Saturday, July 18, 2015

Compassion - an introduction to God

Sunday 19 July 2015

Readings: 2 Sam 7: 1-14a; Eph 2: 11-22; Mark 6: 30-34; 53-56.

Another foray into Mark after a hard week watching Europe.  A slightly different resonance today though.

About 24 hours ago there was a feature on some international news channels of a debate between the German Chancellor and a forum of young people in Germany. One of the teenagers who spoke was a young Palestinian refugee who was fearful that she and her family would be sent back to their homeland.  As Angela Merkel explained the difficulty of politics and the decisions that had to be made, and that Germany could not help everyone, the girl broke down in tears and Angela Merkel moved over to her to comfort her.  

In this brief moment of TV news we catch a snapshot of the great dilemma between the abstract issues of policy and the particular and human reality affected by the implementation of policy.

I understand that Chancellor Merkel has been criticised for her efforts to comfort the girl but I admire her desire to do so.  For a moment she crossed over the boundary of policy and entered the particular world of hurting humanity.  Yes, there is some irony here in the light of recent events over Greece and much more could be said – yet, nonetheless, she showed compassion – and good on her doing so!

Compassion is the attitude that shines from the gospel this morning.  

Sermon on the Mount, Cosimo Roselli 1481
Our reading today is a bridging passage in the gospel: it recapitulates some of the training of the disciples in the earlier chapters who report what they have done and taught and their subsequent departure with Jesus to a desolate place recalls all the barren holy places in the great narratives of the scriptures – the wanderings of the patriarchs, the testing of Moses, Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness; the wilderness of John the Baptist and the early prophets; and the desolate place of Jesus’ testing. 

So this move to the desolate place is a move to the formative place, the domain where God speaks and we are taught, fed by the Word.

And yet there is an irony – this move to the desolate place turns out to be a move to a crowded space!  The move has been followed, even anticipated, and Jesus and his disciples are faced by a crowd of searching, anxious, even desperate people.  

Immediately the focus changes and the disciples’ formational needs are absorbed into Jesus’ response to human need.  He is filled with compassion – and it is helpful to remember that both the Greek and Hebrew equivalents for ‘compassion’ carry a sense of the innermost being, of the guts or even the womb.  This compassion issues from the very being of God: this is a moment when Mark gives us a clear sense of what God is really like.

Detail, Trials of Moses, Botticelli,1481
Note how it is expressed: Jesus recognises them as being like sheep without a shepherd.  That is an ancient image for the relation between God and his people.  It is drawn from the Old Testament where God is the ‘Shepherd of Israel’, the one who in the Psalms ‘led Joseph like a flock’ (Psalm 80). So Jesus gathers this flock about him and begins to teach them. 

This not a classroom lesson but a kind of feeding, a nourishment, a vital sustenance that addresses the soul’s deepest hunger and calms the most desperate existential anxiety.  Food will follow but for the moment the deepest most urgent craving must be met – so Jesus teaches them.  They are, you may say, introduced to God.

Deeply embedded here is an implicit understanding of what it means to be human.  In the creation stories of Genesis we are reminded that we are made in the image of God.  This is why people seek Jesus out; why they crave what he has to give them; why they recognise in him the source and deep ground of their being.  This divine source, this imprint of God in our being, is manifest in many ways.  The love of beauty, which may well include such aspects as the passion for truth and learning, has always been regarded as a sign of the divine imago in us.  While we may all have different ideas of beauty our attraction to it is a sign of God in us – and the early Fathers of the Church have taught us accordingly.

Also embedded here is the recognition that the divine image in us can become so defaced by sin that our response or recognition of God can be suppressed.  That I think is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching – he rekindles hope and insight; he reawakens the image of God in us all and, draws us toward himself, draws us into God.

As we are drawn toward Jesus, so we experience the divine compassion, that deep embrace of God’s love that anchors us in time and eternity.  To experience that is to be changed and taught to love.  Not just love for those we love, it is so easy to feel compassion for our children, family and friends, but that is just practice for the real thing.

Which is? Well, why did Jesus say ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do?’  That’s the real thing; that’s compassion – and it was said for us, to teach us how to love; to love our enemies; and to love in that way – to love even those who would hurt us, no, especially them – is to change the world.

I do not pretend to understand this or how it works.  I merely assert that this is what I believe.  I am no more successful in loving this way than anyone else; but this is what I would stumble towards.

In a hurt and troubled world, in a conflicted Europe, in a planet damaged by human greed, we catch a glimmer of the divine compassion in Chancellor Merkel’s gentleness toward a frightened Palestinian teenager.  In such moments we catch a glimmer of our true selves and a glimmer of what we can be, what we are made to be, and what we need to be, for there to be hope for suffering humankind and for our exploited planet.

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