Compassion Is Possible — If We Too Have Grieved

feeding the peopleIt might be enough for us simply to read and meditate on the core of the Gospel for this 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 2, a beautiful passage which Matthew (like Luke) largely takes over from Mark 6:

When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. 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 the disciples gave them to the crowds. All ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.* (Matthew 14.14-21)

Jesus sees that they are hungry, and breaks through the pragmatism of his disciples — it can’t be done! In his compassion for the crowds he insists, “It can be done. Let us feed them all!”

In our broken world, there are SO many people in need, and SO many growing and alarming problems, that the simple insistence of Jesus — my people shall not go away hungry — is a consolation for us. It is a push too, that we do what we can without limiting ourselves to what we hold in our hands.

But doesn’t compassion run out? We talk today about compassion fatigue, our inability to keep empathizing with the ever increasing number of people in trouble: one more woe, one more disaster — what is this to me? If you are like me, you may have been tempted to stop reading the newspapers, checking websites, when BAD news seems to be only news. And you ask yourself, what have I done these past months for those most in need? I am safe and well; but what have I done?

So there is a basic question: how did Jesus become the person he was, always attentive and always simple enough to help people in need? Yes, we may quickly say, he is God come down on earth, and possessed of God’s limitless love. But in the context of Matthew 14 it becomes clear that it is more to the point to see that Jesus is one who, having suffered himself, cannot step away from his sisters and brothers who suffer.

beheading JohnThe context in Matthew 14 gives two clues. First, Jesus has just faced a personal loss. The first part of Matthew 14 recounts how, to avoid losing face before his dinner guests, Herod murders John the Baptist, who had been imprisoned simply for telling the truth about scandals in the palace. Jesus loses a friend and an ally, the man who opened the path for his own work. If we are to believe Luke, Jesus and John are cousins. Personal loss, and perhaps too the chill of premonition: Jesus can see that what happened to John can happen to himself.

Second, we are told:

Now when Jesus heard this news, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. (14.13)

Jesus faced up to his loss. He did not conceal his own grief at the death of John by a busier than ever schedule, or merely by denouncing the murderous king. He simply went off by himself to face the reality of failure and death, alone with himself and with God, meditating on the death of his dear friend.

Yet, he is not alone for long:

When the crowds heard that Jesus was there, they followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. (14.13-14)

prayingThough he wanted to be alone, he turned his grief and aloneness/loneliness into a source of healing for others. He knew what it meant to suffer a loss, to grieve, to lament the loss of a loved one, and this enabled him to not be afraid to enter upon the sufferings of others.

Like Jesus, we need to unclutter our lives, face up to our griefs, and thus create spaces within ourselves for grief to be felt, and thus for compassion to arise. We too need to seek out a desert place — literally, or by taking some quiet time even right at home — when we can face us to the suffering within us and around us. We need to admit that we suffer, we need to face up to our fears and suffering in the silence of self and God. Then, out of that quiet and honest place of grieving, like Jesus we can go forth, in compassion sharing the little we have to help meet the great needs of our sisters and brothers.

Jesus heals their sick, because they ask. But he also turns to the matter of their hunger, their need for food before their long walk back home, even when they are ashamed to ask for food.

We might think that Jesus could just have fed them on his own, manna falling from heaven. But he does not. He asks his disciples what they have; they must contribute the little they have, a few loaves and fishes that could not possibly feed even twenty people, much less thousands. They balked; perhaps they thought it absurd to try to feed the hungry thousads; perhaps they were just thinking of their own supper; perhaps they had run down on compassion for strangers. We too have reasons for holding back in the face of the needs of others. We too have only “five loaves and two fish.” But it is with those small gifts that God chooses to work. The little bread we have is never enough, but without it God does not feed the world.

But to let go of our loaves and fishes, to share them with the hungry, we need to feel pangs of compassion. We need to be a bit hungry ourselves. The logic of the whole passage then is that if we attend to our own losses and griefs and do not run away from our pains and losses, we will be able to notice more directly, from the heart, the suffering of people crossing our paths. If we have been hungry or sick or outcast, and have become honest about our losses, then we are likely to more like Jesus, compassionate, possessed of hearts that are open: suffering with those who suffer, because we have suffered; healing the sick, because we have been sick; feeding the hungry, because we know what it means to be hungry.

feed the hungrySee if you can find a copy of Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness. These words appear on the last page:

"We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying, “We need bread.” We could not say, “Go, be thou filled.”  If there were six small loaves and a few fishes, we had to divide them. There was always bread… We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship. We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community."

Day’s life’s journey was at times very hard, and lonely; and so she opened the doors of every Catholic Worker House, that no one would be homeless, no one entirely alone, no one hungry. (The founding of the Catholic Worker is described in a small book she fittingly entitles, Loaves and Fishes.) Every day of her long life, she tried to be like the Jesus we meet in Matthew 14, compassion arising from her own weakness and needs. So let us try to make our own the woes of the world: every woe and every loss and hunger on earth is mine too.

Enough for one Sunday! But Matthew 14 is not over, and there is still more to be said. After the meal, Jesus again seeks to be alone:

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.

But new troubles arise:

But by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them... (14.22-24)

Thus begins next Sunday’s Gospel. Take a peek and ask yourself, Why does the scene on the lake follow today’s scene of healing and feeding?

* Afterword: We say, “Jesus fed the 5,000,” but we need to break this bad habit. Even the reading admits, “Those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.” Should we not then at least double the numbers, assuming that then as now, more women showed up than men? Can we not finally, in the 21st century, actually count the women too, and the many children playing around the edges of the crowd? We need to become accustomed to count differently: the miracle of Jesus feeding the “8,000” or the “10,000.”

(21st in a series of homilies during the parish closures.)