Justice and Compassion: Mission in Post-COVID Society

Justice and Compassion: Mission in Post-COVID Society

Reflecting on Mark 6:30-44 

I am composing these thoughts on the day that the number of coronavirus deaths in the United States has topped a quarter of a million. In response, I want to begin with the well-known verse in Mark 6:34 where we read that Jesus saw a great crowd and “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things.” I wonder whether we often look at people in the mass as crowds, and think about them as Jesus did. T. S. Eliot wrote about the crowds going to work on a cold winter morning in London. 

“Under the brown fog of a winter dawn 
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many 
I had not thought death had undone so many.” 

The last line is a quotation from Dante who saw the crowds jostling on the riverbank waiting to be ferried by Acheron across the river Styx to hell. In our passage, Mark uses the Greek word splagchnizomai, which taken literally means “having one’s guts torn apart.” In some ways compassion is where mission starts, though perhaps one should immediately add that it is not where it ends. Required are not just “the passions and sentiments of the heart” but also solidarity and intervention. Jesus’s compassion, though clearly a powerful emotion, ushered in a program of action. 

As the story in Mark 6:30-44 develops, we see that one important concern was that people were, or became, hungry. Food, in fact, plays a central role in Mark’s narrative. Thus, Jesus and his disciples were so busy that that they did not even have “leisure to eat.” Later, there is the question about how an evening meal is to be procured for such a great crowd, and there is the feeding itself. But food and feeding are not Jesus’s initial concern. He had compassion on the crowd because they were “sheep without a shepherd.” Importantly, Jesus did not feed them – he taught them. Also, the idea of a shepherd in Jewish literature usually referred to more than somebody out on the hillside looking after sheep. It meant a ruler or leader. For example, in Numbers 27:15-17, Moses asks the Lord to appoint someone to lead the people into battle “so that the congregation of the Lord may not be sheep without a shepherd.” Similarly, Micaiah, in a vision, sees Israel defeated in battle and “scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd” (1 Kings 22:17). What the people lacked in both of the Old Testament references was leadership and organization. However, leadership and organization are evident in this Gospel story of the feeding of the five thousand. The people were asked to sit down in an orderly way so that the food could be easily distributed, and the leftovers were carefully collected. There is a nice progression here: compassion, teaching, organization, provision. This same verse about Jesus’s compassion and the leaderless sheep is attached in Matthew 9:36-37, not to the feeding but to the admonition of the disciples to pray for more workers to bring in the harvest. The wandering sheep and the ready harvest needed to be gathered in and restored to usefulness. 

Here I want to introduce three further themes.

JUSTICE 

We have already noticed the shepherd reference in Numbers 27 in the appointment of Joshua. Shepherds as rulers and leaders are also mentioned in Ezekiel and Zechariah, though in both cases because they were acting unjustly. See Ezekiel 34:1-6 and Zechariah 11:4,5. The ruling class was protecting its privilege rather than the prosperity of the people, becoming predators instead of shepherds. When Jesus saw himself as the “good shepherd” (this is John rather than Mark), he was by contrast “a shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). 

SHARING (EQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION) 

Another theme being invoked here is the people being fed in the wilderness. This is more developed by John’s Gospel, but it is in the background of the synoptic accounts too. The whole exodus event, like the feeding here, stemmed from a compassionate consideration of need (Exodus 3:7, 8). But the exodus was not only a deliverance from Egypt. God was determined to constitute a people. He gave them covenant and law – teaching comes first as in our story – and he established the community based on what Ched Myers calls “Sabbath economics.” At the heart of this was again the question of food, that is the manna in the wilderness. God provided this but based on fair shares for all – enough with no surplus and no hoarding. If they tried to hoard it, the food went bad which is what always happens to hoarded wealth. To put this into a modern context, here is an excerpt from a contemporary author Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible:        

(Anatole talking to Leah about sharing.)  “When one of the fishermen, let’s say Tata Boanda, has good luck on the river and comes home with his boat loaded with fish, what does he do?” 

“He sings at the top of his lungs and everybody comes, and he gives it all away.” 

