Compassion in the Desert
In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, [Jesus] called his disciples and said to them, “I have compassion for the crowd.” – Mark 8:1-2a (NRSV)
The Christian faith really isn’t all that complicated. We may try to make it so: counting the number of angels on the head of a pin, debating whether to say “trespasses” or “debts,” arguing over the wording of this resolution or that proclamation.
Meanwhile Jesus keeps it pretty simple. Faced with 4,000 hungry people in the desert, he told his disciples, “I have compassion for the crowd. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way.”
The disciples were rightfully concerned for the practicality of the feeding program, but Jesus didn’t start with practicality. He started with compassion.
It’s a word that comes from two Latin words: com (“with”) and patir (to “experience deeply,” also “to suffer”). To have compassion is to enter deeply into the experience of another, deep enough to know their suffering and feel their hunger. It’s what Jesus did throughout his ministry. It’s why we call the story of his last days the “Passion.”
Jesus could have quoted the Bible’s injunctions to feed the hungry. He could have reminded the disciples how God cared for ancestors in their desert times. He didn’t. Instead, he simply focused on the crowd’s hunger. He reminded the disciples (and himself) what would happen to the people if he and the disciples didn’t do something to help. He started from compassion.
May we who call ourselves Christian do the same.
When, like the disciples we feel overwhelmed by the needs of your people and the news of the day, renew our capacity for your compassion, O God.
Talitha Arnold is Senior Minister of the United Church of Santa Fe (UCC), Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of Mark Parts 1 and 2 of the Listen Up! Bible Study series and Worship for Vital Congregations.