For Sunday August 6, 2017

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)


Genesis 32:22–31 or Isaiah 55:1–5
Psalm 17:1–7, 15 or Psalm 145:8–9, 14–21
Romans 9:1–5
Matthew 14:13–21

The debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2015) by the Irish writer Sara Baume has won numerous awards for its portrayal of the love between two deeply wounded creatures — a misanthropic recluse named Ray, and his abandoned and abused dog One Eye (so named for a wound from a badger). 

What really drives the novel is its delightfully strange narrative device, a 274-page second person soliloquy by Ray to One Eye, in which he unburdens himself of his many hurts. "I'm all on my own," Ray tells One Eye, "just like you."  With a dog as a central character, this story is conspicuous for its lack of human compassion.

Ray says that he feels like he's wearing a space suit that "buffers" him from people, who at any rate avoid him — at the bank, the grocery store, or the playground.  He's a truly strange man who lives alone in his dead father's dilapidated house, a stranger, like an ugly troll.

Ray is deeply aware of his wretchedness and insignificance: "They all think I don't notice.  But I do." He fears every social situation.  He quit going to mass after his father died.  He distrusts good fortune. 

Ray also knows that he's not one of the "regular people." In the one instance when he did feel like a "regular" person, who did regular things, in a regular way, he says that he felt uncharacteristically inconspicuous, even ordinary, and that "it felt good, so good."

"Sometimes I see the sadness in you," Ray tells One Eye, "the same sadness that's in me."  His sadness comes mainly from his complicated memories of his deceased father, and the mystery surrounding a mother that he never knew. 

When One Eye attacks a neighbor's dog, scape-goating forces them to flee their village.  They head inland, and drive and drive and drive, then return to the village and his father's house — "the saddest place in our whole small world." 

 Good Samaritan from the Rossano Gospels, 6th century.
Good Samaritan from the Rossano Gospels, 6th century.

"See the community we were insidiously hounded from," he tells One Eye.  "See how community is only a good thing when you're a part of it." Indeed.

In the gospel this week, when the disciples saw the crowds, they wanted to "send them away." Jesus "felt compassion for them." Whatever else he was, Jesus was a man of compassion.  And that stands to reason, for God himself "is full of compassion" (James 5:11).

I still remember learning this Greek word "compassion" in seminary thirty-five years ago, perhaps because it was fun to pronounce — splangchnizomai. The word group occurs about twenty-five times in the New Testament. The noun form refers to the bowels, lung, heart, kidney, or liver — in ancient days thought to be the seat of the human emotions.  Even today, for example, we say that we feel something "in our gut."

To have com–passion, to "suffer together" or have sympathy, to "open your heart or bowels" to someone, isn't just a feeling.  In the New Testament, compassion is the divine response to human suffering.

In the gospel this week, Jesus has compassion and then feeds the hungry.  Other occurrences of the word describe his compassion for the scared father of the sick son, the two blind men, and the widow of Nain.  The master who forgives the debt of his slave, the waiting father of the prodigal son, and, most famously, the good Samaritan, all "had compassion."

Last summer in 2016, when my wife and I walked the 358-mile "Way" of Saint Francis of Assisi in Italy, every morning before we set off we would recite his so-called Peace Prayer.  I don't know what became of it, but for the longest time it also sat on our window sill above the kitchen sink.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in self-forgetting that we find;
And it is in dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life.

 Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni, 1773.
Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni, 1773.

We don't know the author of this classic prayer, and it wasn't until the 1920s that it was even ascribed to Saint Francis.  But it certainly emulates his longing to be a person of compassion, healing, and redemption in our fallen world.

We normally think of extending compassion to others.  In my church we also have a benediction that reminds us to be compassionate toward ourselves — for that's what God has already done.

Much of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) is characterized by darkness and despair, reflecting his lifelong interior struggles. After converting to Catholicism, which estranged him from his Anglican family, Hopkins burned much of the poetry he had written, and even stopped writing for seven years. After ordination as a Jesuit priest, an assignment in Ireland left him feeling isolated and melancholy, thus giving rise to his so-called "terrible sonnets."

But somewhere in his darkness, Hopkins experienced God's light. He moved beyond self-reproach to divine compassion. In one of my favorite poems, My Own Heart, he describes an interior conversation about accepting "God's smile" upon his life.  He had compassion on himself.

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst's all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
's not wrung, see you; unforseen times rather — as skies
Betweenpie mountains — lights a lovely mile.

I've always liked the suggestion of Marcus Borg, that Jesus turned the Jewish purity system with its "sharp social boundaries" on its head. In its place he substituted a radically alternate social vision. The new community that Jesus announced would be characterized by interior compassion for everyone, not external compliance to a purity code, by egalitarian inclusivity rather than by hierarchical exclusivity, and by inward transformation rather than outward ritual.

In place of "be holy, for I am holy" (Leviticus 19:2), says Borg, Jesus deliberately substituted the call to "be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." (Luke 6:36).
The little epistle of 1 John 3:17 thus questions us.  How can we claim that the love of God abides in us if we behold our neighbor in need and "close our bowels" to him, refuse to help, and fail to act with compassion?
Image credits: (1) and (2)