Harrowing Of Hell
June 14, 2020

Compassion: the Heart of Jesus’ Ministry

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Good morning Christians, seekers, and friends!

So now is the time of year where I pull out the joke we priests like to make about ordinary time – well actually maybe it’s just me.  In the Episcopal Church, we call all parts of the liturgical year that are not Advent, Christmas, Lent, or Easter… Ordinary time. Put another way, Ordinary Time is comprised of the season of Pentecost and/or the times in the church year when priests like me wear green.  So, I’ll insert the ‘funny joke’ now—Siblings in Christ “Welcome to Ordinary Time!” Choir can you at least feign a laugh? Work with me here….

This year, of course, this joke seems even more absurd than normal.  It’s just Ordinary Time in the midst of a pandemic, a time of unprecedented societal change and social unrest, higher unemployment than in the Great Depression and potential economic collapse… Nothing to see here…move it along… we’re in ordinary time.

But of course, that is not what ordinary time means—not now/ not ever – at least not in terms of how we most often define it as commonplace –unexceptional or unremarkable. Rather ordinary time takes its name from ordinal numbers—words like first, second etc. we use to put things in sequence by a set of criteria – like chronology or size or shape. So Ordinary Time is understood as the 33 or 34 weeks throughout the year in which particular sequential or thematic readings from Holy Scripture are assigned for both weekdays and Sundays. Most importantly, however, is that Ordinary Time can be best understood in terms of the living out of our Christian faith in our daily lives. Today, tomorrow, the next day and each and every day thereafter. Except during  Advent, Christmas, Lent, or Easter or, of course, the feast of Pentecost….

It is not for nothing, then that the season of Pentecost and Ordinary Time has started with Jesus’ commission to his disciples. Because if this ordinary time is about living our faith in our daily lives, then we must begin by remembering the charge that Jesus gave his disciples, Jesus gave us, to do. Namely to heal and care for the children of God, to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God and to baptize all those who desire to become part of Jesus’ body, the Church, in the name of the Holy Trinity. 

So last week we read, from the end of Matthew’s gospel as the resurrected Jesus tells his 11 disciples (minus Judas) that they are to go “…make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  And today in Matthew chapters 9 and 10, we read: “Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.…Jesus sent [them]  out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”

In the space of a week, the resurrected Jesus’ commission has returned to its first version. Gone is the great commission to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to all nations and people that we heard on Trinity Sunday. Now we read Jesus’ original commission to his twelve disciples… this commission was not for the Gentiles and not for the Samaritans—the ministry of Jesus and the twelve was to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. Because that was the original deal right? The covenant was with the children of Israel – it is to them that God promised the coming Messianic King. The children of Israel were God’s beloved – God’s chosen people. That is the way covenants and contracts work right? It is between two parties—in this case the Israelites and God. 

But something wonderful happened during Jesus’ Ordinary Time. As God’s only begotten Son clothed himself in a human body and lived a  human life, the covenant – the promise that God made to the Jews was expanded and enlarged by his love for all those he met, healed and fed.  Jesus the great teacher, the wise leader, the miracle-worker—the anointed one who does all things and judges all things through love— well, he became united in love with his human siblings in a new and more intimate way. He walked and talked with them. He laughed and listened. He ate and drank with them and played with the little ones. And wherever he went, he saw their needs. And as we read in today’s gospel “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

In our extraordinary ordinary time this year, I think it is important to remember that Jesus’ commission came in response to his concern and compassion. Compassion, literally meaning, “suffer with” necessarily undergirds our work as Christians.  Because unlike empathy, which is important as it allows us to imagine ourselves in another’s shoes, compassion is what “…arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and it motivates you to want to do something to relieve that suffering.”[i] Jesus’ commission came out of his desire to alleviate the suffering of those he met. When we read ‘the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few”, what Jesus is saying is that the world’s need is great and he needs each and every one of us to do our part. Now I know that sometimes we might feel overwhelmed by the emotions we feel for the other and that sense of overwhelm comes from our mirror neurons which, when we empathize with another’s suffering we feel viscerally. Often this can leave us feeling stuck and stressed—in what psychologists called empathetic distress.[ii] And so just feeling for someone deeply is not enough—it doesn’t help, bring hope, or alleviate the suffering of either our neighbors in need or ourselves. Untethered to the loving desire to do something to help ameliorate our neighbor’s situation or suffering—to love our neighbors as ourselves—empathy stops short. Empathy is a necessary part of prosocial behavior but it necessitates an act of imagination in which we emotionally put ourselves in another’s place. So, as we tend to generalize from our own experience, this doesn’t actually work well with those who differ most from us. As Dr. Veronika Tait notes:

While the benefits of empathy are clear, humans are much more likely to empathize with people they view as a part of their in-group. We are prone to create groups of us versus them. For example, neuroscience researchers have found that people experience greater vicarious empathic responses for people of their own ethnicity compared to other-ethnicity members.

Compassion, however, is different because it comes from a love and desire to help our neighbor. And love and a desire to help do not depend on similarities. Jesus loved and cared about all those around him. He had compassion for them. Because as the good shepherd he believed that every size and color and breed of sheep deserved a shepherd. We can see this by how Jesus responds to and hears the voices of those often unheard, deemed unimportant, or scorned in Jesus’ society. Jesus’ remit and original covenant is with the lost children of Israel. Jesus would affirm again and again in his ministry. He was sent to the lost and the poor and those in need of healing. So, for example, when Jesus meets Matthew, a tax collector who works for the Empire, he calls to him back into the fold, and bids him to follow and become his disciple. When he tells the Syrophoenician woman seeking his help, however, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” Jesus not only feels compassion for this Gentile woman but is moved by her persistence and belief and heals her daughter saying “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” In response to his interaction with this foreign and ‘unclean’ woman the whole scope of Jesus’ ministry was changed. This is what compassion looks like in action—the willingness to be changed. And compassion is at the core of Jesus’ ministry.

As we begin our Ordinary Time in the church, I hope that we will hear Jesus’ call to us and follow his example of how to live our faith as Christians. Yes, there are big systemic changes that we need to begin working on. Yes, there are things and actions for which we need to humbly repent. But if we feel overwhelmed or stuck, loving our neighbor and compassionately responding to our neighbors’ needs is always a good place to start. This has been a very challenging year for many – and a deadly year for many. Yet the Spirit moves through her Church and Jesus reminds us that we need only have compassion and to judge all things through love. So, in this Ordinary Time 2020, I believe extraordinary things can and will be happen! Christians this could be our year.

[i]  https://ggsc.berkeley.edu/?_ga=2.205587219.1641862127.1592080028-218964433.1592080028.

[ii] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pulling-through/201912/turn-empathy-compassion-without-the-empathic-distress