‘When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.’
After many weeks of quiet streets and social distancing, the recent sight of many thousands of people gathering together to protest against the brutal death of George Floyd 3 weeks ago, and against the unjust structures that maintain discrimination on the grounds of race, has been all the more powerful. As people of faith, we cannot fail to be moved by a global call for a conversion of heart to overcome racial injustice in response to this most appalling act of violence which showed how such injustice is both personal and systemic. The crowds that gathered to protest, and continue to do so, offer a picture of the determination, anger, fear, and solidarity provoked by this one act of brutality that stands for so many other acts of violence experienced by people of colour across the world. ‘When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.’
Jesus’ compassion for the crowds has so many resonances for the historical events we are witnessing. His compassion is evoked because they are people who have suffered harassment and because they are vulnerable. But it is also a compassion born of the awareness that they are like sheep in search of a shepherd. We should not hear these words as suggesting a desire for any kind of infantile dependency but with the echoes of prophetic speech which have a very specific target. When the prophets used this image, the shepherd they had in mind was a just and merciful leader. The absence of such a ruler was what made the people vulnerable to abuse and those who were already poor were, in the absence of justice, all the more susceptible to violence, illness and exploitation. Jesus’ compassionate response to these crowds was to send out labourers who would tend their wounds, gather in the excluded and proclaim that a new kind of kingdom was at hand, one founded on the very compassion and justice they lacked, a kingdom that was built on the foundation of renewed relationships, not executive orders. These labourers were to go into those situations that might well leave them vulnerable to abuse themselves, for this new kingdom undermines the lust for power that corrupts too many. They were to use every ounce of cunning they could muster, but always in the service of dove-like peace, always without guile, without violence, without clinging to possessions or power.
So what does Jesus’ compassionate response to a shepherdless crowd suggest to us as we seek to respond to the issues raised in our own day by so many crowds seeking justice? Well it seems to me that, for a start, the only kind of moral leadership that could be credible for the church today would be one based on people willing to ‘go out’ from the place of familiarity into the places where the wounded seek healing and the oppressed seek justice. It could only be credible if it begins with the rolling up of sleeves and the feeding of hungry bellies. In addition, Jesus’ instructions to those he sends out suggest some very specific characteristics.
Firstly, all the details about no bag, no cash, no spare clothes may seem unworkable and extreme to us, but what they are saying is that those who go out must do so with an attitude of complete openness. When we rely on the hospitality of others, we open ourselves to them in trust and with an open ear. This is surely the most important characteristic we must adopt if we have been born into a position of privilege in our society – the willingness to hear the voices of those who have not shared that privilege. Firstly, the voices of those with whom we share a community, but also the voices of those from our history, whose story is not proclaimed in stone on the top of plinths and pillars.
If this radical act of listening requires a kind of self-forgetfulness, a kind of dove-like innocence, then the next characteristic requires a full self-awareness, a serpent-like wisdom. The second characteristic required by those Jesus sends out is discernment. He tells his sent-out ones to be discerning about which houses they should stay in on their journeys. I think what this means is that the disciples should seek out those who share their values and are hospitable to the vision of the kingdom – fellow-travellers, allies. The reason this needs discernment is that these partners in the vision of the kingdom may not be that obvious, not necessarily those who might naturally be in their circle of friends and associates. That’s why self-knowledge is essential and superficial judgements dangerous. In practical terms, for those of us responding the call to racial justice in our societies, this means a prior commitment to understanding our own prejudices and preferences so that we do not simply end up reinforcing what we’ve always done and how we’ve always thought. The Christian spiritual life has plenty of resources for this kind of self-examination.
Finally, Jesus urges a revolutionary patience in those who would allow themselves to be sent out – the one who endures to the end will be saved. True changes of heart and mind take time and the willingness to carry on through setbacks and disappointments. For the life of the disciple is a whole life lived in the footsteps of Jesus.