Readings: Genesis 32:23-33; Psalm 17; Matthew 9:32-38
There are dozens of references throughout the Scriptures to the compassion of God. In the historical books, in the psalms, in the prophets, God promises to be compassionate to his people and the people pray that God will be compassionate towards them. God withdraws his compassion in response to their sin and indifference, and promises once again to show compassion as part of his reconciliation of the people to Himself.
So if God is anything, God is compassionate. And so it ought not to be a surprise to find Jesus, the messenger of God, feeling compassion for the people who are harassed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd. What draws attention to it is the Greek term that is used in Matthew 9, one of the most physical words in the New Testament. Although compassion in God cannot be a feeling because God does not have a heart that might miss a beat, or intestines that might turn over, or a stomach in the pit of which God might feel something, Jesus however feels all these things, the combination of physical, emotional and intellectual response that make up the human experience of compassion: feeling pity for another, dismay at their situation, and wondering what one might or ought to say or do about it.
These moments of compassion in Jesus, which occur frequently in the gospels, are the divine compassion translated into human language. If God were to be among us, this is how God would respond to our situation if God is, indeed, compassionate. The divine compassion in human language refers, of course, not to the Greek or English terms we might use, but to this feeling in the bowels of Christ (as Paul puts it), this movement in the heart of Christ, this teaching on the lips of Christ (which is what Mark says his compassion urges him to do in the first place), the actions undertaken by the feet of Christ and by the hands of Christ.
Creation itself, we are told by theologians, can be understood as a work of divine compassion. God takes pity on what is nothing, we might say, is filled with compassion for all that is not, and so causes things to be. And his eye continues to be drawn to the most needy parts of his creation. His eye is drawn to Israel, the Book of Deuteronomy says, the most needy of the peoples of the earth. A puny worm, Israel, a sad and promiscuous girl discarded by her lovers at the side of the road (so Ezekiel paints the picture for us).
God condescends by showing compassion but it is condescension in a positive rather than a negative sense. He steps down from his high place and reaches into the lives of his people so as to rescue them, chastise them, bring them back, and sometimes even turn the hearts of their captors so that they will be more compassionate towards captive Israel. God patronises his people by showing compassion but it is patronage in a positive rather than a negative sense, the one who is full of gifts – being and life and intelligence – choosing to share what He has and what He is with those who are nothing and have nothing. It would be strange for the creature and the sinner to resent the condescension and patronage of God.
But it seems also that the compassion of God is exclusive and selective. Certainly this is how the Old Testament speaks of it but it is also how Jesus speaks of it in today’s gospel reading. Although God is Creator and Lord of all things and of all peoples, this living and true God is the Lord, the God of Israel, and it is through Israel that his compassion is made present in the world.
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus is often presented as the new Moses, the new lawgiver and leader of an Israel restored. So here, he says that the apostles, whom he is sending out to heal and preach and exorcise – in other words to do the same works of compassion as he himself has been engaged in – they are to go ‘to the lost sheep of the House of Israel’, not to the Gentiles and not to the Samaritans. It seems as if the divine compassion is not only condescending and patronising but is now selective and exclusive.
But this is the order in which the divine compassion is revealed, the plan originally promised to Moses and David and Isaiah and Jeremiah, that it would be in Israel and through Israel that God would visit his people and establish his kingdom. ‘Salvation is from the Jews’, Jesus says even more bluntly to the Samaritan woman in John 4.
This reminds us that the compassion of God is not an idea, a pleasant thought with which we might comfort ourselves in those times when we need poetry and music. It reminds us that the compassion of God has taken flesh and come to dwell among people, within this world and its history. That compassion is incarnated in a people to whom God gives his law and with whom God seals his covenant. It is always, from the very beginning when he made a covenant with Abraham, that God is choosing Israel for the sake not only of Israel but also of all the nations for whom Israel is the sign.
A text in Isaiah 14 seems to be important background to what Jesus says when he is moved with compassion for the people: ‘the Lord will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel and will set them in their own land and aliens will join them and attach themselves to the house of Jacob’ (14.1). I will indeed have compassion for you, God says later through Isaiah, just as a woman cannot fail to have compassion for her child, and that compassion is seen in the fact that they will all gather, they will all come to you (Isaiah 49.15,18).
Israel retains its place in the ‘order of compassion’ even as the disciples of Jesus are becoming a new Israel, the Church, which is in its turn a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. As the earlier promises of divine compassion become flesh in the body and feelings and thoughts of Jesus, in his words and in his actions, in his teaching and in his training of teachers to teach after him, so new promises and possibilities of divine compassion are realised. This is what we, as Christians, believe: the Holy Spirit, the spirit of compassion, has been poured on these same apostles chosen by Jesus, witnesses of his death and resurrection, and that they have gone out and established a new people of God in the world, the Church which in its turn is the sign and sacrament for the nations of the compassion of God.
The particular, as before, is at the service of the universal. God calls individuals and groups for the ‘apostolate’, as we say, to be sent out and to work within the world for its salvation and reconciliation and healing. All who are baptised in Christ and confirmed as adult Christians in the Church participate in some way in the apostolate. In other words we, in our turn, are not just recipients of the compassion of God but agents of that compassion, members of the body of Christ, called to translate the pity we feel in our bodies and in our hearts, into words and actions. Compassion may begin in the bowels and the stomach but it is to find its way to the heart and beyond that to the hands and the feet, a response to the world’s need that finds its way into teaching and into action.