August 11, 2013
Matthew 14: 13-21
“When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick… Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples… And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”
“He had compassion.” It sounds like compassion is a powerful thing.
Indeed it is, as the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 145, verse 9, to describe the nature of God, writing, “The Lord is loving toward everyone; his compassion covers all his works.”
Friends, compassion is a powerful thing and a big thing too, big enough to cover all of God’s creation.
But how is compassion different from love, or sympathy or empathy?
The word we use for compassion is derived from the Latin “compati” which means to “suffer in” and “suffer with”. For ancient Romans and Greek alike, as well as in Christian traditions which followed, compassion is also of the highest spiritual value and a virtue reflecting one’s development in spiritual practice and faith.
The ancient Hebrew word for compassion or compassionate is “Raḥmana” and carries some complexity to it as it has several implications which give depth to its meaning. Rahmana is one of the names of God, as Father of Mercy, and derives meaning which reflects pity, mercy, and the desire to provide relief to the sufferer. It also relates to an active forgiveness. What’s really interesting as well, and worth some thought, is that the origin for the word Rahmana is “Rehem” which means from the Mother and from the womb. We almost have the trinity represented in one word, Rahmana, which expresses a divine state of Father, Mother and compassionate action coming from the womb of God, like Jesus being born of Mary and the Holy Spirit. All of which is to say, we are dealing with a word, which is in our tradition of scripture, a very powerful word.
Which brings me to one more aspect to this word compassion, in Hebrew Rahmana, also means “the revealed word of God.” One last thing to hold in your mind also as we consider compassion, is the Compassion Verse, Psalm 145:9, which is also the motto of our Order, this verse is the turning point in the Old Testament, moving past a God seen to be vengeful to one who manifests love and compassion for all of God’s creations. From here through the rest of the Psalms, the Psalms become songs of joy and praise. Past are the mournful cries and calls for vengeance mixed in with the first 144 Psalms, but now in the last five Psalms are the praises and celebrations of justice, music, spirit and dances. Now we can turn to the prophets of mercy, and compassionate justice. Now we can point to the Realm of Jesus. Compassion is a powerful, powerful thing.
Let’s return now to our reading from Matthew, but first let’s consider the first twelve verses of Chapter 14. In these opening verses we read of John the Baptist’s execution. John’s disciples come to inform Jesus of John’s execution and he immediately withdraws to a deserted place. One can only imagine what Jesus was feeling at the news of his cousin John’s execution: sorrow, anger, perhaps fear even, he might have wondered if he might be next. We can be sure that the death of his cousin left Jesus grieving, as we all have grieved at the loss of a loved one. So Jesus goes to a lonely place by himself, the place of grieving, sorrow and pain. Isn’t grief and sorrow a lonely place? I mean, who can truly experience my grief but me? Isn’t that what makes it so difficult to deal with, that we feel alone in our grief, that it is singular and alone and unbearable? Isn’t this why our natural response to our grief, pain and suffering is to deny it, to deny the pain we feel?
“Don’t wanna talk about it!”
“I’m not gonna cry over spilt milk!”
These approaches don’t relieve the pain, they just mask it, as do alcohol, drugs, anger, sex, depression, even religion: you know, the list of the responses of denial go on and on, right? Grief, pain, denial, these are spiritual and emotional hardships not to be born alone. They are to be shared. Jesus goes to a lonely place he knows all too well. We read he is always going off to pray in the silence and solitude, into the place of the heart where he can always find, Abba, Rahmana, the Compassionate Father. He gives, in honesty and truth, his grief to God, and God transforms Jesus’ grief from the very life giving center of God’s being, the Rehem, God’s womb. From here grief is reborn, transformed into compassion.
The power of compassion comes from the very real power of our grief and pain, transformed by love and God’s love. There are two very real things all of us, all humans experience: love and suffering. We think that they are at odds with each other, but I think that’s a misunderstanding. In Christ, on the cross, we see clearly where love and suffering come together, and if we can wait, we can see the resurrection of Jesus’ love and suffering as the New Life for us to live. The great power that God grants us is the power of love overcoming suffering, transforming our sorrow into the new life of compassion.
So Jesus comes from his lonely place of sorrow and he sees the crowd waiting and he is filled with compassion. With compassion, he heals all who are sick. With compassion, he feeds everyone, 5000 men, plus women and children, and there is food- left- over. From a few loaves and fishes over five thousand fed- and left overs. What abundance! I think this story is a story of abundance which is born out of compassion.
Jesus promises his followers that they “will have life and have it more abundantly,” Right? We have read God’s compassion “covers all his works” and we see this great compassion at work on the cross and in the resurrection. It’s been said that compassion is the advanced work in Christianity. I think this is true. It’s one thing, a wonderful thing, to be merciful, sympathetic and empathetic, and it’s another to be compassionate, because in being compassionate one integrates the suffering of them self, with the suffering of another. This is to join Jesus in the great vulnerability of the servant Jesus.
Being compassionate also requires us to dig down deep into ourselves to yield the great treasure of abundance which is found in God’s great gift of compassion. We dig down, we mine through our grief to recognize and collect the great treasure of a full and deep love, of God residing in us, so to heal us, to wash away the slag with our tears and God’s tears, revealing that this great gift is the one with which we follow Jesus, to care for everyone, without discrimination and beyond our comfort zone. This is an abundance which moves, and moves us, way beyond the borders of what we thought we were capable of.
This is the hope my Brothers, and someday, Sisters in the Society of Jesus Compassionate pursue and seek to share with the world, the hope found in Jesus Compassionate. We are evangelists for the compassionate nature of God. Remember the Hebrew word for compassion is Rahmana, which means “the word of God revealed,” so all who know compassion and seek to share it, in doing so also reveal the word of God. We seek to extend God’s compassion for the world to take in, to join us as we grow in, and share in, this wonderful gift of God’s abundance. We seek to share our ministries from out of the gratitude for our lives in God.
We take it as a given, that like the bread of life, our lives will be broken, and for bread to gives us life it must be broken and shared, and for us to accept the bounty of life, we must accept that our lives will at times be broken and to share in it. Yet, we first come with prayer, and then thanksgiving; as it is from our brokenness we may learn compassion.
With compassion Jesus comes to us in the desolate place of our grief to heal us, and tells us to sit down, stop running he says, and he commands us to sit still, to sit still and let him love us deeply, as he feeds us with his bread, from which our deep hunger; our deep longing; our deep suffering; can finally be relieved.
The great 19th century Congregationalist minister Henry Ward Beecher said of compassion, “Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation.” He’s right, because when I am compassionate with you, or you with another, we are both finding healing in the same single act of compassion.
Friends, I invite you to be relieved. I invite you to take the glorious journey where grief meets God’s loving presence and is transformed into compassion, abundance and joy, in all its giving’s and receiving’s, beyond all your imaginings, in the deep communion of our lives, and the life in God, through Jesus Christ.