Never See a Need
(Ex.19:2-6; Rom.5:6-11; Mt.9:36-10:8)
2,000 years ago, the Roman Empire totally controlled the Mediterranean world. All power and wealth were held by the Roman elite and their supporters.
Below them were huge numbers of poor, landless peasants, burdened by high taxes. And anyone opposing the regime was punished, often by crucifixion.
This is the world Jesus lived in. Even as a child, he saw hundreds of people crucified along the road between Capernaum and Nazareth.[i] He knew how desperate the people were. He understood the poverty and injustice, the resentment and the anger.
But Jesus didn’t just feel sorry for these people. He had compassion for them, and compassion is much more than an emotion. To have compassion is to feel someone else’s pain, and then do something about it.
This is the background to Matthew’s Gospel today. Jesus sees a crowd of dejected people; to him, they look like sheep without a shepherd. He knows they are troubled and vulnerable, and his heart is filled with compassion.
So, what does he do about it? He summons his twelve disciples, and he authorises them to go out to help and heal these people. ‘Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,’ he says.
This is a turning point in Matthew’s Gospel, because Jesus commissions his disciples to continue the work he has started. He knows he can’t do it all alone. That’s why Matthew calls them the ‘12 Apostles,’ for an apostle is a messenger sent by Jesus to spread the Gospel and continue his mission of love.
Just like the Good Samaritan who found a wounded man lying by the roadside, Jesus commissions his disciples to meet suffering with compassion.
This is what Caroline Chisholm (1808-77) did when she first arrived in Sydney from England in 1838. Sydney was a convict town then, and she arrived with her husband and children. She was appalled to see so many young women being exploited in the colony. Many had come hoping to start a new life, but instead found themselves unemployed, destitute and living in filthy conditions.
Caroline Chisholm was 30 at the time, and a recent Catholic convert. She was shocked by what she saw. She persuaded the governor to provide accommodation in a ‘Female Immigrants’ Home’ in Sydney. Then she began organising work for these girls, and she started the first free employment agency.
She also took women and girls by wagon and boat to country regions where they quickly found well-paid positions.
By 1846, when she returned to England, she had helped 11,000 people find jobs or settle as farmers in New South Wales. Back in England, she continued to publicise and work for improved emigration to Australia. She raised funds to help families travel to the penal colony, to be reunited with their loved ones, and she worked on improving conditions on the ships.
In the 1850s, her focus moved to Victoria, where she got the government to establish roadside shelters for miners caught up in the Ballarat and Bendigo goldrushes.
When Caroline Chisholm converted to Catholic Christianity, she not only felt a burning love for Jesus Christ. She was also filled with a deep compassion for those who suffered. When she saw a need, she did something about it.
In his book Food for the Soul, Peter Kreeft writes that when Jesus commissioned his disciples to serve as his missionaries and evangelists, he didn’t say ‘These words apply to the clergy only.’ Jesus wants all his disciples to take up his mission of spreading the Gospel of love. But how might we do that today?
Kreeft says that we spread the Gospel not only by our words, but also by our deeds. ‘The Gospel that converted the hard-nosed Roman Empire was not first of all beautiful words but beautiful deeds, deeds of love.’
‘You can argue with words,’ he says, ‘but you can’t argue with deeds, with lives, with saints.’ [ii]
Indeed, you can’t argue with Caroline Chisholm’s remarkable work.
Many people who call themselves Christian today seem to live by the creed, ‘never see a need.’ In many ways they are quite switched off. But St Mary of the Cross McKillop, Australia’s first saint, often used to say, ‘Never see a need – without doing something about it.’
Never see a need – without doing something about it.
This is compassion. This is Christian love.
There are unmet needs – large and small – all around us.
What might you do about them?
[i] Frank Andersen, Jesus: Our Story.HarperCollinsReligious, Sydney, 1994:14.
[ii] Peter Kreeft, Food for the Soul – Cycle A. Word on Fire, Park Ridge, IL. 2022:520-521.