18th Sunday in Ordinary Time A
“His heart was moved with pity.” Reading of Jesus’ reaction to the crowd that had gathered around him right before the miracle of the loaves and fish, I began wondering what ever happened to the word pity. It is certainly not a positive word these days. People say they don’t want to be pitied. Usually when someone says I pity you, it is not a warm thing. Did Mr. T in the eighties completely ruin the term by saying, “I pity the fool?” Yet, it was an emotion that Jesus had more than once and so it must be something worthy of understanding and imitating.
Let’s see why Jesus has this pity. He has just heard of the death of John the Baptist, his friend, the one who baptized him. (Isn’t something that the same dangerous mixture of politics, terror and violence still hang in the air over the place Jesus lived?) He withdraws to collect himself to a deserted place by boat. But the people hear of this and leave their towns, so deeply do they hunger to be with him. As he sees the crowd arrayed before him, it is then that his heart is moved with pity for them. He does not see them as small or insignificant. He does not belittle their need. No for Jesus, and for us, pity is “compassion that demands action.” So he wades into the crowd, a brokenhearted man serving the brokenhearted; he cures their sick and simply is with them.
And he still looks at pity today. He looks at the Ebola outbreak in Africa and he has pity. He looks at Israel and the Gaza strip today and has pity for his own land. He looks at unaccompanied children at our border and he has pity – compassion that demands action.
As the time grows later, the crowd will not let go of Jesus. The disciples develop a plan, something that smacks of a “policy.” “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” It is calculated, efficient and parenthetically, just shrewd enough to ensure they will have enough food for themselves. And Jesus rejects this reasonable plan immediately. “There is no need for them to go away.” The disciples do not have pity, compassion for the crowd that has come to Jesus. It sounds like a shrug of a shoulder for what else can we do. It sounds like a cease-fire when peace is needed. It literally is saying God’s children, “Send them back to where they belong.”
Instead, Jesus changes everything by challenging the disciples. “Give them some food yourselves.” In other words, get some skin in the game. Don’t treat them like strangers for they are a part of us now – they are brothers and sisters and we are one. Of course, the disciples complain there is not enough food, just five loaves and two fish. Yet once we surrender the little we have Jesus is capable to doing anything. And the too little becomes too much, the paucity becomes an abundance and all eat and all are satisfied. But unless we share what we have, unless we open our hearts, what will Jesus work with?
The last few weeks we have been hearing from Matthew 13 about the characteristics of the kingdom of God. We have heard the kingdom is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, which, with miraculous energy, becomes the largest of plants. We have heard of the little bit of yeast that leavens the whole batch. If anything is to change in this world, we must bring that kingdom to bear, with explosive growth in our humanity and generosity; we must be the leaven of the world.
For the practice of a world is as coldly efficient as the disciples plan to send them away. Our economics is one which Pope Francis calls exclusionary with built in poverty and where the dignity of the person is not considered in a throw away culture. Our politics and our diplomacy is a zero sum game of winners and losers. How different this is from the utter simplicity of the non-politics politics of Jesus. When someone is hungry, you feed them. When someone is sick you cure them. When there is a war you stop it. And when the stranger comes, you welcome them and take them in.
The kingdoms of politics, economics and power ring of the disciples plan to send the crowd away. Think first of what is best for us. Take what you need. Keep the problems of others at arm’s length. The Kingdom of God demands solidarity, responsibility and peacemaking. We cannot divide the world between them and us for the people of Christ see no distinction. The people of Christ only see the wounds and bind them; see the hurt and console them; see the forgotten and alone and accompany them. There are many kingdoms that vie for our citizenship – but we belong to a place of peace, a place of reconciliation and a place of grace. We belong to the kingdom of God.