In our Gospel reading this morning (Matthew 14.13-21) we`re told that when Jesus hears the news that John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod, he goes off to a deserted place by himself. Now I`m not convinced by those who suggest that here Jesus is being strategic, keeping out of harm`s way or even needing a rest I think we`re simply given a picture of Jesus needing the space to grieve over the death of his cousin. And it`s in the light of this that what happens next is all the more remarkable. Jesus`s attempt to withdraw for a while proves far from straightforward because we hear how this brief interlude is interrupted by crowds of people desperate for his help and what`s even more noticeable is how Jesus responds.
Saint Matthew doesn`t dwell on the details he simply tells us that Jesus had compassion on them; and as many a preacher has said the Greek word used here by Matthew implies that Jesus is `deeply moved`; he`s moved in the gut by what he witnessed of their need. And so this morning it`s this matter of compassion that I want to invite us to consider. This was clearly something which Matthew regarded as significant and it`s something people associated with Jesus. St. Paul for example makes a similar point when he declares his affection for the Church in Philippi by saying that he longs for them with the `compassion of Christ Jesus` (Phil 1.8) and then when he tells the Colossians that compassion is one of the virtues he expects to see in the life of the Christian community.
So what are we to say? Well I suppose the first thing is that Christian people would never claim that we have a monopoly on compassion; far from it. Compassion, the ability to empathise, be moved and respond to the plight of others is something that`s also greatly prized in wider society and that`s good. We see it by the heart-warming and really generous response people make whenever the media draw attention to the suffering of so many at home or abroad. But it`s not always that way is it? I mean we`re also aware that compassion isn`t automatic or easy.
Think for a moment of how the coverage of some tragedies can be so overwhelming that people begin to talk of what`s called `compassion fatigue`. And then, if we`re honest there are numerous ways in which we`re a bit selective in our capacity for compassion; sometimes we`re blind –even wilfully so- to the needs of those around us aren`t we? What I mean is that so often compassion comes with strings attached. It`s very easy to place quite stringent and judgemental boundaries on our willingness to engage sympathetically with others. This is why I can`t help thinking that there`s something important going on in this Gospel when Matthew tells us that Christ`s compassion is revealed in the context of his being interrupted.
It`s quite clear that Jesus has other (quite legitimate) things on his plate but this incident makes me wonder how far the test of compassion is in fact related to our willingness to be interrupted or perhaps to have our boundaries and assumptions challenged. For example, the first boundary that undermines our capacity for compassion is the tendency to label or put others into particular categories. I find it somewhat ironic that Jesus is assailed here by `the crowds`, because the point is that when people are referred to in the plural or described as `them`, the masses, the great unwashed, patients, `hard working families`, customers or `ordinary people` then you know that the climate is ripe for generalisation. When you label you can make assumptions and invariably your compassion is immediately dimmed because you can say things like, “Well that`s just typical”.
Check out your reaction to young parents with children: The writer Stephen Covey tells of an occasion he was sat on a train on the New York Underground. While people were sitting quietly in the carriage, a man came in with his noisy and chaotically behaved children. The man sat down and closed his eyes as though he was oblivious to their rowdiness. Eventually, feeling a bit agitated by all of this, Covey confronted the man about his children. The man opened his eyes and still seemed unaware of the fuss but eventually said “Oh, I suppose you`re right. I suppose I should do something but you see we just came from the hospital, where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”
The second boundary that undermines our capacity for compassion is the ease with which we seek to blame others for their plight. Some years ago a senior Police Officer was featured in the newspapers for saying that some members of his community were living in a `mess of their own making`. He used more graphic language than that but the clear implication was that these people didn`t deserve our compassion. What I found quite difficult about this at the time was that the man in question made quite a thing about professing his Christian faith. His attitude struck a chord of approval in certain sections of the press because such apparent moral clarity always has a ready following. But I was unable to find any instance where the compassion of God is linked to our deserving it. On the contrary, the writer of one of the Psalms says: `The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made`. (Psalm 145.9)Which is why for example, we need to be very cautious about tagging along behind politicians who talk about the `deserving` and the `undeserving` poor.
So our compassion can be limited by labelling and it can be limited by blaming. But thirdly, we`ve noticed in the news recently of another way in which compassion is undermined; I`m thinking of some aspects of professional care. Recently we`ve heard a lot about the alleged lack of compassion in some care homes and other aspects of health care and this has caused considerable alarm to say the least. Now in all fairness everyone in a supposedly caring profession is to some extent limited by appropriate professional boundaries; all of these can dictate the degree or terms on which they engage with people. This is something they live with daily and something of a minefield to negotiate. Some people would say, “Look the real point is that we get an efficient heart surgeon; whether he`s `kind` to me is neither here nor there”. But it`s never as simple as that.
You see, the downside to being efficient is that sometimes a person is treated like just `another case` and thereby diminished. Professional care always risks falling into the trap of organising and scheduling until compassion goes out of the window; the compassion that is revealed through simple human warmth and the willingness to have five minutes chat. The pursuit of such efficiency, in my experience, leaves far too many often vulnerable people bewildered by a range of different `professionals` calling at their home or bedside and not one of them is willing or able to tell the person being `cared` for what on earth is going on. Professional practice in this sense produces a boundary whereby the practitioner (there`s a loaded word) doesn`t have to `get involved` to the point where they take responsibility for anything other than their narrow field of expertise. Constrained by the role they occupy compassion becomes impossible. That`s not meant to sound unkind; it`s just that what media coverage has revealed to me is that so many professional carers are unable to realise that there is an issue.
Responsibility is the key. It doesn`t surprise me in the least that when the disciples balk at Jesus compassion for the crowds he says to them “You give them something to eat”. It`s far easier to think in terms of crowds; of `them`. It`s far easier to view others as unworthy of compassion. It`s far more convenient to hide behind boundaries that mean we don`t have to get involved on anything other than a superficial level but these are some of the things which undermine compassion. I was told by a wise old priest many years ago “Lad, if you`ve never sinned you`ll never help anyone”. He wasn`t relishing, as it were, falling down in faith he was simply saying that compassion it seems begins at home. It begins by an awareness of your own fallibility and yet of how precious you are before God.
And once this sense of his compassion for you takes hold, you can`t help noticing the uniqueness of the people before you. You begin to see them with a little more imagination empathy and without condemnation. And as Christ`s example teaches us, the compassionate heart understands and even expects to have your plans and your life interrupted by all manner of rough people; often the kind of people we`re taught by our culture to protect and insulate ourselves from. The call of compassion is never convenient. Indeed it`s the very `inconvenience` that we should look for as a sign that we`re being called to practice what we profess; as someone said: “So often God comes to you disguised as your life”.