Compassion: Who, What, When, Where, and How?

July 22, 2018
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

A couple of weeks ago, my twelve year old sister Sophia called me no less than six times in four days. That same week, she texted me five times and I responded halfheartedly to two of those five texts. Presumably, she wanted to talk about the art camp she was participating in, how excited she was that our family might have found a house of our own in our new hometown of Goshen, or how she was feeling about going to a new school. But I say that’s “presumably” what she wanted to talk about, because I wouldn’t know, since I didn’t answer a single one of her phone calls. I was annoyed that she didn’t text me before calling to make sure I wasn’t working or busy. In a few of the cases, I decided not to pick up because I knew she would be too energetic, speaking excitedly, and I just didn’t feel in the mood for that, even though that flair for a passionate way of speaking is something she probably picked up from me. Sophia just moved to a new town and is preparing to go to a new school, and in her times of need, I am not there because her needs feel more trivial than the needs I have or the work I’m doing. In all reality, her problems and needs are just as valid, and taking the time out of my day to talk with her would not have negatively affected me. Meeting her needs with advice and encouraging words would have been all too easy for me, even if it meant taking time out of my day. But I made the mistake of choosing to respond to her need with annoyance, not compassion.

Our text today models Jesus’s compassion in an instance where, unlike me, he had every right to respond with annoyance. These two sets of verses bookend the much more commonly known text of Jesus feeding the five thousand in the wilderness, yet there’s still much to learn from these passages at the beginning and end of the famous miracle.

Earlier in the chapter, in verses seven through thirteen, we are told how Jesus sends out his twelve disciples. He asks them to proclaim renewal and repentance. He gives them the ability to cast out demons and unclean spirits from people, to anoint the sick and heal them. Some translations say that he endows them with this ability and commissioned them, evoking a further understanding in the importance of this work he is asking his disciples to do. Jesus instructs his disciples to take nothing with them but a staff. He tells them not to take food, money, or extra clothes, instead, he instructs them to rely on the hospitality of others. The disciples set out, working in villages to proclaim and teach repentance, perform exorcisms, heal the sick, and build Jesus’ movement of renewal.

When they return to Jesus, the disciples have much to report about all they had taught and done. Jesus has a retreat planned for him and his disciples. They are going to go across the lake to a solitary, deserted, and quiet place in order to get some rest. They have just done rigorous spiritual work and traveled extensively. They need this retreat, and Jesus is giving them the time and space for their own renewal. After traveling by boat to get to this quiet place, Jesus and his disciples go ashore to find it is not so solitary after all. A crowd of people saw Jesus and the disciples leaving, recognized them, and ran through all of the nearby villages to beat Jesus and his disciples to their destination. So, to recap–at this point, the disciples are rightfully exhausted, Jesus and his disciples are supposed to be having this restful retreat together, and a huge crowd of people are waiting in their retreat space, wanting the attention of Jesus. Awesome. I don’t know about you, but I think I would be fairly annoyed that these people are preventing me from my rest. But that isn’t how Jesus responds. He sees that this large crowd are like “sheep without a shepherd”, lacking a leader, needing a teacher, longing for spiritual care. Jesus feels compassion for them and starts teaching them.

Fast forward to the end of the text, verses fifty three through fifty six. Jesus and the disciples have now traveled to a place called Gennesaret. They tie up their boat, and as soon as they set foot on land, people recognize Jesus. Crowds of people start running around the villages, the towns, the country, gathering and bringing the sick to Jesus, laying the sick down in the open spaces, begging for the chance to touch even the fringe of Jesus’s cloak. And everyone who touches Jesus is healed. The Anchor Bible commentary describes these scenes of healing as “divine grace roar[ing] through each town square.” You can’t get more compassionate than divine grace.

True compassion is not just pity or sympathy for someone. True compassion has two components. Compassion is an awareness of the needs or distress of others coupled with action to help them.

In both of these examples, we see Jesus exhibiting true compassion. He recognizes the need or the distress of the people, and takes action by teaching or healing. It would be easy to look at this text and these examples, draw the conclusion that Jesus wants us to be compassionate, and stop there. While a call for compassion is certainly part of it, and ending there would make for a much shorter sermon, I believe that this conclusion alone would miss a couple essential lessons we can pull from this text.