“Even to his enemies?” 

“I guess. Yeah. I know Tata Boanda doesn’t like Tata Zinsana very much, and he gives Tata Zinsana’s wives the most.”  

“All right. To me that makes sense. When someone has more than he can use, it’s very reasonable to expect he will not keep it all himself.” 

“But Tata Boanda has to give it away, because fish won’t keep. If you don’t get rid of it, it’s just going to rot and stink to high heaven.”  

Anatole smiled and pointed his finger at her nose. “That is just how a Congolese person thinks about money.”1 

It is instructive that it is probable the Israelites were tasked with building storehouses while slaves of the Egyptians. Sabbath economics out in the wilderness with food gathered by all and “consumed at the point of need” was an example of God’s sharing justice in operation. 

Another brief example from the Old Testament is an Elisha feeding story (2 Kings 4:42-4). Mark may have had this story in mind when he was writing here. The Elisha feeding story (there are several of these) took place in the context of famine. In a way, that was true of the context of Jesus’s ministry. There was “a whole lot of hunger going on.” In the Elisha story, the man brought first fruits – a sort of tithe. There is a complicated piece of intertextuality going on here. In the incident of the disciples eating grain, they were criticized by the Pharisees (Mark 2:23-8) perhaps as much for breaking the tithing laws as for profaning the Sabbath. Jesus’s riposte was that David and his companions were hungry when they broke the ritual law. Here we have part of a long-running controversy over hunger, tithing, and distribution, which were sharing issues. There are several such examples in the Gospels.  

ORGANIZATION 

Sharing fairly (justly) does not just happen. As the disciples pointed out, feeding a multitude was no small matter. There were practicalities. They did not have enough money for a start. Let me quote Myers here: 

“Twice the disciples suggest to Jesus that the solution to the hunger of the crowds is to ‘buy’ food (6:36f–the first appearance of agorazein in Mark). But Jesus’s solution has nothing to do with participation in the dominant economic order. Instead, he determines the available resources, organizes (italics mine) the consumers into groups (6:39f), pronounces the blessing (cf. 14:22), and distributes what is at hand (6:41).”2 

I like the statement: “Jesus’s solution has nothing to do with participation in the dominant economic order.” (In the midst of the current pandemic, that is something of a relief!) I suspect this principle is still true today, or ought to be. Nor does the solution have much to do with the disciples’ resources. They appear to have had a certain amount of money and a small amount of food. But these were totally inadequate. I am afraid that our “riches” – stored wealth, technology, institutions – such as they are are not just inadequate but they usually get in the way. We are as the saying goes “too rich to help the poor.” So here we have a range of ideas – compassion, teaching, feeding, leadership, justice, sharing, and organization.  

For Reflection and Discussion:

  1. What are the lessons for a post-pandemic world?
  2. What do we see that awakens our compassion?
  3. What are ways we can teach with the goal of inspiring “sharing”?
  4. In what ways can you and your church community exemplify a sharing approach right now?
  5. What do we need to organize?
  6. On whom or what are we relying?
  7. Can we “bring forth” justice?
  8. Can the hungry, in both a physical and spiritual sense, be fed?
After the Pandemic: Where Do We Go from Here?

After the Pandemic: Where Do We Go from Here?

The most obvious comment about the news at present is that that we live in troubled times. And what troubles we have: a pandemic, a worldwide economic recession, Brexit, incompetent and power-hungry rulers, abuse of the media, a renewal of racialism, and the climate emergency. No, my daily paper does not make for happy reading.  

“Where do we go from here?” It is the question some are asking. The danger is that many of us have framed a different question. We are simply asking, “What next?” We do not feel like the helmsman consulting the compass and then taking a new bearing. It is much more like being in a very small boat swept along by a powerful current with the sound of dangerous white water ahead of us. We are desperately looking around for a paddle by which we can steer the boat safely to shore, but there does not seem to be one. 

