At an athletic competition in Seattle, six young men were lined up next to each other for the 100-yard dash. When the starting gun sounded, all six took off, running as hard as they could. About half-way down the track, however, the lead runner stumbled and fell, skinning his hands and his knees. The other five runners all stopped and helped him up. After making sure he wasn’t hurt, they decided to finish the race together, holding hands aloft. When they all simultaneously crossed the finish line, it was impossible for the judges to tell who had won the blue ribbon, due in part to the tears they had in their eyes. Everyone watching the event was deeply moved; the people in the stands stood and cheered for ten minutes, knowing they had witnessed something wonderful. The six young men were competing in the Special Olympics, which as you probably know, involves persons with mental disabilities—but on this day they demonstrated their wisdom and understanding, and gave an important lesson that caring for a fallen friend is more important than winning a race (Steve May, The Story File, p. 66). Life isn’t meant to be a race we win, but a journey we successfully complete—a journey we travel with others, and which leads to Christ’s Kingdom. Jesus calls each one of us to follow Him on this journey, and the best sign we’re truly doing this is our compassion for others.
All of us experience varying degrees of suffering in our lives, whether of a physical, spiritual, or emotional nature; no one escapes completely unscathed. In the first reading, we encounter Job’s heart-rending response to the unprecedented series of calamities he experienced, leaving him miserable and without hope. Job’s situation symbolizes the larger experience of human despair, caused by the world’s hopeless slavery to sin and death. It was precisely to free us from this slavery that God sent His Son into the world. St. Paul tells us that he has freely embraced a different kind of slavery, one involving not despair, but joy—namely, complete surrender to the Gospel, an act of self-giving motivating him to make any sacrifice necessary so that others might also come to know Jesus. This was an incredible act of compassion on Paul’s part, and in this, he was imitating, in his limited human way, the infinite compassion of Christ Himself. We see in the Gospel that after having finished preaching in the synagogue, Jesus entered the house of Simon Peter—presumably so He could rest and get something to eat. However, upon hearing that Simon’s mother-in-law was ill, Our Lord’s first reaction was to help her and heal her. Jesus is never unmoved by human suffering; later that same day, He generously helped all who came to Him, including everyone who was ill or possessed by evil spirits. Our Lord was suddenly very popular in Capernaum, and it would have been quite easy for Him to remain there and bask in His success. However, He chose to move on and minister in all the other villages, where there were also many people in need—yet another demonstration of His compassionate concern. If we are truly to be His followers, we must try to live in this same spirit.
A priest once went to visit a poor family. Upon seeing him, the wife and mother burst into tears and exclaimed, “Oh, Father, I just knew you would come today; I know you can help me.” After they sat down, the woman began describing everything that had gone wrong, all her problems and worries, and all the reasons she was so miserable. The priest interjected an occasional word of hope and encouragement, but he didn’t know what else to say; her needs seemed so overwhelming. Then, to his amazement, the woman paused for a moment, then said, “Oh, Father, you have been such a blessing to me right now—you’ve helped me solve all my problems” (Tonne, Five-Minute Homilies, p. 72). The priest was bewildered, for he hadn’t offered any solutions; then he realized it was compassionate sympathy and understanding she was seeking.
Few of us can work miracles, come up with perfect solutions on demand, or always make someone’s problems go away—but all of us can be signs of divine compassion and love. Jesus shows us how in the Gospel. First of all, we must be willing to think first of others, instead of automatically putting our own needs first. Our Lord was undoubtedly tired after preaching in the synagogue and freeing a possessed man from an evil spirit (as described in last week’s Gospel), but upon hearing of the illness of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, He immediately went and healed her. We too, when we encounter anyone in need, must respond with a caring and generous heart, even if, like the priest in the story, we don’t know exactly what to do. Secondly, we mustn’t feel guilty over taking care of our own needs as well. Jesus was able to rest and take refreshment in Peter’s home, and He allowed the woman He had just cured to wait on Him; this reenergized Him and enabled Him to minister to the many people who came seeking His assistance that evening. In the same way, we must be sure we get enough rest, nourishment, and recreation, thereby ensuring we’ll have the energy and strength to fulfill the mission God has given us. In particular, this means using Sunday as God intends: a day of rest, a day of worship and spiritual growth, and a day of sharing with family and friends. Thirdly, we see in the Gospel that Jesus went off to pray—something He did quite regularly; time spent with His heavenly Father gave Him the strength, courage, and wisdom He needed. The same thing is true for us. We cannot hope to accomplish anything worthwhile in God’s Name unless we make quiet time with Him a regular part of our lives. Building this into our schedule—even if just a few minutes at a time—is absolutely essential if we want to grow in Christ’s image, and only those who make a point of praying when life is easy and routine will truly be ready when great problems and times of crisis arise.
Life is not a competition, but a journey—and as a journey, it’s not a sprint, but a marathon. We’re all in it for the long haul, and we’re supposed to help one another along the way. Jesus has given each one of us a mission to fulfill, and a major part of that mission is bearing witness to His love by the loving concern we show to those around us. It’s by our compassionate love that the world will recognize us as Christians, and it’s by this love that Christ will recognize us and claim us as His own.