Read Mark 6:30-34
I want to look at one verse from today’s gospel reading. “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd…”
I think of Muradif Music. Several years ago, we welcomed Muradif, Nezira, Maida and Admir to Lincoln from Bosnia. They had been displaced by the Balkan civil wars and genocidal policies of all the warring parties. It was our honor to welcome them as friends and to help them settle in their adopted country.
Muradif is about my height. When he arrived with us, he weighed one hundred fifty pounds. You need to know that he was up twenty-five pounds from the days when his family was hiding in fear for their lives. In those days, they often had very little food. Muradif would not eat until his family had been fed. In fact, Muradif could not eat until his family had been fed. He told me that if he ate first, he felt sick afterward. So on many days he did not eat all.
For me, Muradif is a picture of the compassion we hear described in the gospels. The Greek word for compassion is “splagknizomai.” That word is related to the noun that we would translate as “guts” or intestines.” So compassion is the original “gut feeling.”
“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.
Let’s listen again to Mark six, verse thirty-four. “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd…” Compassion gets us to the guts of God. That’s my main thought for today, so I want to say it again. Compassion gets us to the guts of God.
I will use the gospels themselves to build that case. In the first chapter of Mark, a leper kneels at Jesus’ feet. “If you choose,” he begs, “you can make me clean.” Mark tells us that Jesus responds with compassion. It’s too bad that the New Revised Standard Version translates the noun as “pity.” Jesus is moved in his guts to respond to the man’s tragedy. And he heals him. Compassion gets us to the guts of God.
In Luke, chapter seven, we read about a widow from the village of Nain. Her only son had died and was being carried to the tomb. Again, Jesus had “compassion” on her and raised her son back to life. The word for “compassion” is used in the New Testament only for God and for people who act like God. So in Luke 10, the Good Samaritan has compassion on the man who was beaten, robbed, and left for dead. In Luke 15, the forgiving father has compassion on the Prodigal Son and welcomes him home. It would make God sick to the Divine stomach to abandon us to the powers of sin, death and evil.
Compassion gets us to the guts of God.
Compassion is always up close and personal. That’s why God chooses to take up residence among us. God will not settle for being a tourist! I love the words from the second chapter of Hebrews, verses seventeen and eighteen. “Therefore [Jesus] had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect…Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” The Incarnation—the Word made flesh and living among us—is how God’s compassion looks.
So think about your deepest difficulties. Meditate on your greatest pain. Face your foolishness and failings. Take a few moments to meditate on the broken places in your life.
Now take a deep breath. I am here to tell you that Jesus is there ahead of you and with you. You can’t surprise him. You can’t horrify him. You can’t exhaust or exceed his compassion for you. So we can own our stories rather than being owned by them. That’s what we call “Good News”!
This is contrary to what the world thinks of God. I grew up with Bette Middler singing “From a Distance.” Pretty melody, but terrible theology—“God is watching us from a distance…” Nothing could be further from the truth. Revelation twenty-one, verse three, says it best. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them…”
Compassion gets us to the guts of God.
“Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile,” wrote Albert Einstein (a reasonably intelligent fellow, as I recall). We are made for compassion. When we act on that gut feeling we most resemble God. Our call as the church is to embody Jesus’ compassion in the lives of others. We exist only to go out and never to turn in.
This is how Paul puts it in Colossians three, verse twelve: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” he writes, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Research psychologists are showing that we are hard-wired for compassion. People who are unable to feel compassion for others are regarded as damaged and dangerous.
The opposite of compassion is neither hatred nor indifference. The opposite of compassion is fear. These words from First John, chapter four, verse eighteen, say it best: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
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” – 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).
Compassion means letting others into our hearts. Compassion means taking the energy to imagine what life is really like for another person. Compassion means suffering with another person. Compassion is always a risk. So our fears are natural. That’s why we must pray for God’s Holy Spirit to fill us with courage and to move us to action. Take some time today to reflect on where the Holy Spirit is calling you to exercise compassion for another.
As we move from the Royal Birthday Banquet, where cruelty is the point, to the Messianic Banquet in the wilderness, where compassion is abundant, we move from human degradation to human flourishing. Jesus is not only the true King but also the truly human one.
In his book, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community, John Pavlovitz discusses the feeding miracles. He notes, first of all, that the feeding is not limited to a guest list. “There’s no altar call, no spiritual gifts assessment, no membership class, no moral screening, no litmus test to verify everyone’s theology and to identify those worthy enough to earn a seat at the table,” Pavlovitz writes. “Their hunger and Jesus’ love for them alone, nothing else, make them worthy. This is a serious gut check for us” (page 62).
There is abundant space and abundant provision in the “kingdom of God” which draws near in Jesus. But my experience of the Church is that it is far too much like me – far too worried about whether there will be enough for all. But relying on Jesus means there will be enough for all. “The Church will thrive,” Pavlovitz writes, “only to the degree it is willing to be about making space for a greater swath of humanity and by recognizing the redemptive power of real relationships” (page 63).
The role of the disciples is not to make sure there’s enough food. The role of the disciples is to make a bigger table. That’s the role we resist so often. “Expanding the table isn’t about digging in our heels around religious rules, doctrine, or dogma.” Pavlovitz argues. “Those things will always provide us reason to disconnect from others. They will always become obstacles. No,” he concludes, “this is about the mind-set with which we gather with people, about creating a space where the differences can be both openly acknowledged and fully welcomed” (page 63).
When you get God’s gut feeling, don’t be afraid to respond. Compassion gets us to the guts of God.
Pastor Lowell R. Hennigs