The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.Genesis 6: 5-8
“Why do you reason that it is because you have no loaves of bread? Do you not yet perceive, nor understand? Do you keep an obdurate heart in you? Having eyes, do you not look? And having ears, do you not listen?”Mark 8:17-18
Both the Lord in Genesis and Jesus in Mark’s gospel are presented in today’s readings as apparently frustrated. In the very anthropomorphic presentation of God in Genesis, the Creator is presented as experiencing regret for having created free human beings. In Mark’s description of Jesus’ attempting to teach his disciples to avoid the hypocrisy and self-alienation of the Pharisees and Herod, we hear of the pain that the disciples’ obduracy evokes in him. It is striking to ponder the fact that Jesus and God might experience the pathos that is so painful an aspect of our own experience. It is not surprising that human authors would come, in the face of evil, to see God as undergoing the deepest emotional suffering we know, as the pathos of limit, failure, and death hovers over everything we do and experience. For us, of course, and even for Jesus, the feelings of pathos arise out of a certain sense of impotence vis-a-vis the evil, the obduracy, and the suffering. In Genesis there is this startling contrast in which the Lord seems to experience the emotion that arises from impotence, but obviously God is not impotent. He designates the one just person and destroys the rest. This is a solution that makes a great deal of sense to us. When we encounter the others who evoke the pain of pathos in us, our own sense of impotence gives rise to a rage that would, unbridled, destroy those who are afflicting us. Jesus, on the other hand, suffers the blindness of his disciples and just keeps on teaching. Instead of destroying the wicked, he allows himself to be destroyed.
In our time, it is impossible to read the story of Noah and the flood without being reminded of our self-inflicted crisis of climate change. To hear the words of Genesis about how the Lord “saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become” is to be reminded of the paralysis we as a race seem to be experiencing around this urgent crisis. How is it that we have brought ourselves to a place where our very future existence is threatened and yet are unable to act? How is it that we know, at least in our own country, that the forces of greed and self-interest, through their impeding a meaningful response, are threatening the future of our children and beyond, and yet we passively continue to allow them to do so?
Today’s gospel affords us some insight into why it is so difficult for us to take up those serious personal and social impediments to the common good that threaten the quality of our shared lives. The context of today’s reading is Jesus’ feeding the four thousand and, then, yet another confrontation with the Pharisees. If we pay close attention to the description of Jesus’ inner experience, we come to recognize that at each moment he allows the impulse from the depth of his humanity to animate his actions. In Mark 8:2 he tells the disciples that he is “moved inwardly with compassion for the crowd.” In Mark 8:12 Jesus, having been cynically asked for a sign from the Pharisees, speaks out of a “groaning in his spirit.” Finally, as he attempts to teach the disciples, he suffers their inability to understand his warning to them about the effects of the kind of pride and ambition that pervade the hearts of many of the Pharisees.
The disciples, on the other hand, miss the deeper communication of Jesus because they are obsessed with the fact that they have forgotten to bring bread with them. We might say that while Jesus’ words and actions are formed by his awareness and attention to the human reality that surrounds him and of which he is a part, the disciples are obsessed with their basic physical needs of the moment. Jesus has just shown in feeding the four thousand that God takes care of things if we respond to God’s call in the moment. The disciples, as ourselves so often, find living in such trust and self-forgetfulness in service to the greater and common good more than they can do. They are blind to the wider world because their “sight” is inhibited by their own bodily and unconscious demands.
The human unconscious knows only one movement and this is to discharge. This gives us a bias, at the pre-transcendent level of our personality, toward the urgency of the immediate. The disciples cannot move their focus and attention away from the fact that they have forgotten to bring bread. They are deaf and blind to anything else that Jesus tries to speak to them about. In many ways the infant in us never ceases to crave what she or he wants when she or he wants it. This spiritual problem that we all have, that is the dominance of the pleasure principle in us, is what makes it so difficult to attain a deeper and wider vision.
We see in Jesus, however, that there is a strange paradox involved here. While our self-obsession (our infantile needs for security, comfort, and pleasure) blinds us to the larger and wider view, it also distorts our presence to what is deepest within. We notice, as we pointed out, that in this chapter of Mark’s gospel Jesus is “moved” to act by his “compassion,” his “groaning in spirit,” and even his sense of pathos about his disciples lack of understanding. If we are truly attuned to the depth of our human experience and responsibility, we are moved and empowered to serve humanity and the world. Self-preoccupation actually dulls our access to the core of our common humanity, not only cognitively but also affectively.
John Donne famously wrote that “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.” Yet, so much of the time our preoccupation with our physical and functional self, our very sense of separateness, mitigates our “involvement’ in the whole. Jesus feels compassion for the crowd because he is one with them. He groans in spirit in his encounters with the Pharisees because he experiences their inauthenticity and lack of presence to themselves. He suffers the obduracy of his disciples because he so longs to be in communication with them.
So we are able as human beings to behave in very inhuman and inhumane ways because we are able to live at a distance from our own humanity. Jesus is resisted because his very presence is a summons to live deeply and to suffer our common humanity. This is inherently threatening to those who feel they can only survive by controlling others and their environment. From the extreme resistance of the Pharisees, whose exalted place, as they see it, in their culture is threatened, to the more typical resistance of blindness an obduracy of the disciples, whose fear of being hungry and uncomfortable inhibits their trust and faith, it is easy for us human beings to deny and refuse reality, responsibility, and relationship.
If we attend carefully to the gospel, we discover that Jesus is a person who suffers his own life, as well as his passion and death. To live in awareness of our common humanity will mean to suffer all the pathos that involves. It is this pathos that shows us the way and calls us to response. To live the illusion of autonomy and autarchy requires that we dull that sensibility, that we distance from the depth of our own experience and suffering, and so from the intimacy and communion of our common humanity. To live contemplatively means, in part, to participate in the pathos of God who is always suffering our blindness and alienation from self, others, the world and God.
Love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, is also civic and political, and it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world. Love for society and commitment to the common good are outstanding expressions of a charity which affects not only relationships between individuals but also “macro-relationships, social, economic and political ones.” That is why the Church set before the world the ideal of a “civilization of love.” Social love is the key to authentic development: “In order to make society more human, more worthy of the human person, love in social life – political, economic and cultural – must be given renewed value, becoming the constant and highest norm for all activity.” In this framework, along with the importance of little everyday gestures, social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society. When we feel that God is calling us to intervene with others in these social dynamics, we should realize that this too is part of our spirituality, which is an exercise of charity and, as such, matures and sanctifies us.Pape Francis, Laudato Si, 231