We live in a divided world. There seem to be two camps in just about everything, politics, religion, social media and so forth. Sometimes these are labelled, right and left, liberal and conservative, socialist and capitalist, idealist and fundamentalist. Few of us can avoid these categories; we may even wholeheartedly define ourselves by such labels. But mainly we use them to define and dismiss those who disagree with us. The word “liberal” in the mouth of a “conservative” is an insult, and vice versa. Nothing more needs to be said about a person. One word says it all. How can we overcome these divisions in our countries, in our communities and in our families? Only through the example of Jesus.
The divisions in the world reflect divisions within us. It seems to be the human condition that we are not entirely whole, that there are two sides or more to us. St. Paul tells us in Galatians [5:17] that the flesh is opposed to the spirit, so that we cannot do what we want to do. That does not mean that the body is bad and the soul is good, it just means that we often have contradictory impulses inside ourselves, and very little we do is done with a whole heart.
Ephesians tells us that Jesus reconciles those who are near and those who are far off. In a literal interpretation, this probably refers to the Jews and the Gentiles. Jesus’ message is for both, and makes the two into one, one community of Christians. But we may also look at this passage as more personal. Jesus makes divisions between people into one but he also makes the divisions inside us into one. Our contradictory impulses are reconciled through him. He makes two into one, both in him and in us. How can he do this? Through his example.
In the Gospel, we see Jesus offering his disciples a respite from the work they have been doing, evangelizing and healing throughout the towns of Galilee. But when they arrive at what they expected to be a deserted place, it is already full of people. How might we react if we were in the place of Jesus or his disciples, expecting solitude and finding crowds of needy people instead? I can only speak for myself here, but you may recognize one or more of these reactions. There are at least three ways that I can think of.
First, we might simply be annoyed. We are trying to get away from these crowds and have a little well-earned peace and quiet. Jesus himself promised us. We deserve at least that much for all the good work we’ve been doing. Mark tells us that the disciples haven’t even had enough time to themselves to sit down and have a proper meal. They’ve been travelling around with no provisions at all, teaching and healing these people. Can’t they see we are tired? We may be tempted just to turn around and leave, or tell all these people to go home and stop bothering us for a day or two. We might be tired and annoyed.
There is a second way we could react. We might be flattered. So many people have come out just to see us. We have been doing a lot of good, and folks appreciate it. We must have been doing something right. In our old lives, very few people cared about us one way or another, and here great crowds are acclaiming us as miracle workers, and wanting to be near us. We might take their presence personally, as if we are now special people.
There is a third way, too. Although we are tired and really want some time for ourselves, we stay and tend to the people there. But secretly we hope that someone is paying attention, and noticing just how kind and generous we are. We don’t necessarily do these good things only to win approval, but if we do get other people’s good opinion as a kind of side effect, that’s fine. Our impulse is to do something good, but we also hope to gain something for ourselves at the same time. This doesn’t mean that we are bad people, it just means that we have contradictory impulses working in us at all times.
As I say, I can only speak for myself, but these are three ways I might react to such a situation. I know this because I actually have reacted in these ways to various circumstances in my own life. These reactions are at least partially grounded in my self-interest. I am tired. I am flattered. I want to be noticed for the good things I do. How can I overcome my internal divisions and self-absorption? Only through the example of Jesus.
Let’s look closely at how Jesus reacts. What example is he giving us to follow? You might have already guessed that he doesn’t react in any of the three ways above, with annoyance, feeling flattered, or for the good opinion of others. Instead he does something extraordinary. He sees these people. To him they are not there to bother him, or because of who he is or something he has done, or that he might do more good in order to gain more fame. They are not objects to him, they are people. He sees that they are there because they are lost. They are there because they are broken. They are there because they have a hunger in their hearts for love. He will not reject them or use them for his purposes. He has no need to do this. He is not divided inside, like us. He is whole. It says in the Gospel, “his heart was moved with pity.” The original Greek can be translated “pity,” but also as “compassion.” He was moved with compassion, right here, deep inside.
Jesus is truly moved by these people. He wants to understand them, he welcomes their problems and difficulties, their wounds and illnesses. He wants to care for them, to be their shepherd, all of them. He doesn’t ask what their political leanings are, he doesn’t ask if they are conservative or liberal Jews. He loves them all.
How can we overcome seemingly unbreachable divisions in our countries, in our communities, in our families and in our own hearts? Through Jesus’ example. Jesus does not judge on the basis of the labels we apply to ourselves and others. He is willing to listen to the true longings of each individual’s heart. He can see past our posturing, our squabbling, our self-absorption and reach and touch our true longing.
Real community means living with others who do not agree with us. We not only accept them, but honour their differences. We may argue, we may be short-tempered, we may even be dismissive at times, but deep down we understand that we don’t hold the exclusive rights to truth, that God alone is the final judge. In Christ, our divisions cease to matter so much. In Christ, labels fade to nonsense. In Christ, love triumphs over judgement. In Christ, we are shepherds of one another. In Christ, we are one person.