First of all, this text shows us that we need to discern who is in need of our compassion. In the example given in the first part of the text, Jesus discerns that the crowd of people have needs that are more urgent. I don’t doubt that the disciples deserve their retreat, and Jesus doesn’t invalidate the need for personal rest after periods of hard work. After all, verse forty six of this chapter tells us that Jesus spends time in solitary prayer after the feeding of the five thousand. I believe this shows us that Jesus is a firm supporter of self care. But Jesus recognizes that the crowd of people were sheep without a shepherd, and that their spiritual needs could not wait, so Jesus responds with compassion and teaches them. It’s all too easy to be compassionate towards people we know well, or people who may have some sort of privilege. Yet part of compassion is acting on need or distress of others, which requires us to discern, even when it’s difficult, where that need or distress is.

Secondly, this text shows us that compassion depends on the individuals involved and the context. Compassion is not one size fits all. Compassionate responses vary based on the context of the situation and the needs and capacities of the individuals. For example, in the first half of our text, Jesus recognizes that the people are “sheep without a shepherd”, a phrase which is frequently used to describe a group of people without a leader such as a prophet or king. It can also be used to describe a group of people who have a corrupt and exploitative leader instead of one who cares for them, as a shepherd would care for sheep. Seeing that this crowd lacks a leader who cared, Jesus’s compassionate response is to teach, to be a leadership figure who does care. His response fits the needs of the people. In the second part of the text, Jesus chooses a different response. People from all over the region are bringing him their sick and laying them in the open spaces in the towns, farms, and cities, begging for healing. Imagine if Jesus had tried to meet needs by only teaching in this situation. Would his message be impactful to this group of people? I don’t think so. To a desperate bunch of sick people, teaching can only go so far. Instead, verse fifty six says, “all who touched Jesus got well”. Jesus responds to the needs of the people, sick people, laying in front of him by healing them. The compassionate act fit the needs of the people and the capabilities of Jesus. And although the text doesn’t tell us this, we can be sure that by meeting the needs in front of him, Jesus’s acts of compassion are a strong and lasting testament to his messages of repentance and renewal.

To be clear: I don’t believe that this text asks us to be compassionate in times when our physical, mental, or emotional health or safety is at risk. Instead, I believe it calls us to be compassionate by responding when a need arises in front of us, in our everyday lives – even if it’s annoying, even if it requires going out of our way, even when it would be easier for us to overlook the distress of others. Yes, compassionate acts can be big and bold, such as Jesus feeding five thousand or healing massive numbers of people. But they can also be small, everyday acts. In a world where there are some overwhelmingly bad things happening and harmful systems being perpetuated, it’s grounding to remember that small acts of compassion are important too. I think author Glennon Doyle Melton explains it well when she writes, “Compassion does not just happen. Pity does, but compassion is not pity. It’s not a feeling. Compassion is a viewpoint, a way of life, a perspective, a habit that becomes a discipline – and more than anything else, compassion is a choice we make that love is more important than convenience.”

Here are a few examples of people who chose love over convenience – compassion – in their daily lives this past week. Compassion is when Lori spent forty five minutes on the phone with me, even though she was working, because I put dish soap in the dishwasher, causing soap suds to spill out of the dishwasher and all over the kitchen floor of the church, which then temporarily stopped the dishwasher from working. Compassion is when Ana, the woman who cleans the church, helped me clean the soapy mess, and when Su took time out of her day to fix the dishwasher. Compassion is when none of these women yelled at me or chastised me for my stupid mistake, instead, Lori reminded me that it was a learning experience we could laugh about later. Compassionate responses to my dishwasher crisis at seven o’clock on a Monday morning saved me from a day of grumpiness, because I was helped instead of scolded or left to fend for myself.

If you’re thinking about how to apply more compassion to your daily pursuits, I invite you to join me in wrestling with these questions. How can you respond to others with compassion instead of annoyance or an attitude of flippancy? (pause) What does that response look like for you? (pause) How can you discern the moments where we need to have compassion for others and where we need to have compassion for ourselves? (pause)

These are big questions, and I don’t have all of the answers, especially since the answers can be different depending on the individual and the context. But here’s my challenge to all of us: fill the world around you with compassion by choosing love over convenience, love over annoyance, and love over flippancy. If there is a person or situation in your life that is comparable to the persistent little sister in mine, choose compassion to address it. This week, I called her– and it positively impacted both of us.

May we recognize the need and distress of others in our daily lives, and may Jesus grant us the love and patience to respond compassionately.