this miracle, Jesus left the area because He knew the Pharisees were plotting against Him. He didn’t stop doing miracles; He continued healing people, and when He healed, He also instructed those who were healed “not to make Him known.” In other words, He wanted to keep His work quiet. This fits with everything we’ve read about Jesus; His goal was the good of others, not His own notoriety. It’s perfectly in keeping with what He said in the Sermon on the Mount:
His choice to not promote Himself was significant in another way: it was a fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah. Our passage repeats this prophecy in verse 19: “He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.”
The prophecy adds this information as well:
What a beautiful description of our Savior! If He finds a blade of grass which has been trampled underfoot, He will not be the one to deliver the killing blow to it. If He finds a candle or a lamp which is so close to extinguished that it is nothing but a smoldering wick, He will not be the one to snuff it out.
If you think about all the stories of Jesus I mentioned earlier, this verse summarizes all of them: Jesus finds those who are weakest and most broken and He extends a gentle, healing hand to them, instead of diminishing them further. It is the Samaritan woman, the Syrophoenician woman, the leper, the blind man, the convicted criminal, the demon-possessed, and ultimately all the broken and sin-sick people of this world who have needed the healing that comes from knowing a God who, with gentle kindness says, “I forgive you, and I love you.”
In our society of stoic individualism, “gentleness” is often seen as a mark of weakness, but here Jesus shows no weakness. The prophecy from Isaiah connects His gentleness with His quest for justice. When Jesus stood before the Pharisees and defied them, He showed no weakness. His quest for justice required Him to stand defiantly against them and care for the bruised reed that was before Him. Never mistake gentle kindness for weakness; it is one of God’s powerful tools for justice in this world.
The earlier Scripture reading from Isaiah shows God’s strength and his gentleness tied together: He comes as king to rule with power, and He comes as the shepherd to gently gather and lead. There is no contradiction in those statements.
In a strange way, there is a fierceness to the gentle heart. In this world it is the strong and powerful who control people’s behavior, but the gentle stand in opposition to those in power in order to spend their lives on behalf of the weak. Our behavior is more likely to be controlled by the needs of the weak than by the commands or the desires of the strong.
Titus chapter 3 takes all of this and makes it personal. Listen to what Paul writes in verses 1 – 5:
Paul tells Titus to “always be gentle toward everyone,” because in the midst of our own weakness, the kindness of our Savior appeared to us. Just as we are instructed “Love because He loved you,” and “Forgive because He forgave you,” we are instructed, “Show gentle kindness because He showed gentle kindness to you.”
I love these words of Jesus that describe His own gentle kindness – they come from Matthew 11:28-30.
As God re-forms our hearts into the image of His son, these words will become true of us as well – those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens will be drawn to our gentle kindness, and we – like the Savior -- will have rest to offer.
When I think of gentle kindness, I think of what it is like to hold a newborn baby in your arms. You treat that baby with extra care, holding them carefully and gently. Why? Because you understand how fragile they are. Somehow, though, we seem to forget that it is not just babies who are weak and fragile. In our own way each of us is like a bruised reed or a smoldering wick; we long to be treated with gentle kindness that leads to justice.
Some may carry wounds of broken relationships; others may have psychological and emotional scars from abuse. Fragility is not always evident on the surface. The most physically fit among us may be fragile in ways that we will never know. So, we approach each person with the understanding that they are fragile in ways that we don’t know, and our behavior toward them is informed by that understanding. As Paul said in Philippians 4:5, "Let your gentleness be evident to all."
Help us, Lord, to do good, and do no harm. Help us to understand the frailties of others and treat them accordingly. Help us to live in the gentle kindness You have poured out on us. Amen