Gospel: Matthew 14:13-21
Now when Jesus heard [about the beheading of John the Baptist], he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.
Have you ever a really bad day or week when nothing goes right? You do your best and it just gets rejected? The people that you think should have your back and be there for you instead turn their backs to you? I have and it’s not very fun. How do you react when when life seems to be treating you harshly? I react in different ways. Sometimes I get depressed and give up easily. Sometimes I get frustrated and short tempered and take it out on those around me. Almost always, especially since I’m an introvert, I just want to retreat into myself and have people just leave me alone.
In our Gospel, Jesus is having one of those bad times. In the verses preceding this story, he has visited his hometown of Nazareth and teaches in their synagogue. You would think the hometown folk would be excited for him and listen intently, but that is not what happens. Instead, they take offense at him and reject him. In the Gospel of Luke, the people are so enraged over his teachings that they take him to a cliff to throw him off, but he walks out through the midst of them.
How that must break his heart. Not only are they rejecting him, but by doing so they are also rejecting the message he brings. They are rejecting light in favor of darkness, life in favor of death.
Hard on the heels of that comes news of the death of John the Baptist. Now John wasn’t just some itinerant preacher that Jesus knew. He was Jesus’ relative who had responded to Jesus presence while they were both still in the womb. In Luke 1:41 when the pregnant Mary visits Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John, it says,
"When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb."
They probably occasionally played together as kids. When it became time for Jesus to start his ministry, he went to John to be baptized in the Jordan River. Some of the disciples who followed John left him and began to follow Jesus, with John’s strong encouragement. Earlier in Matthew Jesus has this to say about John:
"What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist;"
And now, new has come that John the Baptist has died at the hands of King Herod. And why had John been killed? Because he dared to speak truth the king about marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias, which upset her. John was arrested by Herod and Herodias plotted her revenge on John. When Herod had had too much to drink at a party and made a foolish vow in front oh his guests to Herodias’ daughter that he would give her whatever she asked, she asked for John’s head on a platter. To save face in front of his guests, Herod had John beheaded.
To hear of an unexpected death is a shock to our systems. It’s even worse when it’s senseless. The tragedy of it can eat us up and we just want to understand why. We feel the need to make some sense of it all. Jesus, in his humanity, was no different from us. He needed time to take this in. He needed to take time to pray and probably ask the Father “Why? Why John? Why now? First I’m rejected by the people who helped raise me and now this? What is going on?” Jesus needed some time alone, away from the struggles of life, away from his often clueless disciples, and away from people. Time to cry and think and pray. So he does what he often does, he withdraws by boat to a deserted place.
Alas, however, what he needs is not to be. It says, “But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.” The scripture doesn’t tell us clearly what the “it” is that the people heard. It may have been the news of John’s death or it may have been just that Jesus was going away from where he was. Either way, when Jesus really desires to be alone, he gets followed by crowds of people, over 5000 men plus women and children. So much for alone time.
If this happened to me, you can guess how I’d probably react. It would probably be something along the lines of me yelling, “Why don’t you all go away and leave me the blankety-blank alone for a while. Don’t you know what I’m going through? Don’t you have something better to do with your time than following me around in the wilderness?” Or words to that effect. You see, I’m not Jesus.
What Jesus does is have compassion on the crowds. Instead of yelling at the crowds and sending them away in his hour of need, he turns to them with compassion and ministers to them. I read the the Greek word that is interpreted as compassion in our reading could be better translated as ‘”a gut-wrenching, intestinal-twisting, visceral emotion of care.” In the Gospels, it is never simply an emotion, it is a deep emotion that moves Jesus or another to saving action. It moves the so-called Good Samaritan to save the beaten man. It moves Jesus to heal one man and raise a woman’s dead son. It moves a waiting father to have mercy on his prodigal son. And so on. Here, the deep compassion that Jesus has on the great crowd moves him first to heal their sick, and then to feed the masses.”‘ This deep compassion is what drives Jesus. It drove him to proclaim the good news in his hometown where they reject him, it drives him to heal the sick when he really just wants some me time with the Father to pray, and it ultimately drives him to the cross to save the world, to save you and me. Isn’t that good news? God is so filled with compassion for us that he was and is willing to do whatever it takes to meet us in our need and walk through it with us.
Jesus compassion for the people doesn’t end with the healing of the sick among either. It continues. The disciples start to realize that the clock is ticking by and the people are going to be getting hungry soon. There’s a slang term called “Hangry”. It’s a mash-up of hungry and angry. It means when someone is getting short-tempered because of their hunger. I think the disciples are worried about the people getting hangry. I can almost hear them thinking, “There’s a huge crowd of people here and what if they expect us to feed them. We barely have enough food for ourselves and if we don’t feed them, they might get hangry. You remember what happened in Nazareth, right?” So their solution to the problem is to ask the boss to wind up his compassion and send the crowds away to buy food in the local villages. Let the villages deal with hangry crowds.
Jesus, though he quick to have compassion is not so quick to stop having it and he’s not done ministering yet. So instead of dismissing the crowds as the disciples asked, he tells the disciples, “I’m not done yet, you feed them.” “But all we have is five loaves of bread and two fish,” the disciples whine. Now I think that Jesus is starting to get exasperated. These are his disciples. They’ve seen miracles. They’ve followed him around. Why can’t they just do what he asks without coming up with excuses. “Fine,” he says sharply, “bring the food to me.” He tells the crowd to sit down, takes the loaves and fish in his hands, closes his eyes and takes a deep calming breath, looks up to heaven and then thanks the Father for the food and asks God to bless it to satisfy all the people. “Now,” he says to the disciples, “pass it out.” They do and when they’re done, there are over twelve baskets of leftover food. Not only was it enough, it was an over-abundance.
The compassion of Jesus, even during this rough personal time of his, is making a strong impact on people. The sick among the crowds have been healed. The people have had their fill of food, something that probably didn’t happen often for the typical person of that day. The disciples have learned a lesson about trusting God. This event in Jesus’ ministry had such an impact that it is the only miracle that is recorded in all four of the Gospels. It really spoke to the early Christians about who Jesus was. And it speaks to us today also. As Christians, we are followers of Jesus. As followers, we are to do as Jesus did and a huge part of that was to have compassion, a deep growing compassion that drives us to take action to help those less fortunate than ourselves. A compassion that drives us to heal the sick, feed the hungry, support the widow, reach out to the lost and more. To have a compassion that makes us love our neighbors as our very selves even when it is inconvenient.
May God fill us with that kind of compassion even as he has had compassion on us by coming as a human to die on a tree and rising again that we might have eternal life.