Last Hugs and Lost Sheep
This will be our last adventure with the Gospel of Mark until August 29, which is 15 Pentecost B. We are soon entering our triennial sojourn with the week-after-week examination of the Bread of Life Discourse and related texts in John 6.
While I find the Discourse engaging and compelling, I always find it to be just too much. I learned after the first go-round to schedule vacation and/or continuing education during this time in order to create a break from the monotony. Alternatively, one can engage in a series on Ephesians, the second lessons during this stretch. I have enjoyed that strategy as well.
Once I thought I might use the same message for six weeks straight to see who noticed. I chickened out on the whole strategy. But I did use the same half of the message to prepare the various points I was making in each of the six weeks. My spouse noticed. The organist noticed. I received no other comments in that regard.
I find that the biggest drawback to this part of the lectionary schedule is that we miss out on some very central passages in Mark’s gospel. We have Mark’s own account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the story of Jesus Walking on Water. This approach creates the impression that the account in Mark can be consumed in bite-sized chunks which have little connection with or impact on the other chunks.
Perhaps it is already clear that I don’t care for this treatment of Mark’s account. I would be quite happy with a major overhaul of the Revised Common Lectionary – a four-year approach that allows the gospel of John its own year.
That might, unfortunately, put many of us out of sync with the Roman Catholic schedule of readings, but perhaps that could be negotiated. While we’re at it, let’s also negotiate fixing Easter on the third Sunday of April each year, since we cannot be sure of the exact date in any event.
Now that I have repaired the major deficiencies in the lectionary and liturgical schedules, let’s actually look at the text. While I don’t think I would advocate reading all of Mark 6:30-56 in liturgical worship, the preacher dealing with this text needs to take that whole stretch into account.
If one were to read the whole text, however, I would suggest breaking it into pieces. Perhaps one could connect verses 30-34 with a Call to Worship. One might use verses 53-56 as a Call to Prayer. Then one could break up the Feeding Story and the Walking story with the appointed psalm or a hymn or both. I have found this to be a useful way to deal with the text and tie it to worship.
We move from the Royal Birthday Banquet, where cruelty is the point, to the Messianic Banquet in the wilderness, where compassion is abundant. “And as he was exiting [the boat], he saw a numerous crowd,” the gospel writer tells us, “And he had compassion upon them because they were as sheep who did not have a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things” (my translation).
It is one of my favorite verses, containing one of my favorite Greek words: splagchnizomai. It means to have pity or feel sympathy, usually for or toward someone. The verb has a noun form, splagchnon, which means inward parts, or entrails (see BAGD, 762-763). I like to translate it as “guts.”
“Guts” in the ancient Mediterranean are the location of the emotions, or more properly, emotion-fused thought. That’s why the NRSV and other modern translations often render the noun as “heart.” I’m not all that excited with that choice, although I get the connection. I’d rather stick with the actual location that the word intends and let it jerk our heads around a bit with its strangeness.
The ancients were not ignorant of emotional experience as it is expressed in our bodies. We talk about going with our gut or feeling it in our gut. That is more than a metaphor. In fact, our intestines are a significant location for neural fibers. There is a sort of neural superhighway between our guts and our brains. Often, neuroscientists have found, we know things in our guts before we know them in our brains.
That’s not to say that our understanding of the heart as a “location” of emotions is mistaken. My heart can hurt – not metaphorically – in the midst of grief and loss. My heart can feel happy – not metaphorically – in the midst of joy. My heart races in experiences of fear and anticipation. Emotions are suffused throughout our bodies, and the data is fed constantly to our brains for interpretation.
It’s worth re-reading Koester’s article on the word group in Volume VII of the TDNT (pages 548-559). He notes that the noun originally refers to the “inward parts” offered in sacrifices to the Greek gods. It was not a word that described mercy or compassion in those settings. That usage comes about in Jewish and early Christian writings.
In the Christian scriptures, only the verb appears (with a few exceptions), and it is always applied to Jesus, either directly or in parabolic reference. It appears in the Parables of the Wicked Servant, the Prodigal Son, and the Good Samaritan. The primary usage in Mark’s account is here, connected with the Feeding of the 5000. “Jesus is theologically characterized here as the Messiah,” Koester writes, “in whom the divine mercy is present” (page 554). Thus, more than an emotion, this word describes the character of God as revealed in Jesus.
Does this make “compassion” an unusual or exceptional characteristic? I would argue that Jesus is portrayed in Mark’s account and elsewhere as the depiction and definition of what it means to be truly and fully human as well as truly and fully divine. Therefore, compassion is an expression of true and full humanity, not only in Jesus, but also in each and all of us.
In an age when cruelty is often the point in human relationships and political realities, it’s worth spending time on the notion of and reality of compassion. Is this experience limited to just a few exceptional humans, or is it our default condition? Is compassion limited to homo sapiens, or do other species experience and express this and other emotions? These questions have been the concentrations of study in a number of disciplines in the last few decades.
I think of Frans de Waal’s book, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves. The book is anchored by an account of the relationship between the scientist, Jan van Hooff, and Mama, at the time the world’s oldest chimpanzee, under van Hooff’s care and study. The two had a relationship that spanned more than forty years.
After an extended time apart, with Mama near death, van Hooff makes a final visit. That encounter is recorded in a moving YouTube video, which you can see here. The scientists observe behavior that Mama expressed in comforting her young at times of fright. “This was typically Mama,” de Waal writes, “she must have sensed Jan’s trepidation about invading her domain, and she was letting him know not to worry. She was happy to see him” (page 14).
Western thought has held for millennia that humans are somehow separate from and superior to (other) animals. Contemporary research shows much more continuity between species. In theological terms, I would suggest that compassion is stitched into the fabric of Creation and is expressed in myriad ways by multiple species. “Buried by a mass of fresh data,” de Waal writes, “the idea that behavior is invariably self-serving has died an inglorious death. Science has confirmed that cooperation is our species’ first and foremost inclination” (page 99).
In fact, de Waal observes, it is our capacity for compassion that makes cruelty even possible. Our sensitivity to one another’s emotions makes it possible for us to exploit those emotions to harm another. “Being an effective torturer, for example,” he writes, “requires knowing what hurts the most” (page 103).
The existence of human cruelty is an argument that human empathy is real but can be used for good or evil. As the writer of Mark’s gospel portrays “The Tale of the Two Tables” (please see previous posts for a description of this), we can see the use of empathy in the cruelty of Herodias at the Royal Birthday Banquet as well as we can see it here in our text.
We are made for empathy that results in “pro-social behavior” – the fancy way that scientists use to describe doing good things with and for others. “Human beings evolved to reverberate with the emotional states of others, to the point that we internalize, mostly via our bodies, what is going on with them,” de Waal argues. “This is social connectivity at its best, the glue of all animal and human societies, which guarantees supportive and comforting company” (page 120).
The place we most readily internalize that compassion is in our guts. When we act on that internal prompting to do good for others, we are at our most human (and our most divine). We will continue this conversation in the next post.
References and Resources
De Waal, Frans. Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.