They had all kinds of diseases, all kinds of symptoms. Pain here or there, lesions, bleeding, feeling constantly weary, lacking in energy, anxiety – between them, you could find everything. And they may have given names to their problems, but they didn’t always know what was wrong. That was worse – the not knowing, when you didn’t know what the problem was or how serious it was or whether you could do anything about it. Doctors were few and far between and were expensive. And in the end, it was pretty hit and miss as to whether you got cured. Granny’s old cures were a help, but there were some things that were even beyond Granny.
So when they heard there was a healer in town, they came out in droves. A healer meant hope.
Jesus looked at them. They were full of expectancy, willing Jesus to turn to them, to lay hands on them and pray. And sort it out. Make them better. Jesus was full of compassion. His heart went out to them. But the task was huge. There were so many needy people.
Jesus came to Bensham. He looked around and there were so many needy people. Yes, there were GP surgeries, even if it took a while to get an appointment. The QE did a grand job, and there was A&E for emergencies and the walk-in centre if you took bad. The NHS did a great job, but people were still suffering.
Some people had to live with chronic conditions, remembering to take their tablets and dealing with the symptoms and the pain. Some people were struggling with the frailties that came with old age or the impact of a lifetime of bad diets, drink or drugs. Others were struggling with mental frailties, depression, break downs, difficult diagnoses. Then there were those who were reeling from the blows of life: redundancy, bereavement, breakup of relationships.
Jesus looked at them. He was full of compassion. His heart went out to them. And he wants us to care. We are the body of Christ here in this place, so we are called to care.
It’s not always easy. On Monday evening a young woman knocked on the door. She had split up with her partner and her benefits were being sorted out. She was going to get money the next day on Tuesday, but the electric had gone and there were no lights and she didn’t have any money to put on the meter stick. I explained that I didn’t give money. She said could I help in some way, but it wasn’t clear what kind of help she wanted apart from money on the electricity stick. I said that I could give food vouchers, but she couldn’t pick up food till Tuesday afternoon, and she would have her money by then anyway. She went away with nothing. It was Monday evening, still my rest day, and I was grumpy at being disturbed.
On Tuesday morning, someone knocked on the door, one of my regulars who has asked for all sorts of help in the past. She had been in hospital and now needed to get to an appointment at the Job Centre, but could I give her a lift into Gateshead because she couldn’t walk that far, especially up the hill. I was about to set off for the service at school, so I was under pressure with a deadline to keep. I gave her a lift to Prince Consort Road, but I was pretty grumpy about it.
On Wednesday, in response to the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower, compassion flowed. People brought bedding, clothes, water, food, face masks, money to give to those who had lost everything. It was heartening to see how people responded.
When there is a crisis, people do respond well. What is more difficult is the long term need for compassion, the day by day demands. How do you make compassion sustainable for the long haul?
As a church, we support Gateshead Foodbank and Bensham Community Food Coop, and people have been generous in donating food items, toiletries etc. The demand in both these services is going up, but they do a fabulous job. But getting enough food to meet the need is a struggle.
And when you are giving and you know it is going to a genuine need, it feels good, it makes you feel like you are really helping, and that is a reward in itself. It’s more of a problem when you feel people are taking advantage. When people come to the door asking for Foodbank vouchers, I now ask them for evidence of their need, for the letter that says their benefits have been sanctioned, and something that proves how many children they have. I know people come to me for food so they can spend the money they have on drink or drugs. That doesn’t make me feel good: because I can’t just trust people, because they are pulling the wool over my eyes, because their needs are self-inflicted. You might ask where is my compassion for the people who are dependent on drink and drugs. What would Jesus do?
Jesus’ response is to give authority to the 12 disciples to heal. Even Judas. So there are more of them to address the need they see before them. But when Jesus heals, it’s never just about making someone better, it’s about extending God’s kingdom. The harvest is not just about the healing of the sick but about helping people to experience the love of God and open their hearts to follow Christ. I know people have grumbled to me that of all the people we have helped, we never see them in church. Should that matter? Shouldn’t we stick faithfully to our calling to compassion, whatever the outcome?
There are lots of dilemmas and difficulties with being compassionate. We need to ask those questions and have those discussions. That doesn’t mean we should stop being compassionate. We are called to be like Jesus, to look with compassion on the people in our community. It’s not easy. It’s not always comfortable. It doesn’t always bring satisfaction. But that’s what we need to do. And we need more people to help.