Now when Jesus heard (how John the Baptist had been killed by Herod), he withdrew … in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them … Matthew 14:13f.
Jesus, human being like us, needed space to think and pray and be with his grief for his cousin John. A little later on from this episode and on many other occasions he succeeded in doing just this. But when his plans were thwarted and he was faced with human need he responded with compassion.
Earlier in the Gospel Jesus’s concern was expressed in these terms: When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36
And Jesus concern was for the whole of them: he had compassion for them and cured their sick and spent the rest of that day with them teaching them (see Mark 6:34). When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Jesus was concerned about the whole of them – body, mind and spirit. Ignorance, illness and hunger brought forth his compassionate response and action.
This attitude of Jesus contrasts starkly with what one Christian in Northern Ireland said back in April. I quote from a newspaper report:
Coronavirus is God’s judgement after Northern Ireland legalised abortion and same-sex marriage, a DUP councillor has claimed. John Carson, who represents Ballymena, Co Antrim, said the pandemic arrived because an “immoral and corrupt” Government changed the law … Mr Carson, making comment in a personal capacity, compared the coronavirus outbreak to the biblical story of Noah’s ark. “I said when abortion was legalised that our nation would be judged by God because of its departure from his word and the legalisation of the murder of the unborn child as well as same-sex marriage,” he said. “I was laughed at and mocked by some but as I said at the time, they laughed at Noah until the rain started. You reap what you sow and our nation is now reaping the judgment of God because of an immoral and corrupt Government. It is time to repent and turn again to the God of our fathers.” The DUP has distanced itself from the comments.
Sadly I doubt that John Carson is the only one who has expressed such views during this present crisis. So how does God look upon our world in its suffering – a suffering that many of us have only experienced second or third hand until it arrived on our own doorstep a few months ago?
St John’s Gospel says this: No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. 1:18 And when God the only Son, Jesus, saw the crowds in their suffering and ignorance and hunger and need, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. I have no doubt that that is just as true today – that our God has compassion for us and for our world and all in it.
In the fourteenth century when the Black Death swept through Europe killing up to half of the population many interpreted it, like that DUP councillor, as the judgement of God. But in the city of Norwich there lived a devout woman who passed her days in a cell attached to St Julian’s Church – a woman Hazel Butland introduced us to in one of our online Wednesday reflections. Although Julian of Norwich was ‘quarantined’ in her cell which had a window into church, there was also a second window looking onto the street from where she would have encountered and counselled many troubled people who came seeking help and potentially bringing the disease.
She spent decades pondering upon visions from God that she had when it was thought that she was dying and was being given the last rites by a priest. As he held a crucifix above the foot of her bed, she began to lose her sight and feel physically numb, but gazing on the crucifix she saw the figure of Jesus begin to bleed.
The result of her pondering upon those visions and her encounters with many suffering people are the “Revelations of Divine Love” – the earliest surviving book in English written by a woman. Faced with her own suffering and the suffering of her age she did not see a judgmental God but wrote this:
God … the Trinity … is our maker and keeper … our everlasting lover, our joy and our bliss, through our Lord Jesus Christ … He is our clothing. In his love he wraps and holds us. He enfolds us for love, and he will never let us go. I saw that he is to us everything that is good.
He showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind’s eye and I thought, “What can this be?” And the answer came, “It is all that is made.” I marvelled that it could last, for I thought it might have crumbled to nothing, it was so small. And the answer came, “Its lasts and ever shall because God loves it.” And all things have their being through the love of God.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36. Such is God’s love for us in these days of Coronavirus.
But did you notice how Jesus dealt with the hungry crowd towards the end of the day? He said to his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves … He did not turn the stones at his feet into bread, as the devil had suggested to him, nor did he conjure food out of thin air. He took the little that his disciples had, blessed and broke it. And then he gave the broken bread and fish to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. He took the little his unwilling and doubting disciples had, blessed it and then used those same disciples as the channels and instruments of his love.
Such is the way God’s compassion reaches the world today – through weak and doubting people like ourselves. When we give all that we have he can take that miniscule amount and multiply it and use it to bless and heal and feed others. Another woman, St Teresa of Avila, living in Spain about two hundred years after Julian of Norwich, wrote these words: Christ has no body now on earth but ours; no hands but ours; no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes through which Christ is to look out with compassion on the world. Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Ours are the hands with which he is to bless people now.
At the end of that hectic day for Jesus and his disciples all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. There is a long way to go before that can be said for the whole of our world and the people in it. But let us place ourselves in Jesus hands, give him all that we have, ask him to open our eyes to the people around us and beyond, and let him use us to bring his blessing and healing. In his hands what is little can become plenty and with more to spare.