16th Sunday in Ordinary time

‘He took pity on them.’ In these few words St Mark explains Jesus’ reaction to seeing the arrival of people determined to see him. But this short phrase also describes in a nutshell Jesus’ deepest reason, cause and purpose behind his mission. He is driven by his concern for those who ‘were like sheep without a shepherd.’ Jesus, the Son of God, became man because ‘He took pity on them.’ Jesus set off to preach the Kingdom of God because ‘He took pity on them.’ Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross because ‘He took pity on them.’ Jesus came back to life after His death because ‘He took pity on them.’ Jesus sent the Holy Spirit and established the Church because ‘He took pity on them.’ Jesus has continued to be actively present among us ever since then because ‘He took pity on them.’ Unlimited, inextinguishable compassion has been Jesus’ motivation and driving force.

To whom did Jesus show his compassion? Who were the ‘them’ in that phrase? You might remember from last Sunday’s gospel reading that Jesus sent his Apostles out in pairs to preach the gospel, to cast out devils and to heal the sick. Their mission was so effective that many people followed the Apostles when they returned to Jesus. They were in such great demand that Jesus sent the Apostles away in a boat to get some rest in a lonely place. Yet some of those in the crowd guessed where the Apostles and Jesus had gone, and soon after their landing those determined people arrived at the same place. So, the them in the phrase are those who had been touched or moved by the Apostles’ words and actions, and wanted more. The Apostles had a taste of what is a common and widespread experience of famous people: that there are massive downsides to popularity and fame. The phrase ‘He took pity on them’ applies to the exhausted and mobbed Apostles too. Out of pity Jesus took over from them and taught those who had followed them.

Today’s gospel reading, though in St Mark’s typical style both concise and enthusiastic, reminds us that we are not left alone. Some of us can harbour doubts whether this is true because of our own unpleasant experiences or those of our loved ones or friends. Adversity can cast a broad and dark shadow of doubt over God’s loving and unlimited compassion. Today’s gospel tells us about such compassion in definitive terms. But it also hints at the attitudes of the recipients and beneficiaries. Firstly, these people recognised their own need for help and their own inefficiency in dealing with their problems. Secondly, they were open-minded; we have to remember that when a couple of Apostles visited a certain village, they were seen as merely a couple of itinerant preachers. Thirdly, they made an effort to satisfy their needs: they persistently followed the Apostles and even went the extra mile to find them when they had sailed away. Lastly, they recognised that God can and does work through different channels. Initially they were moved by the Apostles’ words and actions, but thereafter they were happy to listen to Jesus.

There are two lessons that we can take away from today’s gospel. The first and most important one is that God’s love and compassion for each and every one of us never expires or becomes exhausted. He never gives up on us. The second lesson is that each one of us needs to adopt those attitudes I mentioned a bit earlier in order to experience God’s love and compassion. Embracing such attitudes is like tuning in the radio. Through the static noise of everyday life, through the interference caused by anxieties and problems, suddenly you can hear the comforting words: ‘He took pity on them.’ He certainly takes pity on me.