Or have I got that wrong? Is it just that I am old (nearly eighty) and know that whatever else happens on my stretch of the river before long my boat will topple over the waterfall? Perhaps so. Still, looking at my fellow voyagers, even among those much younger than I am, I do not detect much hope that things can change. Some are fearful, some are angry, and some seem indifferent or even fatalistic. I suspect the majority never had much hope even before “the troubles” began. Their big desire now is “to get back to normal,” but when you look into it, “normal” was never up to much in the first place. 

So how are we Christians getting along? 

Not very well, I suspect, but let’s lay out some options. There are those who do not think that Christianity offers any sort of answers to the issues I am raising here. Christian faith is important to them, but it is essentially about something else. The planet may be in the process of being destroyed, millions are out of a job, the pandemic is raging, we are being ruled by the wrong people, but that is God’s business. We must just leave it all to him. The importance of Christian faith is that it provides us with an assurance that God is with us whatever the circumstances, that there are other Christians to whom we can turn for help and encouragement, and that in the end everything will be all right because we shall go to heaven to be with Jesus.  

Now these are no small blessings! But it must be admitted that the experience as just described does not sound much like the Christian discipleship as understood by the early church. Just to point out a few obvious differences: for the first Christians God was not so much with them in the sense of offering companionship as working through them (Acts 3:2,16). Again, the fellowship of the church was certainly mutually supportive, but it also had dramatic consequences in terms of economics (Acts 4:32), discipline (Acts 5:1-11), growth (Acts 2:41), witness (Acts 4:19, 29), and persecution (Acts 5:40). They were looking forward to seeing Jesus again, but this was not meant to stop them from “turning the world upside down.” Indeed, it seems that they were being encouraged to see the inception of the new creation there and then (Acts 2:16-21), even if there was more to come. 

We need, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to make all this practical and relevant to the twenty-first century. So here are some down-to-earth suggestions: 

  • After the pandemic is over, we can sort out the things that we can do better, not just the same as before. We can be more neighborly, more aware of the vulnerable, more supportive of those who have difficult jobs like National Health Service (NHS) workers, and less frightened to talk about life and death issues. 
  • We can take a lead in (or at least participate in) green issues locally. My friends in the green community are not all that impressed by the Christian response to the climate emergency. I know someone who has an electric car, sustainably sourced home heating, uses rainwater as her main supply, and has a kitchen free from plastic of any sort. She is not a Christian. Neither are the faithful supporters of the local Green Party nor the local members of the Extinction Rebellion movement. Why not? 
  • Christians should become active in political discourse, advocating for candidates who embody high moral standards without marginalizing those who we may not agree with. Like our Savior, we should seek to embrace the disenfranchised, speak for the less fortunate, and continuously raise our expectations for Christ-like behavior in the public arenas. 
  • How about taking up some of the traditional Christian causes: pacifism, criticism of greedy lifestyles, prison visiting, debt relief (loans without interest), living simply, and generally trying to live up to the Sermon on the Mount? 

And much more. These are only examples. 

My understanding of the New Testament description of where we are in God’s timetable (and I think this reflects the thinking of a number of New Testament scholars) is that we are in the thick of it. The time is now. We are under “marching orders” from Jesus (Matthew 28:19, Acts 1:8) and the Kingdom – that is the practical experience and demonstration of the rule of God – which Jesus announced is in our hands for the time being. Of course, there is more to come. Who would not want to see “the restoration of all things” as Peter calls it (Acts 3:21)? But the restoration of some things is possible now. In the prelude to Peter’s sermon (when he speaks about the restoration of all things), Peter restores the disabled person to full health and restores him to the worshipping community. Restoration, redemption, and renewal should be big Christian words, operative here and now. 

To return to our previous picture – we are not, or should not be, drifting helplessly down the river. We are runners in a race and soldiers in a battle. This is not a time when we should quit the race or leave the battlefield. We have not crossed the winning line yet or routed the enemy though the Person ahead of us has. We can aim for that, but meanwhile the action continues.

For Reflection and Discussion

  1. Have there been times when you could relate to the metaphor of a boat being swept along by the current? If so, how did you respond?
  2. What are some practical ways that you and your church can be more “neighborly”?
  3. How are you actively engaged in caring for God’s creation?
  4. What steps can you take to be part of the restoration process for your community?