From Disgust to Communion

Great crowds came to him, having with them the lame, the blind, the deformed, the mute, and many others. They placed them at his feet, and he cured them. The crowds were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the deformed made whole, the lame walking, and the blind able to see, and they glorified the God of Israel.

Jesus summoned his disciples and said, “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, for they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, for fear they may collapse on the way.” The disciples said to him, “Where could we ever get enough bread in this deserted place to satisfy such a crowd?”

Matthew 15:30-33

In today’s reading from Isaiah, we hear of the promise of a time when God’s hand will end all sadness and provide a great feast to all peoples, removing the veil that separates us in this life, one from another. In Matthew we hear of the fulfillment of that promise as the people gather to be healed and fed by Jesus. The image presented, however, may seem a bit jarring at first. For the crowd that comes to Jesus consisted of the lame, the blind, the deformed, and the mute. It is made up of those who know that they need a physician, as Jesus will say. As the promise of Isaiah is fulfilled, it is not a lavish banquet for the respectable and the wealthy, it is rather a gathering of the broken; it is a healing and a feeding of those who visibly attest to the poverty and pain of humanity.

The gospel also offers us an insight into the heart of God. Jesus tells the disciples that his “heart is moved with pity for the crowd.” The measure of our heart’s conformity with the heart of Jesus, then, is our compassion for the crowd. As the story continues, we see what makes that difficult for us, as the disciples, speaking for us, ask “Where could we ever get enough bread in this deserted place to satisfy such a crowd.” The disciples want to send the crowd away because from their perspective there is not enough for all. The need is so great, and what they have to give is so little. Yet, Jesus shows them that giving even the little that they have is enough to feed everyone, with a surplus left over.

What is the basis of my fear of the needs of others? Why do I feel conflicted when encountering a homeless person who is begging on the street, or when I hear of the sickness or suffering of a friend or colleague? Why do I exert energy in avoiding those whose need is an appeal for my care and presence? And how do I most often do this?

Jesus makes present the kingdom of heaven, not as the ideal and perfect image of Isaiah, but among us as we are. As he says repeatedly in the gospel, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” As Isaiah looked forward to a time when the power of God’s hand would bring all together to feast on God’s holy mountain, Jesus illustrates that the kingdom has come in the curing and feeding of each other, out of what seems to us to be our lack. I suspect that I deny and avoid the poverty and suffering of others because their lack is my lack. I want to make my life small enough so that I can feel secure and self-sufficient within it. Yet, my life is not my own. At some level I know that truth that the life of a child who is hungry, or a laborer who is killing him or herself with overwork for little pay in order to survive and care for his or her family, or a person with mental illness who is roaming the street because he or she lacks the relatively little care or support it would take for him or her to have housing and a satisfying life is also my life. The communion of the kingdom of heaven is not a future event; it is “at hand.” I don’t see it because I insist on creating a false separation instead of living out that communion that we are.

The great illusion of my life is that my destiny is somehow separate from that of everyone else. My own father deeply understood this truth. Whenever I would say things to demonstrate how I or we were unlike or superior to others he would remind me that “I’m no better than anybody else.” I now know, as I could not then, that my father was trying to teach me not mere egalitarianism but rather the truth of human communion and community. As President John F. Kennedy said to the United Nations on September 25, 1961 after the death of Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, “Together we shall save our planet, or together we shall perish in its flames.” Jan van Ruusbroec calls our true life a “common life” because the love that gives us life is “a love common to all.” When I give what I can, not out of some sense of charity or moral superiority but because whatever I am or have belongs to all, then I am living the truth, which is that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Every way that I distance or separate from the other, from our need as manifest in the life of the other, I am opting for an illusion which is what our tradition calls hell.

There is a persistent teaching in the spiritual traditions. From St. Francis being repulsed by and then returning to embrace the leper, or St. Therese of Lisieux experiencing her repugnance at the most difficult nun in her convent and so resolving to make a special effort to befriend her, we are taught not to trust the judgments of our feelings. Our feelings are, at least in part, the embodiment of our prejudices. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum warns that we must be very careful of creating laws based on disgust and shame. For, she says, these emotions are associated with our desire to hide from our humanity (Martha Nussbaum, Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law). When I move away from, try to deny, those aspects of humanity in others that disgust or frighten me, I am moving away from the truth of who I am. When St. Francis embraces the leper and St Therese befriends the difficult sister, they are more fully embracing their own humanity.

As Nussbaum points out, our withdrawal or rejection of others based on our feelings of disgust has both personal and societal implications. Recently it has become acceptable, once again, in American society to disparage the poor as selfish, lazy, and non-contributive. The pride and illusion that motivates these sentiments is not at all new, but the acceptability in voicing them aloud is troubling. Is it time to ask ourselves if the “values” of capitalism and competition have become so dominant as to have submerged the influence of gospel values? Even our cultural religious spokespersons seem to have reduced the message of Jesus to personal morality. With rare exception, we no longer hear in political discourse the truth that together we shall flourish or together we shall languish.

When Jesus was asked to teach us to pray, he gave us what we call the “Our Father.” In it he tells us to ask God that the kingdom of heaven may come. The gospel passage today reminds us that the kingdom has come, that it is “at hand.” it was realized on “the mountain” where Jesus healed the crowd and fed them with the little that the disciples had to give. It is seen in our lives and world whenever we overcome all in us that would distance us from each other and our shared humanity and feed each other with whatever little bit we have to offer. The kingdom remains hidden whenever we choose to withhold from others and to seek security within our own paltry means and possessions. This very day there will be countless places, small and large, where I withhold from others the little that I have to give them. There will be countless times when I fail to proclaim and assert the gospel in the face of those cultural values that oppose it. “Whatever you do to these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.” This is the measure of humanity and human possibility. Our “goodness,” let alone our “greatness” will be measured by the measure we measure out. May we awaken today to those times when fear or disgust would keep us from recognizing our communion with another and of offering the little we have to him or her.

I am proposing that the West is giving up its legal and cultural democracy, leaving it open to, or ceding it to, the oldest and worst temptations of unbridled power. Nowhere in all this is there a trace of respect for people in general—indeed, its energies seem to be fueled by contempt for them. Nowhere is there any hint of a better future foreseen for people in general than an economically coerced subordination to the treadmill of “competitiveness,” mitigated by the knowledge that at least no poor child expects a free lunch. This is repulsive on its face, destructive of every conception of value. And it proceeds by the destruction of safeguards that would protect us from consequences yet more repulsive. At this moment, world civilization is being wrenched into conformity with a new and primitive order that has minimal sympathy at best with thought and art, with humanity itself as an object of reverence. If we are to try to live up to the challenges of our time, as Bonhoeffer did to his, we owe it to him to acknowledge a bitter lesson he learned before us, that these challenges can be understood too late.

Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things, pp. 186-7

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