By Paul Koch –
Matthew 14:13-21 is a very familiar text for most of us. Even if you haven’t been going to church for too long, or even if you are brand new to the stories of Scripture, you’ve probably heard something along the way about the time Jesus fed over 5000 people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. In fact, it is because we are so familiar with this story that we tend to pass over some interesting and peculiar things. For instance, I think the crowd reacted strangely as it is recorded in this text. Usually after the crowd experiences a miracle of our Lord, especially one from which they physically benefitted, there was a reaction of being filled with awe or wonder. They would usually be giving thanks to God or praising our Lord, or something. But not here. In this miracle, the focus never shifted from our Lord, from His actions and words. The focus remained on one thing in particular – the compassion of our Lord.
After hearing about the gruesome death of John the Baptist, Jesus withdrew across the sea of Galilee to a desolate place. Away from the crowds, away from the commotion of those who had gathered to receive his blessings. But when the crowd heard that he had departed, they sought him out. They didn’t cross by boat but travelled around the sea on foot, heading out into the wilderness with nothing but Jesus in their sights. And when Jesus sees the crowd, does he get upset because he needs some alone time? Does he get frustrated because they won’t leave him alone? No, he has compassion on them. And notice it is not just compassion for their spiritual failings or a call to repentance. No, he has compassion on their physical ailments, as well. He begins immediately to heal their sick. You can imagine it, can’t you? The blind and the lame and the deaf are restored to health and made whole by our Lord.
Now compassion is a characteristic that seems to be in short supply these days. Just this past week I read the story of the young woman sentenced to 15 months for involuntary manslaughter because she encouraged her boyfriend to commit suicide through her text messages. Now I don’t know the whole story: perhaps she had compassion early on in their relationship, perhaps she tried over and again to get him help, but at some point, her compassion ran out. She encouraged him to take his own life – and he did. As shocking as that story may be to us, deep down we know that there are limits to our compassion, as well. In fact if we are honest, we just might admit that our acts of compassion may not go much further than hers. Our selfishness and pride often limit what we will do for others.
The disciples see the large crowd gathered around our Lord. They are paying attention to the details that have nothing to do with the healing of these hurting souls; like the time of the day, and the size of the crowd, and the remote location that they are in. So as evening comes they say to Jesus, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Now their words here are not unreasonable or senseless. It is getting late and this crowd is going to get hungry. But there isn’t exactly a Taco Bell around the corner that you could get a bite to eat. So, they encourage Jesus to send them away into the towns to get some food. Jesus responds with something rather shocking. He says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Now as we know, this crowd is rather large. Five thousand men not counting the women and children. Jesus responds to their understandable concern by suggesting that the disciples feed them.
Now of course, this is insane. They have five loaves of bread and two fish between them and they cannot possibly feed such a large crowd. In fact, even a well-stocked Taco Bell would have trouble feeding that crowd. You can almost imagine the thoughts that ran through the heads of the disciples. Jesus has just asked them to do the impossible and there is no way they can do it. There is no possibility to feed this many people. What then should they do? Should they try to feed them somehow on their own? Should they fake it or lie about it? Perhaps this is the time they figure that Jesus has gone too far, and so it’s time to leave him.
Now our Lord, of course, doesn’t leave them in their own thoughts for very long. After telling them to feed the crowd, he then asks for the disciples to bring him the bread and fish. Then he orders the crowd to sit down in the grass and he takes the loaves and the fish and looks up to heaven and says a blessing. He then begins to break the loaves and hands them out to the disciples who in turn begin to pass them out to the people gathered in that desolate place. Lo and behold, the whole crowd ate. Not only did they eat, in fact, we are told that they were all satisfied. They all ate until they were full. In fact, not only did they eat until they were full, there were leftovers lying around. There was an abundance of food: a superabundance from five loaves and two fish, through the hands of our Lord to the hands of the disciples to over 5000 people. If that wasn’t enough, there were twelve baskets full of broken pieces gathered in the end.
What seemed impossible, what seemed to make no sense, what seemed to be outside of the abilities of these disciples was entirely possible through the hands of Christ. See, they ended up feeding the crowd, doing exactly what our Lord had asked them to do. They didn’t do it by their own creativity and dedication. By having their hands filled with the gifts of Christ, they faithfully handed those gifts on to others. They, in turn, became the instruments of our Lord’s compassion.
And this compassion, as we have said, is the heart and focus of this text. You don’t have to search too far to find those who are in need of compassion. There are those who sit around you this morning who are hurting and wounded and in need of compassion. There are those plagued by depression and great sorrow. Those who are confused and afraid. There are the sick and the lonely, the addicts and the arrogant. We have both proud and weak among us. We have the repentant and the broken and the stubborn. They need compassion. They need blessings, the gifts, the feeding of our Lord. And Jesus speaks to you and he says, “Don’t send them away. You feed them.”
What do you do, then? Do you look to your own hands, to your shortcomings and your limits? Do you count how much spare change you have to help a sister in need? Do you look at your calendar and find that it is entirely too full to come to the side of your brother? Do you look over your shoulder and say perhaps someone else will feed them? Perhaps another is better suited to show compassion, to speak compassion, to love with compassion? For you rightly have fears about such a charge, doubts about your abilities and your usefulness to provide such blessings.
But with Christ, things change. With Christ and his compassion at the center, you just might find that you are the one that is to feed others. To care for their souls and their bodies, to love and embrace them in their hurts and their depression, to feed them when necessary.
See, the verbs that lie at the heart of Jesus’ actions are the same verbs that lie at the heart of our fellowship. Jesus took the bread and blessed it and broke it and gave it! Woven in the story of the feeding of the 5000 is the feeding we receive at this very altar, the feeding of our Lord’s forgiveness and hope and life. In fact, you might say that the great history of God’s compassionate feeding of His people – from the manna in wilderness, to the Passover celebration, to the supper we share this day, to the promise of the great feast to come – is already ours. Take, eat, this is my body given for you! Given for the forgiveness of all your sins. Forgiveness for your hesitation to feed others, forgiveness for your lack of compassion, forgiveness for your doubts and fears. Forgiveness for you this day.
You are forgiven. You have been fed by life and mercy of our Lord. So, let us hand on what we have been so richly blessed with. Let us continue to feed others.