Compassion: one of Jesus' most important virtues

by Thomas Gumbleton

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What was happening in the time of Jeremiah when the leaders of the people -- those who were to shepherd them, rule them, guide them -- were failing so dramatically in their task? Jeremiah was preaching to them, trying to bring them back to follow the way of God. But as we heard in our first lesson today, they refused to listen. Jeremiah cries out, "Woe to you shepherds who mislead, even scatter the sheep of my pasture."

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalms 23:1-3, 3-4, 5, 6
Ephesians 2:13-18
Mark 6:30-34
Full text of the readings

He'd been preaching to them for so long that now their failures were going to come to a terrible conclusion. They were going to go to war against the Babylonians, and they would be totally defeated. Jerusalem would be destroyed; the temple would be destroyed and the people carried off into exile for a long time. Isn't it marvelous how Jeremiah sees this gleam of hope because he tells them (and tells us), "The day is coming when I will raise up a shepherd-ruler who is David's righteous successor. He will rule wisely, govern with justice and righteousness. That will be a peaceful era, when all of Judah will enjoy peace and Israel will live in safety."

Then when we turn to our Gospel lesson, we discover who this shepherd-ruler is. Of course, it's Jesus, that descendent of David who is Son of God and Son of Mary. In the Gospel, we learn something today about Jesus that is probably the most important thing that we really need to know about Jesus and the most important way in which we must try to follow him. We recall the circumstances of the Gospel: The disciples were tired, Jesus was tired.

They'd been preaching and healing and meeting people one after the other for many, many days. They were going to go away and have some rest, find peace and quiet. I think any of us can easily put ourselves in that circumstance where we would just be thrilled to have quiet time and peace. But then, as we heard in the Gospel, they go to their secluded place, but the people are there ahead of them. Notice, though, how Jesus acts.

It would be very ordinary for any one of us, and for Jesus too -- he's human -- to be a bit irritated. "I thought we were going to get away, but look what's happening." But instead, Mark tells us, "As Jesus went ashore, he saw the large crowd, and Jesus had compassion on them." Compassion -- that is, I think, one of the most singular and important qualities, virtues of Jesus. What does it mean? It means to feel with others, enter into their circumstances, be one with them in their feelings, their pain, their hurt or joy and their excitement, but to be with them and enter into their framework.

That's what it means to be compassionate. In fact, Jesus is the extraordinary, unmatchable example of compassion because St. Paul tells us in writing to the Corinthians, "Though he was God, he emptied himself, entered into our human history, became one like us in every way, gave himself over to suffering and even ignominious death on the cross." Jesus became one like us so he could enter into all of our experiences, feelings, difficulties, joys and hopes.

That's compassion -- entering into the feelings of others. It's the basis for reconciliation. That's how people begin to come together, when someone is really compassionate toward another and the other experiences: "Yes, you do understand. We share together, whatever this is." Extraordinary things can happen, as we hear in that letter to the church at Ephesus. Jews and Gentiles were enemies, and yet in Jesus, Paul says, "Jesus came to proclaim peace. Peace to you who are far off -- the Gentiles. Peace to the Jews who were near."

Through him -- through Jesus -- the two peoples approach the Father in one spirit. The barrier is broken down. There's reconciliation. There's peace because of compassion -- Jesus becoming one like us in every way except sin and entering into our experience, becoming one with us. Of course, as his followers, this is the virtue that is so important in our lives -- in everyday life, in our families, and our homes -- to really be understanding of one another, to listen, to take in what the other is feeling.

It unites us in a bond of compassion that becomes love. That could happen in our communities if we really worked at it. Instead of violence breaking out so often, if we really listen to one another, we could heal the division between our races in this country. The violence that has broken out in that area over the past few years is so extraordinary that I think we all recognize it's something that needs to be healed. Compassion would be the first step in bringing about that healing in our neighborhoods, in our communities, in our cities, and our country.

It could also happen on a much larger basis. In fact, I think if we look at what happened this past week, when President Obama was finally able to announce that we have an agreement with Iran that will stop them from developing the world's most horrible weapons -- nuclear weapons, weapons that we possess, of course, and other another nations possess, but we have determined Iran may not. Of course, it is good that they will not now, through this agreement, be able to develop those weapons.

We need to work to eliminate them from all the other countries, too. But how did this agreement come about? It was through long discussions over many months. President Obama last week when he spoke about it said something that I think really is the foundation for why the discussions finally were fruitful and brought about a good conclusion -- avoiding war, settling our difference through diplomacy instead of destroying their weapons through bombs.

President Obama said, "We spent much time listening, and we began to understand some of the hurt, the pain that brought about what seemed to be hatred against us." And on the other side, that probably happened too, but he said that it did happen on our side. We began to understand them. Now, he did not go into detail, but it doesn't take very much effort to discover what he was really talking about.

Back in 1953, our government had waged indirect war against Iran. They had a constitutionally elected government, which was not favorable to us in some ways. We brought about the overthrow of that government. In 1953, we installed (you may remember) the person called the Shah of Iran. The Pahlavi family was made the rulers. For decades, Iran suffered under tyranny. The gap between the rich and poor got ever greater.

The corruption in the government was totally in favor of the rich and against the poor. There was seething anger in that nation that burst out, as we remember, in 1979 with the invasion of our embassy, then finally, the holding of our hostages and then their release and kind of a peace between Iran and ourselves since then. But still, they were on that track of developing nuclear weapons, which we wanted to avoid.

President Obama said, "We listened to their anger, their hurt, their being so deeply upset by what we had done in 1953. As we came to understand them better, they came to understand us better, and an agreement was reached." It will not bring, of course, total peace to the world, but it's a step, isn't it? A step toward avoiding war. Paul VI said it; John Paul II said it; Pope Francis has said it: "War never again, no, never again war."

We have to prevent it, especially the kind of war that we wage today, which brings about the destruction of civilians far more than military personnel. If we ever engage in a war with nuclear weapons, it will be the very end of the world. So we have taken a step toward reconciliation. It came about because of compassion -- when we began to listen to them, understand their hurt, their anger, and they understood us.

Now we have this agreement that guarantees they will not have nuclear weapons. One more nation will not be armed in a way that can bring about the destruction of our world. It gives us a chance to build now on this and to go further eliminating these weapons everywhere. That's a huge part of the outcome we could have if we really began to develop the spirit of compassion. But again, we can take it back into our everyday life and each of us, in some way, must try to know Jesus better.

When he got off that boat and saw those crowds, he had compassion on them, was willing to reach out and listen, heal, nurture and strengthen. When we do that with one another, starting in our homes, our neighborhoods, our country, and throughout the world, then barriers of hatred and separation will be broken down.

What Paul said happened with the Jews and Hebrews will happen to all of us. Jesus came to proclaim peace -- peace to those who are far off and peace to those who are near. Through him, all people approach God in the one and same spirit. That's what could happen as we grow in the ability to be compassionate to one another.

[Homily given at St. Philomena ‚ÄčCatholic Church in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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