Today’s gospel reading seems, at first, to missing something – to be missing, at the very least, the excitement that is to be found in the nineteen verses that are absent. It’s tempting to try and construct some reason to focus on Mark’s feeding of the masses, but in the coming six weeks, we’ll go pretty far down that path as John’s Jesus feeds them, and talks of the bread of life over and over. We might look at Jesus walking on the water – that happens in the gap and it’s pretty exciting. But we have, instead, two brief glimpses at what happens before and after those rather theatrical moments, and these glimpses are, actually, a pretty effective invitation – inviting us to know God’s attributes as they exist against the backdrop of the created world.
In today’s world, in terms of religion and meaning, it’s probably safe to say that two basic questions stand out:
• How does God view the world? (The basic theological question)
• How does God ask you to view the world? (The basic ethical question)
The significance these questions bear varies, of course, according to individuals and circumstances. Right out of the gate, it appears these are actually two parts of the same question. People tend to move through the world in ways that represent what they believe about God or whether that belief even exists. A connection can, then, be made between ethics and theology – the former ostensibly flowing from the latter.
And today’s gospel passage very subtly and very briefly puts forth a response to the two-headed question.
How does God view the world? “…he saw a great crowd and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd…”
Compassion – it’s a term used in no less than eight gospel references indicating Jesus’ attitude toward humans.
• The underlying meaning of the word is, of course, the thread running through witness to his life and teachings – especially in his healing acts.
• But how we experience this word in the English language seems to have lost some impact – seems far removed from its ancient root meaning. The German language does a much better job of preserving a fuller sense of meaning – its word for compassion being Mittleid, literally, with suffering.
So, because Jesus is the unique revelation of God’s presence among us in all of history, compassion – a willingness to suffer with – must be said to be part of the essence of God. And this knowledge is not to be treated lightly.
It’s essential that we hold firmly and intentionally to a desire to describe God’s attitude toward us in terms of compassion. The history of religion in the world – both primitive and recent – has, to one degree or another, regarded the divine as ominous, wrathful, vengeful, angry or vindictive.
We’re better off when we remember that, if this compassion – this shift in the gut (for that is what the biblical Greek connotes – splagnethomai – gut reaction) – compassion, a shift deep inside, is a response that God knows – we may be better served and in fact better equipped to serve when we recall that words like “holy” and “justice” must be informed to the greatest degree we can muster, by how we understand suffering-love.
A fair amount of effort is expended in and around the gospels to connect Jesus to the established faith – as being of the God of Israel.
But this instance, in today’s lesson, provides one of the most compelling justifications for connecting Jesus with the God of Israel. It’s more compelling than Matthew’s ponderous genealogy in his birth narrative.
Jesus’ expression of compassion – seen coming to life in word and deed throughout the gospels – is the very essence of the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel.
Abraham Joshua Heschl, in his book The Prophets, captures this notion in beautiful and tender language – rightly naming this attribute of God’s “divine pathos”. He says,
To the prophet…God is not revealed in abstract absoluteness. Rather, it is in a personal and intimate relation to the world. God does not simply command and expect obedience; God is moved and affected by what happens in the world. God is concerned about the world and shares its fate. Indeed this is the essence of God’s moral nature: God is willing to be intimately involved in the history of all human beings.
Jesus’ compassion, then, tells us something of how God views the world.
And in the second half of our lesson, in the healings, we begin to gain some perspective as to how God hopes we will view the world.
Jesus and the disciples have made another retreat from the crowds, and come to land on another shore of the sea where the people “rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was”.
How does God hope we’ll see the world?
“They laid the sick in the marketplaces”. Jesus performs what seems a tremendous amount of healing acts – acts of compassion – in the marketplaces. Marketplaces were the public spaces in which legal hearings occurred, elections, debates – not to mention the buying and selling of goods. Marketplaces were the political and commercial centers of a city or town.
By healing the sick, the weakest and most vulnerable members of the community, in this space, Jesus is poking at the economy of this world through the inauguration of the economy of God’s reign. While the marketplaces of the world belong to the rich and powerful, in God’s reign this most political and commercial of spaces is occupied by those with the least.
The theme of compassionate shepherd rises out of the first section of this gospel reading, and marketplace as appropriated for God’s use in the second section. And both themes become even more dynamic when we view them in connection with a pair of references from the prophetic history of scripture.
At the end of his life, in the Torah, Moses beseeches God to choose a successor who “…will lead them out and bring them in, so the congregation of the Lord may not be like a sheep without a shepherd…”
And Ezekiel is, unsurprisingly, much sharper, more accusatory toward the politically powerful, as he says,
“Thus says the Lord God, Ah you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not the shepherds feed the sheep? You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.”
Surely the author of this gospel had such recollections in mind as the themes we’ve been looking at developed. Wisely, the author lifts the story of the death of John the Baptist out of chronological order and places it immediately prior to today’s scene, making the shepherd and marketplace references an indictment of Herod, who has thrown a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee, a banquet at which he kills the herald of God’s compassionate reign – a reign that will be characterized by the most powerful being willing to suffer with the weakest. The people of that age longed for the true shepherd who will bring them into such a reign. We still long for that shepherd. And Jesus knows it – he longs with us.
Because he has compassion for us. He is willing to suffer with us.
And so what does he do for the sheep without a shepherd? “He began to teach them many things.”
Psychologist Scott Peck – author of The Road Less Traveled – likes to talk about how he sees Jesus, and some of his observations, I think, make good first steps in learning. He talks about:
• The extraordinary “reality” of Jesus in the gospels
o How he’s continually frustrated – with disciples, with temple leaders, with kings
o How frequently sad he seems, how he sometimes appears depressed, often anxious or scared
o How he was prejudiced on one occasion, but how he overcame it with grace and healing love
o How easy it is to imagine him being terribly lonely, yet so often desperately in need of being alone
Do you see him that way? Or is he the unendingly sweet figure with the half-smile, patting children on the head and strolling the earth with inexhaustible composure?
I’ve begun to think that underneath the “poised perception” lies Christianity’s best kept secret – the Jesus who doesn’t always have peace of mind.
And if that’s true, what would he teach us when we are like sheep without shepherd?
Would he acknowledge that life is hard?
Would he remind us that we are all struggling along a rocky, thorny road – through the desert – in order to reach God?
Would he affirm for us that as long as we reach out to God, God will go the better part of the way to reach us?
Would he help us to understand that we’re all at varying stages of readiness in this effort, and that when we’re truly ready, almost anything can speak to us?
And that to accept him, we might sometimes be faced with accepting paradox?
As you approach the depths of your own heart in pursuit of how God hopes you will view the world, think about approaching the matter the way the gospel writers did.
They were not Public Relations specialists. They did not craft a one-dimensional Jesus. Instead, it seems they went to great lengths to record as accurately as possible, the events and sayings in the brief life of a man they hardly understood – but a man in whom, somehow, they knew that heaven and earth were fully met.
Approach God’s hope for you in this way – approach the gospels in this way, friends, and fall in love.