22 July 2018
Jeremiah 23.1- 6
If I were to name a saint I would certainly name a certain woman in our neighbourhood when I was growing up. She had a young son who had Parkinson’s disease and although at first it wasn’t serious, over the years it became progressively so. By his early teenage years he was almost totally incapacitated. At that stage it was thought he wouldn’t live beyond 20. Amazingly he lived until he was almost 40 and for the last 20 years of her life this woman was a slave of love. She couldn’t even leave the house because of his needs. She was totally given over to the care of her son and, in fact, died some years before him, worn out from exhaustion.
Unselfishness is never easy. Some times it is easier than at others. Isn’t it easier when we plan our own deeds, when these are of our own choosing, when we happen to be in good mood and it causes a minimum of inconvenience and disruption? At other times unselfishness is particularly difficult: when the deed is not of our own choosing, when we don’t feel in the mood and it is sprung on us at awkward moments. In such cases we have to forget ourselves and set aside our own feelings and plans. A real sacrifice is involved. Isn’t it a great test of a person when, at the drop of a hat, they put aside their own plans to help another person?
It’s a consolation for us to know that Jesus too had to cope with interruptions. He too had his plans upset. Today’s gospel tell us that his disciples were in such demand when he sent them out to preach and heal that they had scarcely time to eat. They had seen this in the case of Jesus himself when he and the disciples could not even have a meal. So his relatives set out to take charge of him because they were convinced he was out of his mind.
In today’s gospel Jesus decides to take the apostles apart to a quiet place for a break. This time he wasn’t thinking of himself but of his apostles. They had just come back from the mission he sent them on. He saw that they needed rest. He took them to a quiet place apart. He knew that the carers too needed to be cared for.
However, things did not turn out as planned. The people followed him. How did Jesus react? Far from getting annoyed he welcomed the people. Doesn’t this tell us a lot about the kind of person he was? He was moved with pity for them.
Several times in the gospels we read of Jesus taking pity on others. Another word summing up the life of Jesus could be compassion. The word compassion comes from two Greek words ‘passio’ meaning to ‘suffer’ and ‘cum’ meaning ‘with’. Thus, compassion signifies suffering with another. It means being involved in their suffering, supporting them and doing whatever one can to alleviate or lighten the suffering. In the Old Testament when God describes who he is to Moses he declares himself to be ‘God, God, a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger and rich in fidelity’. Our God then is not a distant God who notices our struggles and sufferings from afar. Rather he came and dwelt amongst us to share at close quarters all that we experience, especially our sufferings and struggles. Don’t we all appreciate people who show compassion to us in our own time of suffering?
The three readings today speak of God’s compassion. In the first reading from the prophet Jeremiah, God speaks out against the people he sent as shepherds to guide and care for his people. But many of them failed, being more interested in their own well-being and a good lifestyle at the expense of those to whom they were sent. So the compassionate God promises that he himself will look after the sheep, his people, who have been dispersed. Furthermore, in the days to come, he will he raise up someone who will be a true shepherd for Israel. He is obviously talking about Jesus. In the second reading from Ephesians, Paul tells us that God, through Jesus, will gather into one those who have been ‘far off’, that is the Gentiles who were regarded as not belonging to God’s people, and the Jews who ‘were near’, that is God’s people. Before the coming of Jesus, it was unthinkable for the Jews that the Gentiles were God’s beloved children too and so part of the family of God. It is the compassion of God which will do all this.
Those of you parents with sick children or ageing parents will know this too. How often when the children were growing up and got sick at night or at others times did you not spend sleepless nights looking after them? Is this not compassion on your part. Or maybe welcoming relatives who visited you unexpectedly and you were about to go out on some errand or other?
It is very important to remember that when giving us the great commandment to love God, our neighbour as ourselves he actually made a commandment of loving ourselves too. It is not a choice. He knew that if we do not we will not be able to care for others when necessary.
Is this one of our strongest images of Jesus, of God? A God full of tenderness and compassion? I hope it is. We will keep the commandments because we are saved by God’s compassion and grace and not in order to earn salvation. That is indeed Good News. Of course, it means that we too are expected to show tenderness and compassion to others in our turn.
‘Lord Jesus, thank you for revealing to us that you are a God of total compassion. Help us to be compassionate to others also, relying on the gift of the Holy Spirit to do so. Amen’.
Fr. Jim Kirstein, SMA