I love these readings today; they are so filled with rich imagery. We can imagine the scrumptious banquet described in our first reading; we can just picture the picnic that Jesus provided in the gospel. These are images that perhaps resonate with us as we spend our summertime attending family reunions, picnics, and neighborhood block parties. And for those among us who are in need, the image of the heavenly banquet is one that they yearn for in suffering.
But as I read the gospel reading today, one particular word leapt out at me. This word, I think, is the reason for the rich banquet we have been promised. That word is “pity.” The gospel says that when Jesus saw the vast crowd that was following him to this out-of-the-way place, “his heart was moved with pity for them.” That pity led him to call on the disciples to give them some food to eat, and when they couldn’t, he helped them do it.
But that word “pity” has negative connotations for us, I think. When we hear the word “pity” perhaps it implies condescension that makes people feel despised. We have certainly heard people say, “don’t pity me” or “I don’t want your pity!” And they say that because pity, to our ears, implies a feeling that writes the other person off as someone less than able. “Pity” as we use it doesn’t generally move a person to action.
But for Jesus, the pity was anything but the experience we have had. Pity for him moved his heart in such a way that he had to do something about the plight of the people who were following him. So I did a little digging and found that the Greek word that is translated as “pity” in this reading is splagchnizomai. Now I’m not a Greek scholar. When I took Greek in seminary it was an optional class that carried zero credit hours. So let’s just say that the homework didn’t often float to the top of the stack! But I did enjoy it enough to get some things out of it and one of them was this word splagchnizomai.
Splagchnizomai is a Greek example of what we call onomatopoeia, that is, a word that sounds like what it is. So it is defined as a deep guttural reaction that moves one to compassion. This is hardly what we think of when we think “pity.” Parents may relate to this word if they think about a time when, perhaps, they saw their child falling and they had a deep feeling of pain even before the child hit the ground. The word is famously used in John’s gospel when Jesus learns of the death of his friend Lazarus. In that instance we are told that Jesus was “deeply perturbed,” he had splagchnizomai for Lazarus, his sisters, and the people who were mourning. In that instance, his compassion moved him to raise Lazarus from the dead.
So today, Jesus has splagchnizomai for the crowds. That deep, guttural reaction was one that he was trying to teach his disciples. When they approach him to suggest that he dismiss the crowds so they can go find supper, he says “give them some food yourselves.” He recognizes that they have that feeling of compassion, but he wants them to complete it by acting on it. But they can’t: they have only five loaves and two fish. For Jesus, however, it is enough, and he famously prays over what they have and gives it to them to distribute, and it turns out to be even more than enough. Jesus’ splagchnizomai for the crowds gave them more than they needed, more than they could have hoped for, and he teaches his disciples to have splagchnizomai too.
And so we disciples now need to respond to that. We can, like Jesus’ apostles, feel overwhelmed in the face of so great a task. We have enough on our plate dealing with our own families’ financial woes, job demands, raising of children, caring for the elderly, and so much more. Then we find ourselves walking with friends, co-workers and classmates who are having problems. How can we ever expect to then reach out and meet the needs of those in need: the poor, hungry and homeless, migrants, financially ruined families, and so many more? What good are our meager efforts in the face of so much suffering?
But we should remember that God most likely has not asked us to solve all the world’s problems, but instead just handle our own little corner of the world. God can multiply our efforts just as he multiplied the loaves and fishes to really affect the world for good. It just starts with a little splagchnizomai, a little deep feeling of compassion that moves us on to action, that moves us to be the Body of Christ and feed others as we have been fed. We just have to be willing to give them some food ourselves.