Compassion is highlighted in today’s Scripture readings. By and large, the citizens of the United States are known as a compassionate people. It is almost part of our DNA. If we think of the large natural disasters that have afflicted people around the world – hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, famines, wildfires, etc. – we can rightly claim that we have stepped up to help others in need both in our own country as well as in the far corners of our planet. However, when these efforts are needed for a long period of time, we can find ourselves speaking of compassion fatigue. This is a natural reaction. The second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy, teaches us that everything and everyone in our universe is subject to decay. This is true of material things as well as spiritual and emotional issues.
As a result, we human beings need to take time to renew ourselves or, to put it colloquially, to recharge our batteries. If we don’t take the necessary time for ourselves, we will simply run out of energy and will, like all physical things, simply collapse. In the Gospel passage we proclaim today, Jesus and his apostles are trying to take some time for themselves. They have returned to him having gone out two by two to expel demons, as we heard last Sunday, and are relating their experiences to Jesus. He notices that they are in need of some time to rest. So he loads them into a boat and accompanies them to a deserted place. However, the people have figured out where they are going and run ahead of them, bringing with them the sick and the hungry. Though he knows that his band needs some time for rest, Jesus is moved by compassion to tend to the needs of the crowd.
There is one exception to the law of entropy. The Creator of the universe is not subject to the laws of thermodynamics. God’s compassion is limitless. The Lord’s compassion is perhaps best described in our responsorial psalm for today’s Mass, Psalm 23, arguably everyone’s favorite psalm. In it, God’s compassion is displayed using the image of a shepherd, one who both protects the sheep from wolves as well as one who provides food for the sheep. One interesting sidebar that puzzles some people is the fact that shepherds usually work with flocks of sheep. However, Psalm 23 portrays a shepherd who ministers to the needs of the individual sheep rather than to the entire flock. In this way, the psalmist makes the point that God not only displays passion for the crowd, as is depicted in the Gospel story, but also for the individual.
We are not the nomadic or agrarian societies of the ancient Middle East, so sometimes the image of a good shepherd gets lost in its lack of novelty. We don’t have the same visceral understanding of the role, value, and importance of such a person. But all of us can understand the need for something so valuable for one’s livelihood and flourishing (in this case, sheep) that they must be cared for and protected as well as fed, led, and given a bed.
St. Paul offers us yet another view of compassion in his Letter to the Ephesians. Using language that was the usual way to distance Gentiles and Jews, St. Paul emphasizes that in Jesus we have seen the walls of enmity between them destroyed. Jesus has not just preached peace to his followers. Jesus, in the words of St. Paul, is peace, a peace that unites us and urges us to treat each other with compassion and kindness.
Compassion, then, is the virtue that reminds us that we all need to be nourished in body and spirit, to be directed along the safe path, to be given rest in order to remain healthy and well, and to embody a spirit of reconciliation. Framed that way, we realize that we all have a responsibility, in some form or another, to shepherd each other. Husbands and wives need to be shepherds of one another, displaying the compassion of a spouse. Mothers and fathers need to shepherd their children. Teachers need to shepherd their students. Employers need to shepherd their employees. Doctors and nurses are shepherds of the sick. Fire fighters and police are shepherds who protect the flock when it is in trouble. Just as the Lord protects and feeds the sheep in Psalm 23, and Jesus extends compassion to the crowd, we are all called to extend compassion to one another.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator