Reflections to start the week
Monday, August 4, 2014
In our gospel reading yesterday, we heard Matthew’s version of the feeding of the five thousand, a miracle about so much more than catering. Jesus goes out into the desert for some down time. He had just heard that his cousin and colleague, John the Baptist, had been executed, basically as entertainment at one of Herod’s parties. Whatever Jesus was seeking when he went out to that quiet place, solace or safety, he was intentional about the trip. Sounds like he needed it. Maybe he even had an agenda. But life happened instead of what Jesus planned and when he crosses the lake in his boat, he finds that crowds had made their way around the lake on foot to meet him, crowds filled with people in need of healing. Jesus could have said “This is my day off.” or “I need some down time.” Or “Could you call somebody else?” But Matthew’s gospel tells us that when Jesus saw the great crowd, he had compassion for them. Mark’s gospel says more. Jesus saw the great crowd and had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
I’m thinking about that word “compassion” this Monday morning. Its etymology suggests “suffering with” or “co-suffering”. While many definitions suggest it is about helping people in need, it is different from philanthropy or pity or charity. It is a movement of the heart that somehow recognizes we’re all in this together. I see it in a recently released photo of an Israeli parent and a Palestinian parent hugging, holding each other up when each of them had lost a child in the current conflict. Compassion as “suffering with.” I see it in Jesus’ story, his heart broken open by the horrific end of John the Baptist’s life, a heart now open to the hunger of this crowd. I see compassion in his arms stretched out on hard wood of the cross to draw us into his saving embrace.
Karen Armstrong, the brilliant religious historian who has been so helpful, so insightful in writing about how the world’s great religions can move forward together, has identified compassion as the great common virtue, the great common aspiration in these traditions. She is not naïve about the ways that the great religions fall short of the call to compassion. She wrote: “Religious people often prefer to be right rather than compassionate. Often, they don’t want to give up their egotism. They want their religion to endorse their ego, their identity.” I’m wondering if you have ever met any religious people like that. I sometimes see that person in the mirror. She sees compassion at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. She wrote: “Jesus did not spend a great deal of time discoursing about the trinity or original sin or the incarnation, which have preoccupied later Christians. He went around doing good and being compassionate.” And she is quite realistic that compassion is a spiritual practice, which means not only that we need to make it practical, but also that we might just get better at it the more we do it. She wrote: “Compassion is a practically acquired knowledge, like dancing. You must do it and practice diligently day by day.” (Apparently, Karen Armstrong practices what she preaches. When she won a $100,000 TED prize, she dedicated those resources to developing a Charter of Compassion seeking a global movement focused on the principle of compassion. There’s lots of information online if you’re interested.)
Give thanks this morning that Jesus regards you and me with compassion. He knew suffering. He knows ours. Pray this morning that God will show you a way to practice compassion to others. You may not have $100,000 prize money to apply to that practice. But like the tiny offering of five loaves and two fishes that fed 5,000, there’s something you and I can offer today. We can practice compassion on Monday, August 4.
– Jay Sidebotham
When Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. –Matthew 14:14
As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things. –Mark 6:34
Love Divine, all love excelling,
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.