The Healing Nature of Compassion

A Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 11 – Year B – 22 July 2012

Eleanor Lee Wellford,  Associate Rector


The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

-Mark 6:30-34, 53-56



 Jesus was at the height of his popularity – and it must have been both exhilarating and exhausting for him.  But his popularity was only fleeting.   All the wonder and curiosity about who Jesus was soon gave way to animosity and misunderstanding.          But for the moments that Mark captures for us in this morning’s reading, large crowds were in wonder and awe of Jesus and following him and his disciples around, so that there was literally no rest for the weary.

“Come away to a deserted place…and rest for awhile,” Jesus said to his disciples…And they went away by themselves.”   But they were rarely by themselves because Mark tells us that crowds of people would run ahead of them so that when Jesus and his disciples arrived in any one town, there would already be a great crowd gathered there (Mark 6:30-33) expecting Jesus to teach or heal or care for their needs.

How many times have we come home exhausted from a busy day only to hear words such as: “What’s for dinner?” or “Do you mind taking the kids for while?”  And how many times do we go into the kitchen and fix something presentable and nourishing to put on the table, or change our clothes and take the kids to the playground when we’d much rather just sit down and rest for awhile? 

 We somehow just keep going – keep doing, keep listening, keep encouraging – and why?  Well, maybe because we’re crazy, but I think it’s for the same reason Jesus kept going.   And that is purely out of compassion.

Mark wrote that as Jesus “went ashore he saw a great crowd and (as tired as he was) he had compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34).  Sheep are needy creatures and one of the most important reasons they need a shepherd is to lead them to green pastures where they can feed because they don’t have sense enough to go there on their own. 

It’s interesting in today’s gospel reading, then, that one of the most well-known and beloved stories about Jesus was left out – and that is the feeding of the 5000.  Today’s reading consists of two passages that actually bracket that story.  So maybe for today’s gospel, the emphasis shouldn’t be so much on the importance of a shepherd for feeding as it is for something else.

    Perhaps that something else is knowing what the sheep need before they do – anticipating their need.  And what Jesus anticipated for his disciples was their need for rest.  But, what did Jesus anticipate for the needs of those other sheep – the people who were following him around like paparazzi following around a celebrity? 

It’s not until we hear about the arrival of Jesus and the disciples at Gennesaret  that we understand what that need was.  It was a need for healing.  Gennesaret was a town located on the Sea of Galilee and was known for its fertile soil for growing fig, olive and palm trees.  It was also known for its healing springs which had been attracting the sick and injured for centuries. (Feasting on the Word, Year B, volume 3, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, pg 264).   So, if Jesus anticipated or sensed some kind of need for healing, there is little wonder that he and his disciples would end up in that seaport town.

As one commentary put it: the people there recognized Jesus as one whose healing power was so great that someone merely touching a thread of his garment would be healed (pg. 265 Exegetical Perspective).  Jesus witnessed an endless stream of physical illness and injury and because of his compassion, not only endured it all, but healed it all. 

Do you remember several months ago when 19-month-old conjoined twin girls from the Dominican Republic were surgically separated here in Richmond at VCU’s MCV hospital?  It was an amazing procedure that took nearly 20 hours for each toddler.  The surgeons divided the liver, pancreas and other shared organs and reconstructed the girls’ abdominal walls.  The surgical procedures were grueling and the surgeons must have been totally exhausted after just a few hours into the surgery.  What kept them going?  Was it ego, or the promise of fame or maybe even money?  Hardly.

Those surgeons were in it for one reason, and one reason only – and that was compassion, the compassion that they felt for those toddlers.  Through the World Pediatric Project those surgeons, along with countless other volunteers, donated all of their time, talent, energy and expertise to the welfare of those toddlers because they wanted them to be able to live a normal life – no more than what they would have wanted for their own children.

It’s amazing what the human spirit can do when it’s fueled by adrenaline and inspired by the Holy Spirit.  At the very least, compassion means putting the needs of others before our own needs.  It’s intimate and it’s personal and some believe that it’s revelatory of God.  

Some of us may think that compassion is a synonym for pity; but it’s not.  We can feel pity for someone yet remain detached.  Compassion is actual suffering with someone.   “The precondition for compassion” writes one commentator, “is unconditional solidarity with the ones for whom (we) feel it.  …Jesus (felt this solidarity with us) not only in birth and life, but most of all in death.”(Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 3, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press Year, 2009, pg 262).

As we know, compassion can be emotionally and physically draining.  Jesus knew that all too well which is why he suggested that he and his disciples all retreat to a deserted place.  Yet the crowds with all of their needs just kept assaulting them, draining Jesus’ energy – but never his compassion.   His heart remained open at all times to the needs of others; yet the more Jesus’ heart remained open, the more the hearts of many in that crowd unfortunately began to close as they became critical and suspicious of who he was and what he was saying and doing. 

I do believe that each of us has compassion, yet acting on it may be more difficult for some than others and I’m not sure why that is.  Being too compassionate can drain us and too little of it can make us seem uncaring.  Compassion with boundaries is probably the healthiest way to have it.

I have to believe that Jesus knew about the connection between compassion and healing, and in anticipation of our constant need for healing whether that’s physical, mental or spiritual, equipped us through the Holy Spirit with the compassion we need to be with each other and help each other begin that process.

About 30 years ago, a friend of mine lost her 2-week old baby to an undetected heart condition.  I remember talking to her and trying to help her make sense of it all.  I know I was doing more talking than listening which must have been aggravating because in pain and bitterness, she turned to me and said: “I don’t want to talk to you about this any more.  You have no idea what I’m going through.  Only someone who has lost a baby as I have will be able to help me.”  She said that with such conviction that I thought she was probably right.  As I look back on that encounter, I have come to believe that perhaps there was some truth to what she said, but not to all of it.

I believe that a person who is truly compassionate will take on the pain and suffering of another person without having to identify with the details of the experience that caused it in the first place.   The mistake I made was in trying to take away her pain by somehow thinking I could talk it away.   What I have learned since then is that it’s not the nature of compassion to do that, nor is trying to take away someone else’s pain.  

 Jesus showed us how to be compassionate and he also showed us that it’s not always easy nor do we always possess the strength and energy to meet each other’s needs all the time.   Most of the time we do the best we can which may be sufficient enough to begin the healing process, but it takes Jesus to complete it.