July 22, 2012
Mark 6: 30 – 34
Today’s gospel affirms something we know to be true about Jesus. He had compassion for those in need. When he disembarks from boat in today’s gospel, he sees a huge crowd. The text tells us that his heart was moved with pity because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Then, he begins to teach them. Jesus sees their spiritual hunger and he instructs them. In the very next passage of Mark’s gospel, Jesus learns that the same crowd has no food. He then feeds them by multiplying the loaves and fishes. So, Jesus teaches those who are spiritually hungry and feeds those who are physically hungry. He does both because he has compassion on those he encounters.
Now, we always try to follow Jesus’ example, and there is nothing more Christian than helping those in need. But helping those in need is not as simple as it might first seem. In the real world we must always decide whether giving people what they want or what they need will help them or will hurt them. When we encounter someone who is poor, unemployed, uneducated, or wounded, we must decide whether our generosity to them will improve their life or make them dependent on further generosity from us or from others. Whether our generosity is personal or comes through governmental programs that address social ills, we must always decide whether the giving or the grant will lift the people from their need or relegate them to a life of dependency.
We cannot avoid making that choice. Here is where the example of Jesus is so important. Before Jesus decides whether he is going to give or not, before he decides whether he is going to help or not, he first has compassion on those who are in need. We must do the same. Let me be clear, having compassion for those in need does not necessarily mean we will help them. Sometimes our help is only an enablement of a problem. But unless we begin with compassion, we will not recognize that we have a choice to help or not.
We must begin with compassion rather than judgment, because when we begin with judgment we absolve ourselves from deciding whether it is proper to intervene or not. Imagine what would have happened in the gospel if Jesus began with judgment. If he stepped off the boat and said, “Look at all these spiritually dead people. Why don’t they take responsibility for their lives? Why don’t they spend more time in the temple or studying God’s law? Look at these foolish people coming out to a deserted place without food. How do they expect to eat if they do not even have the sense to carry a lunch with them?”
Jesus could have begun with judgment, but he began with compassion. We must do the same. But, how do we do that? How do we make our first step one of compassion? There is a saying that has been around in the Christian tradition for a long time. It is not in the bible, but all of you have heard it. It is used when we face someone in need. It says, “There for the grace of God go I.” If we could approach every person in need with that saying in mind, we would always be people of compassion. We would be people who realize that our lives could be different. What if we had different parents? What if we were born in another country? What if we were not as talented? What if we had genetic or health issues? We could easily find ourselves among the poor, the unemployed, the uneducated, and the wounded. When we understand that any person in need could be us, we would approach that person with compassion.
Again, let me emphasize that approaching people with compassion does not necessarily determine if or how we will help them. It is, however, the necessary foundation on which any decision to help must be made. If we are to follow Jesus’ example, we begin with compassion. And, compassion begins when we realize that there for the grace of God go I.