MERCY AND COMPASSION
Matthew [14:13-21] tells us today that Jesus “had compassion for” the great crowd of hungry people who had followed him—even when he took refuge in a boat.
Let’s look at this thing called “compassion.” The Latin source of the word (cum + passio) means “to suffer together with someone.”
Compassion often manifests itself in works of mercy, and the two are closely related. The Latin word for “mercy” is misericordia, which means “to have a heart for the suffering (misery) of others.”
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus feels the pangs of hunger of the great crowd—a hunger that is both physical (for something to eat) and spiritual (to know and love God).
And Jesus relieves both hungers. In a miraculous way, he makes two fish and five loaves of bread feed thousands of people (only the men were counted, but there must have been many women and children, too). AND—he also feeds them spiritually by announcing the Kingdom of God to them.
All this leads to my point today: mercy and compassion are the key hallmarks of God’s Kingdom, as announced by Jesus.
Sometimes, when bad things happen, people ask questions such as
“Why did this happen?”
“Why did God let this happen?”
“Where was God when this happened?”
Those are the kinds of questions I would like to focus our attention on today.
In order to think about these weighty issues, we first need to ask—and answer—a few questions about God, about the nature of God, about the power of God, about the “will” of God.
Human beings and their religious leaders have been asking—and trying to answer—these questions for thousands of years. Sometimes, their answers were helpful; other times, discouraging.
Let’s look at the questions.
“WHY DID THIS HAPPEN?”
Of course, the “whys” of life are perpetual questions because there’s no really simple and satisfactory answer to them.
At the end of all his sufferings, and in spite of the advice of his best friends and his wife, when Job finally got to speak directly with God and demand an explanation for all that had happened to him, God said essentially, “I am God, and you are not. You cannot understand what I do.”
That’s a terrible answer, but it reflects a Jewish perspective from around 600 years before the time of Christ. The Jews had once enjoyed a promised land, then lost it, then regained it, then lost it again and found themselves as slaves in Babylon. If anyone ever had the right o demand to know “why?” it was those Jews.
And yet God’s answer was essentially, “you will never understand.”
Not very satisfying.
An even more challenging question goes,
“WHY DID GOD ALLOW THIS TO HAPPEN?”
This kind of thinking leads to even worse consequences than “you wouldn’t understand.”
It assumes two things that I don’t believe are true. First, that everything that happens does so because God specifically intends it. And second, that God actually causes bad things to happen, or at least stands by and does nothing when they do.
Those are answers that shake people’s faith to their very foundation, and I’m here to tell you that they are the wrong answers.
To understand this, we have to look at the nature of God. Sometimes, people get the wrong notion about God. They say things like, “If God can do anything, why doesn’t God put an end to suffering—or war—or disease?”
The problem with this question lies in the first few words—namely that God can do anything. That’s just not true.
God cannot sin, for example. God cannot destroy God’s self. God cannot make a square circle or create a rock that God cannot destroy.
All these are paradoxes because they are wrongly based on the assumption of a reality that does not exist—that God can do anything. The true nature of God is entirely consistent and logical, and God is true to God’s own nature.
The question, “why did God let this happen?” assumes that everything that happens is controlled by God. This brings up the question of God’s will, and whether there is such a thing as God’s plan for each of us.
I believe that there is, but it may not be what you are thinking. I believe that God’s will and plan for every living thing in the universe is very simple: at the end of mortal life, we will be united with God forever.
In short, eternal life is God’s plan—not how we live in this life, not how much or how little we suffer, not how long or short our life is. And that’s all.
If I get out of bed in the morning and trip over the dog and fall down the stairs and break my neck and spend the next 15 years in a coma, that has nothing to do with God’s will or God’s plan for me. God’s only plan is that when I finally take my last breath, I will be united with God forever, in a place where there is no darkness, pain, suffering, sickness, or death any more.
And that’s what I believe is God’s plan for all of us.
And that might lead you to ask,
“SO THEN, WHERE IS GOD WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN?”
In 1985, Julie Gold wrote a song that said, “God is watching us… from a distance.” Bette Midler made a famous recording of that song. It’s a pretty song, but terrible theology. It says more or less that God is way out there somewhere, just observing, not getting involved, not even caring what happens to us, and that’s just not true.
That song is the wrong answer to the real question, the right question, the question that we as Christians can answer every time:
“WHERE IS GOD WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN—
THINGS THAT GOD DOESN’T CAUSE OR ALLOW OR PLAN OR WILL TO HAPPEN?”
God created a universe for us to live in, and that universe is subject to laws that God saw were needed in order to provide for us.
Gravity keeps us from flying off the face of the earth into space, but it also pulls an airplane to the ground if its engines fail. The cells in our body grow and replace themselves, but they can also grow out of control into a cancer that ultimately kills us.
This takes us right back to Jesus on that shore, feeding five thousand.
Jesus didn’t plan for them to follow him away from their homes. He didn’t will that they come without enough food to eat. He didn’t make them hungry, but when he learned that they were, he had compassion on them—he was with them in their suffering. He showed mercy—he opened his heart to their misery. And that’s the answer to our questions when bad things happen.
Not “we can’t understand God.”—because we can.
Not “it was God’s will or plan.”—because God’s only will and plan is to give us eternal life.
And when we ask, “where is God?”—the answer is found in the very last words of the Gospel of Matthew:
“I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” [Matthew 28:20 KJV]
Where is God when we suffer? God is with us—right there, sharing our pain—not causing or allowing it, hurting alongside us—not watching from a distance. In all our suffering, our sorrow, our pain, God is with us and always will be.
God does not promise that we will never suffer, nor does God choose—or will, or plan—to make us suffer. What God does is to suffer along with us.
God gives us encouragement and the strength to accept and endure our suffering. God shows compassion and mercy whenever bad things happen to any of us.
And God feeds us, physically and spiritually, just as Jesus did for those hungry people on the shore.