“The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. The Lord is good to all and compassionate toward all his works” (Psalm 145:8-9). The descriptions of God as merciful, patient, kind and compassionate echo throughout the Sacred Scriptures. Today we are reminded of the compassionate love of the Lord for his people.
The Gospel passage from St. Matthew recalls the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. A tremendous crowd of people, “five thousand men not counting women and children,” gathers around Jesus in a “deserted place.” Jesus had withdrawn himself for prayer following the death of John the Baptist. The people cannot stay away. He means too much to them.
They want to be near Jesus because they find life in him. So they seek him. While he had left them by boat they travel by foot, so eager are they to be with him. They find him in the deserted place. Jesus’ heart is moved with “pity” or compassion for them when he sees them.
Such is the setting for the great miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. There are many topics that flow from this short passage: Eucharistic foreshadows; the authority of Jesus over nature (healings and the multiplication of loaves and fishes); the new Israel and so forth. Underlying them all is the compassion that Jesus shows for the people.
The compassionate love of God feeds and nourishes his flock so much so that in the end “they ate and were satisfied.” Jesus fulfills the Isaian passage where the prophet, speaking for the Lord, says: “All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat. Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!”
St. Paul was keenly aware of God’s love for him and for God’s people. He writes eloquently of this love in the Letter to the Romans as he says: “Brothers and sisters:
What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God loves us with a compassionate love. He knows our needs. He knows our sufferings. He knows our struggles. He continually reaches out to us inviting us to find life in him and to be nourished by his Word. The compassionate love that God has for us is also one that impels us to love one another with the same type of love.
Compassion manifests itself in many ways. We show compassion when we recognize the needs of those around us, especially of those who are suffering or in pain. When we acknowledge their need and seek to assist them we are acting with a compassionate heart. When we listen to others with our heart we become attuned to their situation in life so we are able to truly love them as we have been loved by God.
The opportunities for compassionate love abound. Sometimes the opportunities are obvious, for example if someone is hurt or hungry or thirsty or poor or sick or has a disability. Other times we might have to look more deeply into situations to find a way to respond with compassion.
A couple years ago Frank Deford wrote a short article, “When there’s More to Winning than Winning.” A sports story to some but to most a story of compassion. It was February 2012 and the collegiate basketball world was gearing up for the “March Madness” NCAA tournament. A story from the courts emerged that year that would inspire many.
Washington College was playing Gettysburg College. It was senior night for Gettysburg. The captain of the Gettysburg team was Cory Weissman. He had not played much during his four years because when he was a freshman he had suffered a debilitating stroke. Working hard at rehab he eventually returned to classes and by senior year could walk without a limp. On Senior Night the coach decided to let him start the game to finish his college career. He only played a few seconds but it meant the world to Cory. Everyone in the stadium cheered as he left the court, including the Washington players.
That was supposed to be the end. However with a few minutes left in the game, Gettysburg being significantly ahead, the coach sent Cory back in. Thereafter the coach from Washington called his team into a huddle. He told the men to foul “Number 3” as soon as they could. The game resumed and Cory was fouled. He would get two shots.
The first one missed badly. The crowd watched in anticipation as Cory prepared for the second shot. He dribbled. Picked up the ball. Shot. Swish. The crowd erupted in great applause and cheering.
Deford concludes his report: “Later the assistant vice president for athletics at Gettysburg, David Wright, wrote to Washington College: ‘Your coach, Rob Nugent, along with his … staff and student-athletes, displayed a measure of compassion that I have never witnessed in over 30 years of involvement in intercollegiate athletics.’ Cory Weissman had made a point. Washington College had made an even larger one.”
Jesus heals the sick and feeds the multitudes because he has compassion for them. He has shared his compassionate love with us so much so that he lays down his life for us. Through him we know that the “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness.” As disciples of Christ and as members of his body we are called to do the same.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.