THE COMPASSIONATE JESUS
Jer. 23:1-6; Eph 2:13-18; Mk 6:30-34
The gospel text of today presents us to an understanding of the God that Christians worship. Jesus is portrayed as the compassionate one. The attribute of compassion in the gospel distinguishes Jesus from the god of the ancient philosophers described in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas as the “Unmoved Mover,” a type of “feeling-less god.” Jesus is a God with a human touch; he has human sympathy and emotions. He is not a stoic person; he can feel like us. The letter to the Hebrews confidently describes Jesus thus: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).
- THE ACTUAL SITUATION OF THE GOSPEL
The apostles have just returned from their experience of missionary work. They are tired and need a rest. Their lives have become quite hectic, as Mark describes, “There were so many coming and going that the apostles had no time to eat.” Christ knows this and shows his concern and compassion for them by inviting them to go off with him to a quiet place on the far side of the lake. But it did not work out like that. The people see them getting into the boat and follow them. When they arrive, they find many people anxiously awaiting them. One can imagine how these weary men feel seeing the crowd ahead of them!
Jesus is faced with a very real human choice. One would expect Christ to tell the people to go home so that the apostles can get a well-earned rest. Besides, have they not done enough for them already? But no! Jesus takes a look at them and sees that they are without a leader—like sheep without a shepherd. He knows well the attitude of the official teachers to people such as these. They despised them for not keeping the letter of the Law like they did. They wrote them off, just as the people of Jesus’ home town wrote him off. In Jesus, the people see someone with a difference, and they flock to him. The gospel says that Jesus looked at them, sees their plight, and “his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd”.
To emphasize the love out of which the decision arose, Mark adds the phrase that Jesus decided “to teach them at some length.” In other words, Christ did not rush over the process of teaching the people in order to quickly dismiss them. But he makes up his mind to attend to them thoroughly. He takes time out; he teaches them at some length, that is, he gives them food for their minds. Then, seeing that they are hungry, he feeds them with bread and fish (cf. the passage that follows). In doing these things, Jesus does something more important. He shows them that he cares about them. He makes them feel that they are worthwhile. Jesus shows real compassion to the people.
- JESUS’ COMPASSION FOR THE PEOPLE
From the Greek translation, “Compassion” is the word that Mark employs in verse 34. Compassion is a very deliberate word. It is a word that occurs eight times in the New Testament, and in every single instance it refers in some way or another to Jesus. It is either on the lips of Jesus or it is about Jesus, as it is here. Compassion is a profound sense of pity that is evoked in the soul, in the heart, over these men and women because of their need. They have left everything behind in order to follow Jesus. Jesus cares for this crowd. He cares for his disciples too. “Cast all your cares upon Him,” Peter says, “because He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7).
This word “Compassion” has a variety of meanings. First of all, it means empathy – an empathy that shows practical understanding for one’s condition and seeks to identify with it. Secondly, compassion is about consideration and care. And finally, it means sympathy, kindness, concern. This element of concern is characterized by kindheartedness, benevolence, and gentleness. These are qualities that underline humanity, qualities which are embodied in Jesus in the gospel of today. For this reason, today’s gospel is described as portraying the human face of Jesus.
On another note, the opposite of compassion is coldness, incomprehension, or even lack of concern. It is a type of “I don’t care,” or “don’t worry me” attitude. The uncompassionate one is unruffled, unperturbed, and unemotional towards the problems of others. This is how the Jews in the time of Jesus, can be described. They overemphasized ritual cleanness to the detriment of internal morality. Because of this, they loaded the people with burdensome and cumbersome ritual rules and regulations. In fact, on one occasion, Jesus reminded them that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). In our African way of talking, people without compassion are described as “stone-hearted”, “one with a heart at the back”, “one with a devil’s heart”, “one with a dried-up heart”, etc.
- OUR GOD IS ALWAYS COMPASSIONATE AND LOVING
In the Old Testament, God and compassion are almost synonymous terms, that is, God is always presented as a compassionate deity. In 2Kings 13:23 we read: “And the LORD was gracious unto them, and had compassion on them, and had respect unto them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, neither cast he them from his presence as yet.” The book of Chronicle tells us: it is the nature of God to have compassion on his people (2Chronicles 36:15).
Today’s first reading is an example of a compassionate God who cares for and about his people (Jer 23:1-6). He is very concerned about the plight of his people in the hands of unworthy shepherds. Thus, He vows to take personal charge of their situation. “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply. I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing…”
This theme of compassion is all over the Psalms.
- Psalm 78:38 says: “But he, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not: yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath.”
