St. Matthew (14: 14-22) tells to us that when Jesus saw how hungry the people were that He was speaking that "He was moved with compassion for them." Let's put ourselves in the place of Jesus. Jesus is about halfway through His three year ministry. His cousin and friend, John the Baptist, whom Jesus called the "greatest of Prophets", was just martyred for reproving the sins of the rulers. Jesus wanted rest, peace, and solitude. In situations like this He often went off to pray.
But Galilee was a difficult place to be alone. It was a small country, about 50 miles north to south and 25 miles east to west. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that at this time of Christ there were about 204 towns and villages with at least 15,000 people each. Galilee was not a place of solitude. The only place to find rest was on opposite shore of the Sea of Galilee about eight miles across the water.
And then even more people came by. They want to Jesus to heal them and hear His words. He needs to make a choice: tend to his need for peace and solitude or care for the people. St. Matthew tells that Jesus stayed. The multitude he was serving stayed all day and became hungry. The apostles advised Jesus send them away so they can get their own food, and again Jesus was faced with a choice. He needed solace, but the people needed Him.
How does Jesus react? With compassion. What is compassion? Compassion is the deep awareness of the suffering of others coupled with the desire to relieve it. Compassion is related to the psychological construct of empathy. Empathy is the ability to think and feel what others are thinking and feeling.
In terms of human development, empathy is the foundation of pro-social behaviors such as altruism. (Lewis and Haviland, 1993) Compassion is a precursor of love (agape). Love is what we do for the good and welfare of others. How can we love, how can we work for the good and welfare of others, if we are not aware of their suffering nor have a desire to relieve it? We love others only if we can first sense their needs.
It would have been so easy for Jesus to justify his own needs, and none of us would fault Him if he did. There are times when we need to meet our own needs, and no one would fault us either. But Jesus did something different and demonstrated that at appropriate times we need to be guided by compassion guide us and set aside our own needs.
We see example of this in a new mother, who sets aside her need for rest to feed her newborn. Is it any easy self-denial? Many times it is not. Is it a compassionate self-denial? Absolutely.
A young girl who went to India to work with Mother Teresa of Calcutta She had no medical or nursing skills. One of her assignments was to comfort the most sick on the verge of death. These patients had all manner of afflictions. Many were incontinent. Others would vomit blood.
The girl observed another worker who could clean and nurse the patients with a great amount of skill and experience. She felt inadequate because all she could do was hold their hands, lovingly stroke them, and pray with them. She grew discouraged until Mother Teresa pointed out the joy in the patient's faces when she entered the room. In her own simple way she met a very great need for love, comfort and prayer in these dying patients. (Conroy, 2003)
All Christians are to discern the needs of one another and relieve them if we can. We are to live lives of compassion just like Jesus did. How we accomplish this is based on our own personality and talents. This vocation is universal, but we fulfill each in our own way.
Christians should do a "compassion assessment" of the needs of those around them. Then they should do a "talent assessment" of their skills to determine how to relieve those needs. Let us put aside our needs for the good of the neighbor, and that will lead us to find rest in God.
Conroy, S. (2003). Mother Teresa's Lessons of Love and Secrets of Sanctity. Charlotte, NC: Our Sunday Visitor.
Lewis, M. & Haviland, J.M. (Eds.) (1993). Handbook of Emotions. NY: Guilford Press.