Compassion: A Virtue for Every Christian

A Reflection for the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B).
(Jeremiah 23:1-6 – Ephesians 2:13-18 – Mark 6:30-34.

Today’s readings present us with the desirable characteristic of a good shepherd, that particular quality in Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd which we Christians ought to imitate to be good shepherds in our different fields of life. It is the virtue of compassion.

In the 1st reading, God spoke out against shepherds that have no feelings for their flocks or act without compassion towards them. The Gospel reading reveals for us Jesus’ real-life expression of this virtue. Jesus took pity on the crowd who were like sheep without a shepherd (v.34). The setting is that of the apostles returning from their very first experience of missionary work, which we read about last Sunday. The apostles were tired and in need of rest. Just from looking at them, Jesus knew how they felt, and it was this fellow-feeling for them that moved Him to take them away to a quiet place for rest and recuperation.

So firstly, Our Lord showed compassion towards the apostles when He called them away to take a much-needed break and to relax after they had completed their task. Our Lord feels for us (He sympathises with us) in our weakness (cf. Heb 4:15). Jesus could see how tired they were, and He wanted them to have a rest. He feels for everyone who labours for Him to the best of their ability. Following the example set by God, who rested on the seventh day after all His work (Gen 2:2), Jesus wants each one of us purposely to take regular time out to rest and recharge our batteries.

Secondly, Our Lord showed compassion towards the crowd who had gathered as a result of the fruitful ministry of the apostles. He felt compassion for them because they needed shepherding, they needed guidance, they needed practical help, they needed to be cared for in multiple ways, and so He began to shepherd them. Jesus’ compassion reaches out to all His children, to all His followers, and all of creation. He looks at every individual’s innermost being, and He understands us and the situations in which we find ourselves infinitely better than we do. He alone is always present to us to help us in our neediness.

Jesus took pity on His followers and the crowd. Back then, Jesus had compassion for His followers, and He had compassion upon those who weren’t His followers. Our Lord is eternal and He doesn’t change. He has compassion today upon those who love Him, and He has compassion upon those who neither know Him nor have come to love Him. He loves us all so much that He takes pity on every human being whom He has created. This extraordinary love for humanity is what St Paul is referring to in today’s 2nd reading, in terms of the message of the closeness of God to humanity and the closeness of Jews to Gentiles. The barrier between sinful humanity and sinless divinity has been broken down by the sacrificial blood of Christ. It is Christ who has restored peace and relationship between God and man, between those who are near to Him and those who are far away from Him, between those who have found Him and those who are still looking for Him, mirroring how Jesus showed compassion to His apostles and the crowd without discriminating between them. In His mercy, Jesus looks into the very heart of every person. He excludes no one. He understands exactly what assistance each one of us needs in order to bring about resolution and peace.

Jesus wants us to emulate Him by showing compassion to everyone without exception, to bring about peace in our world and in the lives of people directly around us. Compassion is what was lacking in the shepherds of Jeremiah’s day: they saw the flock scattered and wandering (v.2) but neither felt sympathy for their suffering nor did anything to shepherd them. You probably know people who see someone suffering and who make noises about ‘feeling sorry for them’, but are not moved to help them. Jesus teaches us that when we see sorrowful and afflicted people, no matter who they are, we ought to be moved to respond, to act, to do something specific to help them. God reassured His people that He would raise shepherds to look after [his flock] (v.4). I think this is where we are right now. You and I are part of the virtuous Branch (v.5) that God said He would raise for David – those who will care for His children and His creation with honesty and wisdom, justice and peace, love and integrity. As followers of Jesus, we are tasked with the mission of showing compassion and care for everyone. You can make a start on this mission in your neighbourhood. You can begin by asking yourself, “how often am I moved with pity for other people’s sufferings? How readily do I offer real help to those who are needy, even at odd hours? How zealous am I to offer help to someone outwith my family and faith community?

We can all be as compassionate as Jesus was, and as He commanded us to be (Lk 6:36). The habitual exercise of compassion sets us on the path of holiness. Remember the example of St Maximilian Kolbe, who sacrificed his life out of compassion for a family man who was about to be executed. Remember the example of St John Vianney who, out of compassion for queues of penitents, would spend overlong hours in the confessional. Remember the example of St Theresa of Calcutta, who was moved with compassion to help the starving and dying ‘untouchables’ on the streets; and that of St Margaret of Scotland, who engaged in charitable works, serving orphans and the poor every day before she ate, and washing the feet of the poor in imitation of Christ.

Let us ask Christ to grant us the grace of compassion. Amen. God bless you.