When he saw the crowds, Jesus had compassion for them. (Matthew 9 v.36)
A few years ago, there was a short television series on the work of hospital chaplains in Birmingham; the focus was the work with children and was, of course, multi-faith. My particular memory was of a kindly no-nonsense Methodist minister who had established a special rapport with a young lad who was very keen on his football team. He was pinning all his hopes on attending an event away from the hospital ward, but all depended on his condition. As it turned out, his hopes were dashed, and it fell to the Methodist chaplain to give him the bad news. She broke it to him as best she could, adding her own heart-felt reaction: “I’m gutted for you, sweetheart!”
What has brought all this to mind is the description of Jesus’ reaction to the local crowds. These distant descendants of the Sinai generation, the ones God bore ‘on eagles’ wings’ (Exodus 19 v.4), were now like sheep without a shepherd, harassed and helpless. In the English translation of Matthew we are told that Jesus had compassion on them. The Greek could be more literally rendered, ‘he was gutted for them’. There was something visceral in the response of Christ, a love which compelled action: teaching, proclamation, and effective healing; no-one in need was neglected.
This is the hallmark of the Gospel. On that the New Testament evangelists are agreed. It was a strong visceral compassion that drove the good Samaritan to take great risks in rescuing the injured traveller on the bandit-stricken Jericho road – no social-distancing for him! In the same way a father risked shame and scorn and ridicule when he spotted in the distance his lost son returning from the far country in the parable of the prodigal. No matter what the neighbours thought and said, he ran out to meet him, flinging his arms around him. It’s Luke who reports both parables, and they are rightly seen as landmarks in the gospel story (Luke chapters 10: 25-37 and 15: 11-32).
Last week was Trinity Sunday when we heard the words of the ‘great commission’ from Matthew’s last chapter. This time the work of outreach is to exclude neither Samaritans nor Gentiles, but the motivation is the same as that described in today’s passage, from the course of Christ’s Galilean ministry. The spring of the apostolic mission, the source from which it flows, is the mission of Jesus himself in teaching, proclamation and healing; its motivation is visceral compassion.
Where charity and love are present, God himself is there, and, though we cannot now see his exalted Son, he is always with us by the Spirit, to the end of the age, calling us to carry on his work.
P.S. Gutted! – a postscript for our time:
There was no social-distancing rule for the compassionate Samaritan on the Jerusalem to Jericho road, so he was free to exercise a moral choice (Luke 10: 33-34). Our Covid-19 situation is different. We do not give our neighbours a ‘wide berth’ out of choice, but in responsible compliance with a necessary Government directive. The disquiet of many people at the social and emotional cost shows how much we know we are missing. But the gospel of divine love is not exhausted. Even in current circumstances the compassionate imagination is finding new avenues for expression, including Peter Arnold’s haircut in aid of the Ambulance Drivers’ Charity. Well done, Peter!