What made him do it? He’d taken his little boat and found a nice quiet spot. Maybe it was time for a bit of carefree day dreaming rather than the earnest prayer we might usually think of, but his peace didn’t last.
The crowds he’d left behind were there again. All he wanted was a bit of peace of quiet yet there they are like lost sheep. Maybe he was tempted to say “Go away” or “Get lost” but he doesn’t, instead ‘He has compassion on them.’ He sees their need. They are hungry. So he has compassion on them, feeds them and in so doing reveals to them something of the nature of God’s love.
But what is compassion? How might we define it? Well for me, putting on one side precise dictionary definitions it’s something about both see another in need and how that need brings forth from us a change of heart. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.
Now you’re all much nicer than me but I’m afraid I can think of times when I’ve been arguing about something or other. In the midst of it I can certainly be angry but then often something happens for when I see the distress caused something changes, so that I don’t want to be angry and argue anymore.
For me that’s something about compassion taking over and changing the situation.
Think also for example of how you might once have held very strong opinions on things, like divorce or abortion or race or religion. Maybe once you were clear about what you believed until that is you become emotionally involved in a situation through family, friends and neighbours.
For when you walk alongside someone who is struggling, our compassion for them and therefore our understanding of those kind of situations changes.
Compassion changes things.
More widely, think also of how those images from Ethiopia in the 1980’s inspired Band Aid and Live Aid, those images inspired change rooted in compassion.
Likewise when we see through our television screens fellow human beings in need, through natural disaster, war and even through something like Children in Need, we are motivated to give, to pick up the phone by compassion.
Just think of this last week, who amongst us could not be moved by the United Nations spokesman in Gaza breaking down when he was trying to describe the deaths of the innocent in their care?
Compassion, unless something has gone wrong is part of who we are and reminds us of those of Ezekiel when he writes ‘A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh’.
Jesus had compassion on them.
The trouble is that despite compassion, being part of who really are, we human beings seem to sometimes lock it away, to wish for hearts of stone rather than hearts of flesh. We seem to forget how all of humanity is in some way diminished through our hardness of heart. So we hurt each other again and again.
Think of the World Wars (the 100th anniversary of the Beginning of the First World War is upon us) and so many other conflicts, one being played out tragically before us every day at the moment. Despite Christ unlocking our hearts, showing us how compassion can be a means for change we still want to settle things with rockets and mortars.
When that does happen then we need to be reconnected with compassion. To see the human faces behind the rhetoric, for each one matters and is precious to God. ‘He had compassion on them’.
That’s not to say that living compassionate lives isn’t demanding. How might Jesus have responded to the crowd had he not, even for a short time had, some time to be alone?
It’s interesting that in the Gospel’s Jesus in the midst of all the demands being placed upon him often needs time to be alone. For me that’s something about him needing to be renewed in the presence of God the Father, to remind himself amidst all the demands who he is.
Part of the privilege of my job is in some way to absorb stories, filled with joy and sadness, as every life us, sometimes though I’ve experienced what I came to see as ‘compassion fatigue’.
So I’ve come to learn that when I know my listening isn’t as attentive as it should be and I’m not as fully present with another as I need to be. Then something is wrong, perhaps I’ve ignored the need to recharge the batteries, even for just a few minutes, so that I be reconnected to the source of life and love, the author of all compassion and therefore be renewed.
Indeed we’ve probably all been caught by compassion fatigue at some time or another, turned on the news to more sadness and apparently thoughtless waste of life and sometimes we don’t know how to respond or what to do.
Yet even to watch in sometimes numbed silence and to shed a tear at the suffering of another isn’t a sign of weakness but hints at the compassion with which God sees the world he created.
‘He had compassion on them.’ And Jesus has compassion on us too, even when our hearts do sometimes turn to stone, he melts our hard hearts again and again and invites to see how through compassion things can and do change.
So what happened in the field? It would have been easy for Jesus to say “They should’ve taken more food!”, “Why didn’t they prepare better”, “They need to live with their mistake and be hungry”.
Yet Jesus sees beyond the crumbs and impossibility to abundance and possibility. The loaves and fishes become enough, more than enough in fact. How might those who were there have been changed?
And the same is true in his relationship with us.
He sees beyond the crumbs and impossibility, beyond even the piles of rubble in Gaza, re fashions the hearts of stone we sometimes create into hearts of flesh which though they feel pain, sadness are also capable of giving life, love and hope – the very things that Jesus did.
So what made him do it? Compassion.
Grant to us O Lord, Hearts fashioned by Compassion. Amen.