It is very difficult to read the three appointed lessons for today without weeping. These must be the passages that have sustained communities in distress through the ages: these are the words that allow the great suffering peoples of Africa and the tiny Christian remnant in the Middle East to cling to hope in these terrible days; these are the words that gave heart to the gentle Christians in Central America and in places like Haiti during the civil wars of the 1980s; words that allowed them to cling to the hope of liberation, and to endure. It is nearly impossible for people like us, in these United States, to understand the depth of suffering of whole communities who see their loved ones destroyed and who are unable to feed their children.
The word community is the key word here. None of the three writers speaks of or to individuals.
Nehemiah refers to the whole people of God brought out of Egypt, to the crowd that turned to a golden calf, to the disobedience of the community and the betrayal by the community of the God who had liberated them. But God still had compassion on them. Nehemiah cries out, "But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.... " Later he refers to God's "great mercies."
St. Paul talks to all the churches of Rome, who at that time were in the throes of persecution. Have heart, have heart, he tells the whole community of faith in the early 60s of the first century, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ-not even persecution by the authorities and by the ruling society. "I am convinced," the great saint writes to the people, "that neither death nor life. . ." He starts with the worst that can meet human beings -- death; and he goes through all the sufferings that he himself had known and which, his great intelligence told him, would befall the people of God in a world ruled by Rome. None of these evils can separate us from the love of Christ. Remember this as you weep and your body is being torn; remember, you are loved, you are connected to the God who created you; you are not abandoned. It is easy to imagine St. Paul himself being whipped by that terrible instrument of torture the Romans used on his back while saying to himself: "Nothing can separate me from the love of Christ."
And who was this Christ? For St. Paul it was Jesus himself. The writer of St. Matthew's Gospel paints a poignant picture of a desperate throng that had seen its salvation in the person of this new prophet, the untiring Galilean who went from village to village telling them that their God was a God of love. No matter that they expected something different from him than he expected for himself. No matter their ignorance. He saw their hopes, their longing for a better life, and he had great compassion for them. He was tired, he needed time alone, but they had followed him. Instead of being annoyed, he shares in their suffering. Ah, the love of God, the compassion of Jesus!
Sometimes we forget the profound meaning of the word com-passion -- to suffer with; not to suffer for but to suffer with; to share in the suffering so that it becomes one's own: this one quality makes the God of Jesus Christ unique among all gods, as the Hebrews had been told over and over again, the love that shares in humanity's suffering.
First, the Gospel writer tells us, he healed their sick, because as we have seen again and again in the New Testament lessons, he cannot be near the sick and not heal them. These are not miracles; they are the inevitable response of Jesus' compassion. But then, he sees their hunger and tells the disciples: Don't send them away; you give them something to eat. No magic enters here. No manna falls from heaven. You [We] must see to the hunger of the miserable people who are left without resources on this abundant earth. Do you not feel it? Do you not hear the great commandment in this story?
The whole community of faith is required to feed the community of need. God depends on us. We are not like the pagans who expected the deus ex machina to be lifted up in order to bring a solution to a drama (as happened in some plays of the ancient Greeks). We are the hands of God; through us God shares God's compassion.
How can we know of the famines in Africa and not respond? How can we know of the agony of our sisters and brothers and their hopeless children in Palestine and remain indifferent?
Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, St. Paul tells the Roman Christians; that means that if nothing can separate us, we cannot allow famine and war and distress to separate others. How do we respond?
If this makes you feel helpless, listen again to the first great missionary: ". . .in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us." The juxtaposition of these words hits us where we live. Who would associate the word conquerors, a military term, with the word love, a term of poets and singers? But this is exactly what St. Paul means. He, because of Jesus Christ, had entered into the heart of God and was revealing the great secret once more: This life is full of struggle -- victory does not come with human weapons, with war and killing; the only victory that makes us conquerors is achieved through God who loves us.