- Psalm 86:15: “But thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth”.
- Psalm 111:4: “the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.”
- Psalm 112:4: Another name for the Old Testament God is Compassion. God “is gracious, and full of compassion, and righteous.”
- Psalm 145:8: God is “slow to anger, and of great mercy.” Jesus and
Furthermore, in the New Testament, God compassion stands out quite distinctly. The Greek verb used to introduce the theme of compassion in today’s gospel is translated as he had compassion. It means to be moved with pity from one’s innermost part. Elsewhere, in the gospels, we find:
- The parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew, where one servant was unwilling to forgive what is owed to him, we are told that “moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan” (Mat 18:27).
- In the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32, we are told that “while he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.”
- Again in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke, there, the Samaritan traveler “was moved with compassion” (Lk10:33).
From this analysis, it is fair to say that the other name for our God is Compassion. He is not a stoic God, without feelings or emotions. Now and then we are told that he was moved with pity due to the needy and miserable conditions of people. In this regard, Mathew 9:36 says: “But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.” Here, the humanity of Jesus is underlined. He is not a God without human sympathy. He is one with us. The most interesting about the compassion of Jesus is that it is a compassion backed by action. It was not just compassion for the sake of it. For this reason, a follow up to the gospel reading of today is the feeding of the five thousand. His compassion was not just about the “after” but also about the “now.” In other words, he taught them and then gave them food to eat. This is a practical compassion.
To be moved to compassion is to be propelled into action. This is what defines the compassion of the Christian. It leads one to change the pitiable or compassionate situation. The practicality of this compassion is also seen in the examples given above. In the first parable, the pitiable condition of the debtor was pardoned; the pitiable state of the prodigal son was changed; and in the case of the Good Samaritan, the fatally wounded was saved. Similarly, as part of the today’s gospel, Jesus backed up his compassion with the feeding of the hungry.
Remember Jesus’ compassion for the lepers in his day who were so much ostracized that they were seen as outsiders of society. In one encounter with a leper, Mark says: “And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and said unto him, I will; be thou clean” (Mk 1:41). He had compassion on distressed and weeping women. Luke says: “And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not” (Lk 7:13).
- COMPASSION IN OUR WORLD TODAY
We sometimes see people in great need and our first reaction is to judge them. To say that it is their fault. Or perhaps we do genuinely feel sorry for them; but we end there. We turn our back and walk away. We do not want to get involved. Not so Jesus. He felt sorry for them and immediately decided to do something for them
Our world today is guided by some philosophies that misconstrue compassion as weakness. Some trends of thought hold that compassion does not belong to the wise and strong. Accordingly, feeling-less-ness is held as the ideal virtue of the brave new world. This philosophy holds that compassion enfeebles and makes one impotent and powerless.
This trend of thought was brought to its climax by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who held the doctrine of the superman who has no mercy, no empathy, and no compassion, and no sympathy. He is man with absolute power and no compassion whatsoever. In the history of mankind, the logical outcome of this superman without compassion is the tragedy of that monster of Nazi Germany, infamously called Adolf Hitler. In Hitler, we can see very clearly that Godlessness leads to destruction and dreadful events. This absence of compassion in Hitler led the world to the tragic holocaust and the bloodbath of the Second World War. Now, do we want the ways of this world, which lead to tears, misery and destruction, or the ways of Jesus, which lead to peace and tranquility? Today’s gospel has invited us to make our choice as Christians.
- CHRISTIANS ARE CALLED UPON TO IMITATE THIS NOBLE QUALITY OF JESUS
In both the Old and New Testaments, we see a God who is not hard-hearted. He is kind-hearted, and benevolent. God has empathy in every sense of the word. As seen in the New Testament, this lead him to feel for us and feel like us. The gospel of today is about human relationships. It is about compassion in God. Here, God is teaching us to be perfectly human with our humanity. This compels us to be compassionate human beings. The painful situation that the people of the NW and SW regions of Cameroon are going through is a clear example of lack of compassion. Brutality is incompatible with true Christian. An aggressive person lacks compassion. Such persons live with the principle of life: my way or the highway. For such people there is no compromise and no middle ground. It is all about my own way or nothing. Christianity is a religion of empathy and compassion, a religion of caring, a religion of human relationships. Without love, one cannot be compassionate or empathetic.
Today, Jesus invites us to compassionate and loving, and to shun hostility, avoid cruelty and bloodshed. If we are cruel, wicked or bloodthirsty, we cannot be compassionate as well. And this will militate against the compassionate ideal that Jesus has clearly enunciated for us today in the gospel of Mark. We pray for a true spirit of compassion.