16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The movie Lawrence of Arabia contains an unforgettable scene. Lawrence and a party of Arabs are crossing a desert in a blinding sandstorm. Suddenly they discover someone is missing. “It’s the worthless Turk, Jasmin,” an Arab says. “Forget about him,” says another. “He’s sick anyway; he’s not worth looking for.”
So, the Arabs continue on. But Lawrence refuses to abandon the sick Turk. He goes back and risks his life to look for him. He finds him and brings him back to safety.
Lawrence’s concern for the ‘worthless’ Turk is a good picture of Jesus’ concern for people. This is clearly demonstrated in today’s gospel passage which speaks of Jesus’ compassion – and it says, “When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
What does it mean to have pity or compassion? The Bible does not explicitly define compassion. St. Mark, in today’s gospel reading, does not also explain what this line means: “his heart was moved with pity for them.” What Mark shows us is what Jesus does when his heart is moved to compassion.
Mark spends the remainder of the sixth chapter of his Gospel showing us what Jesus does out of compassion for people: teaching people in need of instruction, and then feeding then, comforting his disciples and allaying their fears, healing people who are sick. In other gospel passages, out of compassion for people, Jesus forgives sinners, comforts those in misery, warns with stern words the proud and unrepentant. Everything Jesus does is rooted in this compassion.
As Jesus’ disciples, we are called to put into practice this compassion. And if we are to put compassion into practice, we need to know what is involved. In order to be compassionate, at the very least, we need to be sensitive to the suffering of others. We need to feel their suffering. It needs cultivating and tending in us if it is to find expression in our daily life.
Jesus’ compassion must provoke in us, not only admiration, but imitation. The compassion we refer to easily adopts a multitude of shapes and forms. It can take the form of attentive presence and listening to someone who needs to be listened to. It can take the form of words of affirmation and encouragement to the depressed. It can take the form of a visit to the sick, or a gift to the financially strapped. It can take the form of a gesture of forgiveness to someone who has wronged us. Each of these “shapes and forms” of compassion manifests Jesus’ ongoing concern and ministry “for those who are like sheep without a shepherd.” Like Jesus, compassion should move us to do something for someone who is in misery and poverty.
Fr. Francis Cruz, my best friend, wrote a song, titled Fragile Vessel. Part of it says, “Grant me, Lord, two strong arms that would lock in a warm embrace… a watchful eye to search out every sheep. Another stanza says, “Break me, Lord, that I may learn to love other broken things… to pardon those who know not pardoning… to know true life in dying.
And the refrain goes like this: Teach me, Lord, To mingle my own tears with other tears… To lend a sigh to those whose lives are sighs. That all may know You also weep. Make me, Lord, A fragile vessel of Your very love… That men will want to break to get inside. And savor the sweetness that is You. This is what compassion is all about.
Henri Nouwen tells us, “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain… to share in the brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish of the other person.” “Compassion challenges us to cry with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears.” “Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, to be vulnerable with the vulnerable, to be powerless with the powerless.”