“IT SOUNDS archaic, hardly short of embarrassing, to say that ‘Jesus saw the crowds and felt pity for them in his bowels.’ But it would be a more accurate rendering of the text: splagchna, which is the root of the verb used in verse 36, means ‘viscera’, ‘bowels’ or ‘womb’” (Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to St Matthew).
In the Collect for Purity, we ask God to “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts” and not of our heads. This “cleansing” is not about having an inner life that is free from all upheaval and disturbance. The unclean state of our hearts is often revealed by complacency and emotional disconnection from suffering. It is because Christ has a clean heart that he is moved to the very depths of his being by the plight of God’s people.
Matthew tells us that the crowds were eskylmenoi— a word translated as “harassed”, but more accurately rendered “mangled” or “torn asunder”. They are in this vulnerable state because they are “like sheep without a shepherd”.
The divine compassion involves deep, visceral emotion, but it is also expressed in action. If the first part of Jesus’s response is to feel pity, the second is to offer his life for the sheep. The supreme embodiment of the divine compassion occurs at Calvary.
Paul writes in our epistle that it was “while we were still weak” that “Christ died for the ungodly”. In the end, it would be Jesus who would be more truly “mangled” and “torn asunder” for his people.
As Raniero Cantalamessa observes, the passionate love of God for humanity is a central theme in the Hebrew scriptures (e.g. Micah 6.3; Hosea 11.8-9). Jesus’s response to the crowd manifests this same “heartbroken” compassion. “God’s affliction is not for his own sake as if he were lacking something.” He is afflicted for our sake, “out of pure love” (Life in Christ: A spiritual commentary on the Letter to the Romans).
If the first aspect of Jesus’s response is emotional, and the second is his own sacrificial death, the third part of his response is to raise up shepherds who will proclaim that sacrificial love in word and in deed. “The harvest is plentiful,” he declares, looking on the people in their need and not simply in their sin. And yet “the labourers are few.”
It is in this context that Jesus summons the Twelve and gives them authority and a commission. This is the first place where the twelve are called “apostles” (meaning “sent”). Jesus tells them that they will be sent out “like sheep into the midst of wolves” and will be “flogged” and “dragged before governors and kings”.
As Anna Case-Winters explains, the disciples will occupy “the same liminal space” that Jesus occupies, “neither fleeing from society nor accommodating to the status quo”. The disciples will share his “itineracy, poverty and defencelessness”. Their message will attract the violent opposition of the “wolves”: a frequent biblical image for unfaithful religious and political leaders (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew).
Leiva-Merikakis draws our attention to the humility of the list of apostles. Matthew gives us “a shameful deed” (Judas’s betrayal), alongside “any number of very ordinary details that serve only to plant a person squarely within history — the everyday, banal history of individuals in society”.
In our first reading, the Lord tells the Israelites that “the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly people and a holy nation.” The grace of the covenant given to Israel is a sign to the world of God’s love for humanity. In the New Testament, this covenant is extended to all human beings in Christ — and the whole Church shares in the priestly task of making his love visible in the world, both through its sacramental life and its cruciform witness (cf.1 Peter 2.5).
In a leaderless, fearful crowd, Jesus sees a plentiful harvest-field. In these 12 humble and flawed men, Jesus sees the foundations of a Church that will extend across continents and millennia. “The church will change when we begin to look at people as Jesus did . . . when we look more closely at their suffering than at their sin, when we see them with the eyes of mercy rather than of fear” (José A. Pagola, The Way Opened Up by Jesus).