A ‘gut-feeling’ God
By Fr Donald Chambers
While reflecting on this verse from Matthew’s gospel, I recall an incident in late 2019 when a woman in St Peter’s Square literally held on tightly to Pope Francis’ hand, almost pulling him to the ground.
I think that she was so excited and overjoyed at the prospect of touching the Pope that she went overboard, almost endangering his life. Similarly, it is with the same joy and excitement that Christians should embrace the Kingdom of Heaven, resisting any desire to relinquish it.
In Jewish theological understanding, Heaven was where Yahweh resides, and this was located in the firmament above Earth. Hence, the prophet Isaiah preaches, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool” (Isa 66:1).
For the Jews, Yahweh was so far removed from our blemished earthly existence that no-one could come face to face with Him and live (Ex 33:20). In addition, the Jews do not traditionally speak the name of God as it is believed to be too sacred to vocalise; hence the original pronunciation is not known.
In a word, God was honoured to the extent that they believed He was distanced and separated and communicated to humans through messengers such as angels.
Consequently, the Jewish listeners must have been shocked and dismayed to hear Jesus preach that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. How could the infinite God and His dwelling place come near to us who are finite?
Utilising the example of Jesus’ life and ministry, Matthew teaches the members of his predominantly Jewish Christian community how to discern the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven. He writes, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless. . .” (9:36). Interestingly, the word ‘compassion’ originates from the Greek word “splanchnizein,” which is derived from the noun for entrails, bowels and guts as the seat of emotions.
It is similar to the saying, “I have a gut-feeling” or the well-known response of our Caribbean women, “I feel it in my belly button,” when her child is experiencing excruciating suffering.
It is not unlikely that the mother of George Floyd, the African-American man murdered by the white police officer in Minneapolis, would have had similar feelings during her earthly life.
The fact that he called out his mother’s name in the midst of his suffering could easily be interpreted that in death she was also feeling the suffering of her own son.
Towards the “harassed and helpless crowd” Jesus’ gut-feeling response was consistent with Yahweh’s response to the Jews throughout the history, particularly in the Exodus and the Babylonian exilic events.
Immediately after Jesus’ compassionate response towards the crowd, He chooses 12 key associates whom He called Apostles. By doing this, it is evident that the intention of Matthew is to communicate that the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven must be revealed in their own “gut-feeling” response towards harassed and helpless people.
For this reason, Jesus instructed them to go to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The “lost sheep” refers to a group within Israel, the am hā’āres, who were marginalised from the main circles of religious leadership and zeal due to the fact that they were trying to make a living via disreputable trade or as a result of their lack of interest or education. Jesus intended the Twelve to have a preferential compassion ministry to this marginalised group.
The core message of today’s gospel reading is God, Jesus Christ, now sits on the footstool of the mess and muck of earthly life. Furthermore, the ministry of compassion is the engine that drives the merciful actions of the Church.
The Church, therefore, develops a gut-feeling spirituality in response to those who experience the wrath of atrocities such as racism because it generates oppressive social structures and deviant behaviour that devalues humanity.
As disciples of a gut-feeling God, we must have a deep feeling of remorse, disgust and solidarity towards the oppressed, that leads to actions of mercy and justice towards today’s “lost sheep,” because Jesus Christ has come near to their social pain.
Let us, therefore, hold on tightly to this “gut-feeling” God without letting go.
The gospel meditations for June are by Fr Donald Chambers of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica who currently serves as the General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference Secretariat, St Clair.