"Having Compassion of and in the Crowds" (Mark 6: 30-34; 53-56)

The following sermon was delivered at St. John the Baptist Church, Maadi, Cairo, Egypt on Friday 20 July.


 Grace and Peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord and Saviour, Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

For the past several weeks, in our Gospel reading we have been following Jesus and his disciples, as they have wandered through the villages and towns of the Galilee, as he teaches, preaches and heals the people.   And his fame has spread for and wide, preceding his arrival everywhere.  As we know how information spreads - by word of mouth, from bowab to bowab, from street corner to street corner, from rumour to rumour, from conspiracy theory to conspiracy theory.  People talked about him and followed his every move.  In fact, the text says that he even when he got into a boat and rowed across the Sea of Galilee, by the time he got to the other side,

As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus.  They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was (54-55).

Throughout the Gospel of Mark Jesus is pursued by the large crowds (polun oclon; jama‘ān kathirān) they will seek him out - incessantly - crowding into his life, even his own private life - when he seeks solitude.  They come to him - looking for him - to receive something from him - healing of body, mind and spirit.  There is very little down time for Jesus, very little “personal space” for him to do his own quiet spiritual retreat because - just like Cairo - there is always someone there – and there is always someone in need. 

Do you ever feel like that here?  That there is always someone there, and there is always someone in need.  Walking out of your flat your bowab [gate man] is right there.  Someone always knows when you are coming and where you are going.  I remember very well numerous times being away on holiday here, and the moment I got home, the doorbell rang, as the bowab, or the landlady, or the plumber, knew I was home. 

Yes, I think you can appreciate the constant press of the many people on Jesus.  They came to him because the need was so great!  A walk to wasta balad (downtown) this week was all I needed to be reminded of “the many.”  Not a whole lot has changed in 2000 years. 

Smashed between the Nile and the desert, Egyptians are faced with the problem of where crowding.  There is only so much of the Nile valley to live on because it is precious land needed for growing crops, but they can’t live too far out into the desert, for obvious reasons.  (In 2003 only 4% of the land of Egypt was suitable for growing crops.  And, most of the country lives on this 4% of land!) So, Egyptians live together in crowded conditions, as our text says in v. 56  - in the “villages, towns or countryside,” and especially in Cairo.

The latest World Health Organization statistics cite that the population of Egypt is now 83 million.  Egypt grows by 1 million people every nine months. 

In the past forty years, Cairo’s population has at least trebled in size.  For the past two generations Egyptians have been flocking to Cairo in search of jobs, and a better life. 

Modern Cairo (that is downtown) was built at the end of the 19th century to accommodate about 350,000 people and several thousand cars.  You all know exactly what a joke that is – anyone who has driven along the Corniche into Tahrir can attest to the fact that there are way more than 350,000 cars in Cairo!  But, apparently, Cairo’s bad traffic problems are not new. 

In 1241, a Muslim pilgrim from Spain spent time in the old Fatimid city of Cairo, in the Khan al-Kalili district.  He wrote this:  “Traffic was so bad that rules were imposed to relieve congestion.  . . .  they were habitually ignored.”  Apparently, this is a timeless problem. 

But of course, as Mark reminds us – the crowds, the many, come to Jesus because they are in need.  They need something – the need either physical or spiritual healing, or even a vision of a better future.  They were looking for a teacher who might speak a word of hope to them.

According to the 2010 Egypt Human Development Report from the United Nations, 47% of University graduates could not find a job.  The report described it this way:

Young people have grown up and entered a period of “waithood” (intizara) – “they simply wait for their lives to begin, most notably queuing for long periods of unemployment during which they live with their parents and are financially unable to pursue marriage or home ownership…”

Yes, its easy to see that here in this place, there are many who are “waiting,” looking, searching, seeking for something – healing, wholeness, a better life – and most just don’t know where to go, or to whom to turn – because the issues are so staggering.

Today in our Gospel reading, we see the many crowds seeking Jesus out for a better life – and it is overwhelming.

The Islamic Medieval Tradition that I have spoken about the past few weeks, which is based upon many late oral traditions, depicts Jesus as a wandering ascetic and miracle-worker, much like what we find in the 6th chapter of Mark.  The 12th century Muslim scholar Ibn ‘Asākir described Jesus this way:

Jesus was a constant traveler in the land, never abiding in a house or a village.  His clothing consisted of a cloak made of coarse hair or camel stub and two hairless shirts.  . . .Whenever night fell, his lamp was the moonlight, his shade the blackness of night, his bed the earth, his pillow a stone, his food the plants of the fields.

Of course, the wandering Jesus in the Gospels is not just a unsympathetic sage, dispensing wise words, aloof from the world.  No, in fact, just the opposite.  In Mark, Jesus responds to the needs and the cries of the crowds – with compassion [esplagcnisqh; fataanan]

…He saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things (Mk. 6:35).

Jesus has compassion on the crowds he encounters, and he provides relief of body, mind and spirit.  The Good News is that God himself has compassion on the world and on us, and does something about it!  This Jesus from Nazareth demonstrates in his very life and essence of “the compassionate and the merciful” God that we have and share with those around us - but who not only views us with compassion – but does something with that compassion

After all, isn’t that the point of the “merciful one” – the one who extends compassion to us?  And it is not only that God does something in general, but also something for real people – the real people of the Galilee, and for you and for me through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus from Nazareth.

Of course, the problems of the crowds are staggering; and they overwhelmed Jesus and his disciples too.  So he says to them, Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place.  You need to get some rest (31).  So they try to get away – and it doesn’t work.

In many ways we see the same issue within the walls of the hundreds of monasteries throughout Egypt.  The monastic life has called Christians men and women from the 4th century – calling them to a life of solitude and reflection.  I am sure that many of you have had the opportunity to visit the historic monasteries – St. Anthony, St. Paul, the famous Wadi Natrun monasteries, Abu Mena – there are hundreds.

But one striking feature of these monasteries is that far from being places of solitude, the monks have found themselves being the center of attention, of crowds, of the many Copts who flock to the monasteries for retreats, or events, or holidays, or merely to get away and find peace.  Here too, the crowds seek some place for rest, and the monks, like the disciples must respond to the crowds.

What about you?  When things get overwhelming here – with the staggering crowds, where do you go?  Is this place “a quiet place” for you?  Here you will find rest.  Here you will find Jesus – you will not only hear about him through the words of Scripture, but you will meet him in this place – in the bread and wine and in the fellowship of the gathered community.

I hope that you will use this place so that you might “get some rest.”  SO THAT – you too might go back into the world, to the crowds to do the work that you were called to do, with compassion and extend that compassion to those around you as your are gifted to do so.

May we too be moved with compassion just as Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the Sheep has compassion on all his flock.

B’il Ismou Masih (In Christ’s name).  Amen.